IN THE MOUNTING mass of documentation on the 10 million lives lost in the Holocaust, the events described in this book constitute little more than a footnote, yet, as sometimes happens, a footnote can provide a sharper shaft of illumination than the text it annotates.
By 1942 enough evidence had accumulated about Hitler's "final solution" to warrant immediate action by America to provide refuge for the persecuted. But isolationism, labor protectionism and anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department, combined to thwart efforts to rescue those who had thus far escaped the death squads. Cables confirming the atrocities were suppressed by the State Department and immigration procedures were deliberately strangled in red tape. Congressman Emanuel Celler complained at a House hearing, "It takes months and months to grant a visa, and then it usually applies to a corpse."
When, in June 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that 1,000 non-quota refugees would be brought from Italy for temporary haven, the reasons for the action were more tactical than humanitarian. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes told Ruth Gruber, then a special assistant on his staff, "Yugoslavian refugees and others are finding their way into Italy at the rate of about 1,800 a week. It's a problem for the military." At her suggestion, Ickes formed a special escort for the refugees' trip to America and designated Gruber to head it. She flew to Naples to join the 982 men, women and children assembled aboard the Liberty ship Henry Gibbins. They shared the vessel with an equal number of wounded GIs.
The 13-day crossing, marked by bomber scares and submarine alerts, gave Gruber time to record many of the passengers' heart-wrenching eyewitness accounts of mass murder, torture and deportations. Of the 982 who had been selected from among 3,000 applicants, 874 were Jews, 73 were Roman Catholics, 28 were Greek Orthodox and seven were Protestants. As their horrifying tales emerged, Gruber learned that the Nazi atrocities were not confined to Auschwitz, Buchenwald or the other extermination camps. Many had died before they were out of their home towns.
The Germans who occupied Gurs in southern France developed their own murder method. A man who had fled Gurs told Gruber: "In trucks which were meant to hold 20 people, the Germans pushed a hundred and more. Quicklime was placed on the floor 10 inches high. The doors were sealed tight so no air could escape. The people had to urinate--that started the lime cooking. The gas and fumes came up and choked them to death." In Yugoslavia, a physician reported, "Every day the Germans would line up the people who still had the courage and the strength to defy Hitler . . . Every single day five hundred people--I saw this with my own eyes-- were shot by machine guns. Every day for six months!"
Slowly the people aboard the Henry Gibbins came to realize that what the United States was giving them was not freedom but shelter. They were to spend the rest of the war behind barbed wire, interned in a former Army camp in Oswego, New York. Offsetting their shock at this realization--"A fence! Another fence!" one man gasped as the train pulled into Oswego--was the happy discovery of clean quarters, more than ample food and simple amenities. One woman fondled two cotton bedsheets as she said, "In the caves of Italy I used to dream about bedsheets." And, said her husband, "How many years since we've seen a mattress?"
Gruber stayed on during the first weeks at Oswego, serving as intermediary with the many voluntary groups who offered help. One organization supplied cribs, carriages and high chairs for the camp's 12 infants. Another sewed shower and window curtains, bedspreads, tablecloths to make the barracks more homelike. A third provided a truckload of new dishes, pots and pans for the 160 people who had signed up for kosher food. Still others supplied orthopedic shoes and arch supports for the many whose feet had been ruined as they trudged barefoot across mountains and through forests. False teeth were furnished those who had gone years without dental care.
The town of Oswego's 22,000 residents proved friendly and helpful, especially on the pivotal question of education. Forty teen agers were allowed to attend the local high school, and 150 younger children were registered in grade school. Although the refugees were forbidden to work outside the camp, the labor shortage at a nearby frozen food plant led to an exception for 50 men. The irony of their working alongside large numbers of POWs--the hunted and the hunters side by side --was the lesser of an even more bitter paradox. At war's end, POWs would be repatriated. The refugees were also slated to go back to Europe--but to what?
To be accepted for the Oswego program, the refugees had been required to sign a contract that they would return to Europe after the war. They had been given the impression that this was a technicality. Now, it appeared, they were expected to live up to it. As "guests" of the United States they were in a kind of legal vacuum. Lacking legal status, they were not permitted to apply for immigration, even though some had sons and daughters already living in the United States. Because Roosevelt had assured Congress they would not remain, deportation stared them in the face. It took Roosevelt's death and Truman's succession to release them from their contracts. After the new president received a report on the desperate conditions in the displaced persons camps in Germany, he asked Congress to lift the restrictions on the Oswego group, so that thoseewho wanted to apply for immigration under the quota would be permitted to do so. In January 1946 busloads of refugees crossed the border to Canada where an American consul provided the precious visas that enabled them to return across the border as immigrants.
The book's final chapter updates the stories of dozens of the refugee families, who since 1946 have experienced the same American dream as did millions of immigrants before them, and millions since. In not a single instance has the nation had reason to regret opening its doors to the "guests" it sheltered in Oswego. The real regret is that similar havens were not offered to thousands more.