A thousand stories, a steadfast hero

By Gayle MacDonald

The Globe and Mail, Monday, July 31, 2000

Toronto — The setting is a mess hall, made of tin. It is decorated with paper cutouts of leaves and picnic tables, has a cement floor, and is full of scruffy-looking people, dressed in beige, brown and dirty yellow-white.

All very drab. But then the Second World War — and its aftermath — was hardly pretty. The actors assembled here last week, in a cavernous east-end Toronto studio, are shooting scenes for an upcoming CBS miniseries called Haven, the wrenching story of 1,000 mostly Jewish refugees and their escape from Europe to the United States by boat, through Nazi-infested waters, in the mid-1940s.

Suddenly, onto the set walks a petite woman with a shock of dyed white-blond hair and sporting a peacock-blue pant suit, a flowing chiffon blouse and a voluminous scarf. Ruth Gruber, the 88-year-old author of the book on which this TV screenplay is based, is an aberration here. Impeccably groomed, a flash of brilliant colour in this manufactured internment-camp setting, Gruber stands out among the cast of grimy, broken people.

And so it was, pretty much the same, more than 50 years ago. It was then that Gruber, always nattily dressed (“A lady must always look like a lady,” she insists), was hand-picked for a special assignment by her bosses at the White House, where she then worked for the secretary of the interior. Her job: to lead 1,000 refugees out of Nazi-occupied Italy and to a temporary safehouse on American soil — the former New York State army camp of Oswego.

Over a 60-year career, Gruber has written 15 books and worked as a foreign correspondent covering many wars, mostly for the New York Herald Tribune, which folded in 1965. Haven, based on her 1983 book of the same name, is the tale of a three-week journey across the Atlantic on a ship called the Henry Gibbins, crammed with 1,000 wounded soldiers and that many more destitute Jewish and Christian refugees. Gruber taught them English, but mostly she listened to their stories. The miniseries, to be aired in February on CBS (a Canadian broadcaster has not yet been picked), is the dramatic retelling of this little-known wartime event.

Gruber herself is played by Natasha Richardson. “I think she’s wonderful,” gushes the author, clearly in awe of the show’s cast, which includes Anne Bancroft (playing Gruber’s mother, Grandma Gussie), Martin Landau (her dad), as well as renowned Canadian actors Colm Feore, Henry Czerny and Sheila McCarthy. The four-hour miniseries is a co-production of Alliance Atlantis’s Citadel Entertainment and Paulette Breen Productions.

“She’s gorgeous,” says the octogenarian of Richardson, a wicked little smile playing on her perfectly painted, dusty-rose lips. “And she plays it with such feeling … and understanding.

“Natasha came to my apartment in New York,” continues Gruber. “And it was a delightful two hours. She asked me, ‘Aren’t you bitter?’ And she seemed surprised when I said, ‘I can’t be bitter for 1,000 people who were saved. It meant their life, and it meant they could live in America.

“It haunts me that we could not have saved 50,000,” adds Gruber, who has a cameo in the miniseries as an elderly, kerchiefed refugee. “After all, we were an empty country in 1944 with only 137 million people.”

For this interview, Gruber’s publicist has borrowed Bancroft’s trailer, one of those ultramodern RVs, with a shower, queen-size bed and fully stocked kitchen. She slides onto a cushioned bench at the Formica table, tapping her nails on the counter, fingering a large rhinestone-encrusted tiger brooch at her neck. She’s in town to take in some of the production, and to make sure it’s true to her experience. She says she’s overjoyed with the script, by Canadian Suzette Couture, which Gruber believes is a crafty balance of hope and tragedy — much as the real-life drama was.

“After we got settled on the boat, I told them, ‘You have to tell me what you escaped from.’ I knew they were all survivors. The men said, ‘We can’t tell you. You’re a young woman. What they did to us, it’s obscene,’ ” recounts Gruber. “I said, ‘Forget that. Through you, America will learn the truth of Hitler’s crimes.’ And they talked.”

Among their stories was that of Abe Furmanski of Warsaw, a short, barrel-chested man of 35 with the face and muscles of a fighter. He was in France when German soldiers marched in on June 16, 1940. He fought alongside Rabbi Julien Weill, the Grand Rabbi of Paris. Although they were ordered to collaborate with the Germans, they refused and, instead, sabotaged the German efforts and smuggled out Jews.

Furmanski also talked to Gruber about stories he had heard about the Gurs concentration camp near the Spanish border, where 30,000 to 40,000 Jews were murdered. In closed trucks, meant to hold 20 people, 100 or more Jews were crammed, and quicklime was poured on the floor. The doors were sealed tight; no air could ecape. When people began to urinate, the lime began to cook. The gas and fumes came up and choked them to death. As Furmanski put it to Gruber, “The Nazis said all the time, ‘Kill Russians with bullets. Kill Jews with lime.'”

Other stories are decidedly less grim. One of those is the tale of Ernst Breuer (played by Czerny) and his sister Lisl, who walked across the Alps from France to Italy, making it onto the Henry Gibbins and escaping. Although they lost many family members (including their mother, who died at Auschwitz), Ernst found his wife, Manya, on the boat. The two were married at Oswego, had a baby there, and moved to California, where they still live.

Liesl, now 87, and with the last name of Earle, also married, and eventually moved with her husband to Toronto. Last week, she came to visit Gruber on the set. The two held hands. Talked a little. But mostly they just sat quietly, remembering those years.

Of the 1,000 refugees, about 200 are still alive.

At the time of the ocean crossing, Gruber says few people in North America had a handle on what was really happening as the Holocaust raged. “The front page of The New York Times would show a little boy killed in a car accident in Manhattan, and on page 36, there would be a couple of columns that one million Jews were murdered in Poland,” says Gruber. “They [the government] were keeping it unknown,” she adds. “My government’s policy then was, ‘We have to win the war first. And then we’ll worry about the refugees.'”

Indeed, Gruber says she almost didn’t get to take the rescue mission. Military brass doubted her qualifications. But Gruber got the job, made it to Oswego, and after the refugees’ 18 months internment there, also helped them to become American and Canadian citizens. Even that was no easy feat: Many in the U.S. government wanted them shipped back to Europe as soon as the war ended.

After the interview, Gruber lies down for a moment in the Bancroft trailer. She’s still feisty and sharp as a tack, but as her publicist points out, “the woman is close to 90.”

Still, when the film crew announces a break in shooting at the mess hall,and Gruber and Earle are asked if they would like to use the set for a photo op, Gruber is up and out of the trailer in no time flat.

Seated at a picnic table, her right arm around Earle’s shoulders, and surrounded by grim-faced actors, Gruber looks completely in charge. Despite her age, she clearly loves being in the thick of it all.

“I feel that life should be lived fully,” says the woman who got married at 39, and had her first child at 41. “There’s so much to be done. It wastes time being bitter. You poison your body and mind. It’s more important to fight against evil than be embittered by it.”