2016-06-30
In 1944, Ruth Gruber, a journalist acting as special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, escorted 982 refugees from Nazi-occupied Italy to safe haven in the United States. After the war, Gruber convinced President Truman to grant the refugees permanent resident status. "Haven," Gruber's account of the refugees' journey is the subject of a CBS miniseries starring Natasha Richardson and Anne Bancroft.

The following story from "Haven," excerpted here with permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, comes early in the book. Still exhilarated at escaping the Nazis, the refugees aboard the USS Henry Gibbons soon realize they are sitting ducks for enemy aircraft in the Mediterranean. Here is the scene the morning after a late-night air raid.

No one slept.

In the morning we gathered on the main deck, talking, laughing, rejoicing. Some stretched out on the iron floor, watching the upturned bowl of cloudless blue. We were alive. One more miracle of survival.

Around us, the ships in the flotilla churned up pathways of white foam while we relived our escape from death.

"I was in the toilet when the air-raid alarm was sounded," said David Levy, a dark-haired Yugoslav in his early twenties, half laughing, half still not believing his luck. "Somebody in the crew locked up all the watertight compartments, so I couldn't come out. I kept thinking, All these years everyone in my family was killed, and I saved myself; now I'm going to die in a toilet."

The air raid gave the Henry Gibbins a new aura, like a maritime fortress on alert. The gunners sat tense in the elevated tubs, manning machine guns, watching for planes and enemy subs. Around us sailors tested the winches and practiced swinging lifeboats from their davits into the sea.

"If only we were past Gibraltar," the MP medic on the refugee deck told me apprehensively. A soft-spoken soldier, he had endeared himself to us the first day when he ripped the back off a wooden crate, lined the box with bottles of iodine and Mercurochrome, gauze pads, and adhesive tape, and set up an outdoor clinic, bandaging children's cuts, dispensing aspirin, quinine, and good cheer.

"Once you're past Gibraltar," he said, "once you're out in the Atlantic, you're still not home free but somehow you feel safer; there's more room out there to maneuver away from the U-boats."
In the sick bay, I walked toward a middle-aged woman nursing her baby.

"Did you give birth on the ship?" I asked Olga Maurer.

She laughed. "No, he was born in an American jeep."

"A jeep!"

"Yes, on the way to the ship." Her laughter was infectious, her words spilling over each other. "I never thought I would have another baby. I'm over forty." She chuckled. "It happened like this. We escaped from Vienna to Italy, my husband, my boy Walter, and me. When the Nazis came, the Italians first hid us in a tunnel; then they ran with us to the mountains until some Canadian patrol soldiers came to tell us, No more Nazis. Such a celebration the Italians made for us in the moonshine! Such a honeymoon I had, at my age, with Leon! That's when I got pregnant."

"A baby boy, a Jew to take the place of a murdered baby, a Jew born on our way to freedom."

Sitting up in her hospital bed, Olga told me how one of the men helping to select the refugees, charmed, I was sure, by her zest for life, accepted the Maurers' application to join the one thousand, although Olga was in her ninth month.

She was put into a command car and taken for the night to a women's hospital in Potenza. A doctor examined her and assured her that the baby was still high in her womb. The next morning she walked out of the hospital to see a convoy of trucks loaded with refugees from the Potenza area. The vehicles were the Palestinian Jewish trucks with the Star of David that Max Perlman had described to me in his office in Naples.

Palestinian and American GI medics made a bed for Olga in the back of a jeep, piling mattresses and khaki army blankets on top of an army cot. They joined the convoy for the hundred-mile drive across the mountains toward Naples. Sitting inside Olga's jeep were two GIs and a doctor in a British uniform with the Star of David insignia. Dr. Joseph Koehler, Olga discovered, had been born in her native Czechoslovakia.

"Doctor," she cried, "you are my landsmann. Until now I was afraid. Now it must go perfect."

As if on target, her labor pains began. "Doctor, Doctor..." she cried out.

"A few minutes," he pleaded. "Soon we'll be at the headquarters of our Palestinian unit. We have a camp there. We have supplies, everything to help you deliver. A few more minutes."

But Olga's baby began to push his way out of her body.

Dr. Koehler shouted to the driver, "Stop the jeep!" It was twelve and church bells were ringing.

The driver pulled the vehicle to the side of the road, honking his horn to alert the other drivers. The trucks in front of him and behind him slowed down; the convoy came to a halt.

The people in the trucks jumped down. There were empty fields around them. "What's happened? Are we in danger? Is there an air raid somewhere? Are we turning back? What's going on?"

Dr. Koehler leaned out of the jeep. "It's a boy!" he shouted.

The refugees embraced each other, crying, "It's an omen. It's a good omen. It's a new life on the road to the Promised Land."

One of the older men took out his prayer shawl and began to pray. Everyone grew silent. They wanted no disturbances as he offered his prayer to God. Then he turned to some of the people near him and said slowly, "Life--after all the dying. After all the murders and the shootings, after the burnings and the destruction. A baby boy, a Jew to take the place of a murdered baby, a Jew born on our way to freedom."

Together now the refugees recited the Shehecheyanu, the prayer of survival. "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has sustained us to this day."


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