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Ruth Gruber, key figure in Oswego's refugee story, dies

Payne Horning
The Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum at Fort Ontario in Oswego memorializes the story of how the U.S. harbored 986 European refugees, most of whom were Jewish, during World War II.

Ruth Gruber, who played a key role in helping Oswego’s Fort Ontario harbor nearly 1,000 refugees during World War II, has died. She was an accomplished journalist and humanitarian, but she is most fondly remembered in Oswego for the difference she made in the lives of the refugees she helped save. 

After several years working as a reporter, Gruber joined the U.S. Department of the Interior where in 1944 she discovered that President Franklin Roosevelt was planning to take in a group of European refugees.

“I thought at last we are finally going to do something to save these refugees," Gruber told WRVO in 1984. "We’re going to open our arms. We’re going to open America. We’re going to save refugees.”

But she was concerned for their well being. So, Gruber recommended to the interior secretary that someone should escort the 986 refugees on their voyage.

“I said, 'Mr. Secretary, someone has to hold their hand," Gruber said. "'They’ll be traumatized. They’ll be terrified. Somebody has to go over and prepare them for America.' He said, 'You’re right. I’m going to send you. You’re a young woman, you’re Jewish, you speak German, you speak Yiddish. And I think this will mean as much to you as it does to me.' And I said, 'Mr. Secretary, it’s the most important assignment of my life.”

George DeMass, a member of the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Museum in Oswego, said Gruber was more than just a government representative. He said she came to be trusted by the refugees and was affectionately known as "Mother Ruth."

"She was such a sensitive person," DeMass said. "She had to allay their fears when they got to New York to board the train to come to Fort Ontario, because the train sent up a red flag of the camps over in Europe. And again when they saw the fence around Fort Ontario, she again helped to allay their fears."

Gruber eventually helped secure the refugees American citizenship despite opposition from President Harry Truman’s administration. She went on to win several awards for her work and was the subject of a 2001 television movie.

When Gruber was asked how she would like to be remembered by WRVO during a visit to Oswego in 2000, her work was at the top of the list. 

"As someone who knew, that a journalist must not only be observer, but a participant. And that I knew for myself that I had to live a story to write it. And that I was so lucky to have been able to live the Oswego story.”

Gruber died at her home in Manhattan at the age of 105.

Audio from Gruber's interview with WRVO, which was collected with assistance from professor Lawrence Baron, is archived online. "Oral Histories: Emergency Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario (Safe Haven)"/Tape 271", Special Collections, Penfield Library, SUNY Oswego, Oswego, NY.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.