While Ruth Gruber drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 100-plus admirers Sunday, no one was happier to see the legendary 100-year-old journalist than Bob Konig.
“Thank you for bringing my grandparents to America,” Konig, a Collier Township resident, told Gruber as he stood up in the crowded theater of the SouthSide Works Cinema, his hand over his heart.
Or, perhaps no one was happier than the family of Rose and Steven Joshowitz and their 10-year-old twin daughters, Alyssa and Michelle. Rose’s father, Jack Brenner, like Konig’s grandparents, Moritz and Rosa, were among the 1,000 refugees, mostly Jewish, whom Gruber accompanied on a dangerous voyage from Naples, Italy, to America in 1944 when President Roosevelt finally opened the door to their admission.
Rose’s grandparents also came over on the voyage.
The Joshowitzes made their way to the seated Gruber after the program and had their picture taken with the woman whom Rose credits with saving her family.
“Because of Ruth Gruber, they’re here,” Rose said, referring to her children.
Gruber, a longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, the author of 19 books, and an advocate for refugees, Jew and non-Jew alike, came to Pittsburgh Sunday to accept an honorary doctorate degree from Carnegie Mellon University. JFilm and the Hillel Jewish University Center seized the opportunity to present an encore screening of the documentary, “Ahead of Time” — the story of Gruber’s career in her own words — which was shown at the 2011 JFilm Festival.
Gruber, accompanied by the documentary’s executive producer, Patti Kenner, entered the darkened theater while the film was rolling and took questions from the appreciative audience afterward.
When Konig stood to thank her, she said she remembered his grandparents.
Gruber has referred to the Oswego refugees as “the first witnesses” of the Holocaust. On the voyage, which she made as an emissary for Roosevelt, she used her fluency in German and Yiddish to befriend them, and record their stories.
The refugees, who were housed at an Army camp in Oswego, N.Y., were allowed into the country only after a damning Treasury Department report surfaced, titled “Acquiescence of the United States Government in the Murder of Jews.” Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. showed Roosevelt the report, which detailed how the State Department barred East European Jews from entering the states. Roosevelt decided to admit the refugees shortly thereafter.
Asked by one filmgoer if Roosevelt did enough to help European Jews and other refugees, Gruber said, “No, but nobody did.
“You have to realize what our country was like at the time,” she continued. “We were overtly anti-Semitic.”
In fact, the Oswego refugees were made to sign papers before their journey to America stating they would return to their home countries after the war. Following a campaign by Jewish leaders and dignitaries such as Gruber, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes (for whom Gruber worked) and Eleanor Roosevelt, President Truman finally allowed the refugees to remain.
Gruber also spoke of the Exodus 1947, the Palestine-bound ship loaded with thousands of Jewish survivors, which British ships attacked then diverted to France in 1947; the incident inspired the Leon Uris novel and movie, “Exodus.”
Gruber, who was in Jerusalem at the time covering testimony to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, heard of the attack and hurried to Haifa to cover the story. She flew to Cyprus where she expected three ships carrying refugees from the Exodus 1947 to dock. Instead, they were diverted to Port-de-Bouc, France. She went there, and managed to board one of the ships, snapping shots of the horrible conditions aboard the vessel, and one standout picture of young men defiantly raising a Union Jack with a Swastika painted over it.
She later wrote her own book, titled after the name of the ship, which became banned in Britain and was not published there until 2007. “It became an instant bestseller,” she said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)