“I was born in a shtetl called Brooklyn… I thought everyone was Jewish,” journalist Ruth Gruber said. Author of 19 books, Gruber was presented with The Common Good’s American Spirit Award on February 3 by Ann Curry, news anchor of the NBC-TV show “Today,” at a screening of the Gruber documentary “Ahead of Time,” held at The Paley Center for Media. As a 20-year old exchange student at the University of Cologne in 1931, she earned her doctorate. In September 2011, Gruber will celebrate her 100th birthday. She recalled her father saying, “What kind of a career is that for a Jewish girl?” about her decision to become a journalist. “My parents were apoplectic about my going to hear Hitler speak…. I will never forget his voice, calling for death to the Jews, death to America.” Recalling her life as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, she described flying to Israel “for my last interview with Ben-Gurion…. I asked him, ‘Will there be peace?’ He said: ‘Yes, there will be peace. It will come from Egypt…. A whole generation will grow up to live side by side…. They will help us. Not in my time, maybe in yours and maybe in your children’s.’” Among the evening’s guests and participants were Patricia Duff, founder of the not-for-profit, nonpartisan legal reform coalition The Common Good; Patti Kenner, executive producer of “Ahead of Time”; New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and former first lady of New York State Michelle Paige Paterson.
Following the screening of “Ahead of Time,” Gruber, luminous in a sparkling multicolored beaded jacket, sat in a chair center stage and called for the house lights: “I need to see the people to talk to them!”
And there was light. “A Romany gypsy told me, ‘You are going on a long trip,’” Gruber recalled. “In the 1930s I ended up in the Soviet Arctic for 18 months during the darkest days of Stalinist Russia!” She described living in the Arctic, where she had been sent by “FDR’s secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, who appointed me as his personal representative to Alaska.” Gruber also told of how in 1944, when she was 33 and Ickes’s special assistant, Ickes sent 33-year-old Gruber on what she described as “a top secret mission to escort 1,000 Jewish and Christian refugees on the USS Henry Gibbons” to sanctuary in the United States. “To protect me in case I got caught,” Gruber said, smiling, “Ickes said he’d make me a general.” Published in 1983 and then revised in 2000, her memoir, “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America” Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishing Group),was made in 2001 into the CBS miniseries “Haven,” in which Natasha Richardson portrayed Gruber.
On a personal note, my husband Joseph’s cousin Joel Lasky (a retired filmmaker now living in Dallas) recalls playing with his “Haven” refugee classmates inside the barbed wire at Fort Ontario in upstate New York, where Gruber’s charges were encamped. Lasky recalls: “Dad [Harry Lasky] was the president of the synagogue and, as liaison between the Jewish community of Oswego and national Jewish agencies, provided extra food and other materials for the refugees.” Lasky also informed, “One of Gruber’s refugee charges, Rabbi Tzechoval, taught me the maftir [the additional Torah reading given on the Sabbath] for my bar mitzvah.” The miniseries led to an ongoing Lasky-Gruber correspondence. Another Gibbons survivor was then 6-year-old Doris Schechter (nee Dorrit Blumenkranz), now the owner of My Most Favorite Dessert Company.
In “Ahead of Time,” there is a clip of Yitzhak Aharonovitch the handsome 23-year-old captain of the ship Exodus. The film also shows a 2008 visit by Gruber to Aharonovitch. With a twinkle in his eye, the now a frail 85-year-old man tells Gruber, “I never realized you were that much older than I.” (He died at 86.) Also in the audience was film director Bob Richman, film writer Naomi Wolf, and filmmakers Patti Kenner and Zeva Oelbaum.
Duff stressed: “The Common Good” is “not mine, not yours, not ours,” and that the essence of the awards is “to reach out and inspire full participation in our democracy… and promote community and individual actions to better our world. Our organization works to bring people together from across the political aisle to find common ground. “
Award-winning journalist Catherine Crier was the evening’s host.
That the LeFrak family is noted for philanthropy, involvement in the arts and for civic endeavors is well known. Samuel LeFrak developed LeFrak City, a Queens complex of low- and moderate-priced housing. His widow, philanthropist Ethel LeFrak, in addition to supporting Temple Emanu-El, Queens College and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has donated $750,000 to establish the Ethel LeFrak Student Scholars of the Holocaust Fund at Seton Hill University’s National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education. Her daughter Francine LeFrak is an entrepreneur, a television and theater producer, and a philanthropist. And Samuel and Ethel Lefrak’s daughter-in-law, Karen LeFrak, has gone to the dogs.
Married to billionaire real estate tycoon Richard LeFrak (Francine LeFrak’s brother), president of the LeFrak Organization, she hosted a cocktail party held February 10 at Doubles, the club at The Sherry-Netherland. The attendees were dog lovers and owners who would be attending the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on February 14 and 15. LeFrak is a breeder of champion standard poodles. Her dog Miki has retired from competition as America’s No. 1 standard poodle, having won 88 Best in Show titles. At the reception, LeFrak signed her latest children’s book, “Best in Show” (Walker & Company), which has received accolades from fellow dog owners Joan Rivers, Martha Stewart and Glenn Close.
A director of the New York Philharmonic and a member of the administrative board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, LeFrak has taken her dogs to the Mount Sinai medical center and New York Medical Center, where they have provided therapy to the victims and families of 9/11.