Reuniting Refugees Upstate


By Masha Leon

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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“I’ve just come back from the 60th reunion of the “Oswego Refugees,” an excited 93-year-old Ruth Gruber told me on the phone. Gruber (foreign correspondent, photographer, author of 14 books) was referring to the August 4-6 weekend at Oswego, N.Y., at which 38 of the nearly 1,000 refugees she shepherded August 4, 1944, to “Fort Ontario” in upstate New York were reunited. Arriving with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from across the United States and Canada, the reunion roster topped 200.

In her 1983 book,“ Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees (Coward-McCann also in paperback and in a fifth anniversary edition in 1994 — all publications copyright by Gruber), and in her 2003 volume, “Inside of Time: My Journey From Alaska to Israel” (Carroll & Graf, also in paperback), Gruber details how under orders from president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she was dispatched by the then-secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in July 1944 to the Bay of Naples to accompany the refugees aboard the troop transport Henry Gibbons and bring them to “haven” at Fort Ontario. (A 2001 CBS TV miniseries, “Haven,” based on the book, starred Natasha Richardson as Gruber.)

Gruber described the reunion’s Friday night services held at Synagogue Adath Israel. “It was conducted by volunteers — professors from Oswego University. The rabbi was professor of economics (and the synagogue’s president) Lawrence Spizman, and the chazzen was Kenneth Rosenberg, a professor of psychology. Rochester Jewish community leaders came to Oswego to give the Oneg Shabbat.” Gruber recalled Friday night services 60 years ago: “Some of the refugees then were still in tattered clothes, barefoot, with newspapers wrapped around their feet. For many it was their first Friday night service in freedom since Hitler came to power in 1933.”

Last week, over lunch at My Most Favorite Dessert Co., a kosher dairy restaurant in New York’s theatre district, owner Doris Schechter joined Gruber in reminiscing about the Oswego saga. “Doris was 6 years old when she arrived at Fort Ontario,” Gruber recalled. “After a two months’ long quarantine, she entered kindergarten.… She can tell you… about being born in Vienna, escaping to Italy during the Anschluss and holding her father’s hand, running barefoot across landmines to escape the Nazis,” Gruber told me.

“My aunt and uncle happened to see my photo — ‘Her First Hot Dog’— in The Daily Mirror…. They recognized my name (Dorrit Blumenkranz) and came to Oswego to get me,” Schechter said. (The photo now hangs on a wall in the restaurant.) “Eighteen years ago I met Ruth through my friend, ‘Fred the Furrier’(Fred Schwartz), and his wife, Allyne, at a Chanukah party they hosted…. ‘There’s a woman I want you to meet…. She brought you to America,’ Fred told me. I was not too [eager] to pursue this, but my daughter, Laura, picked up the challenge and told me, ‘If you don’t call her, I will!’ The rest is history…. Ruth proved to be the most accessible person…. We bonded immediately, and we went back to her house to look at photographs. I sat and cried all afternoon. Now she is my surrogate mother.”

A personal postscript: My husband Joseph’s grandparents emigrated from Suwalki, Poland, settling in upstate New York — Albany, Rochester, Troy (where he was born) and Oswego, where his uncle, Harry Lasky, owned the Netherlands Dairy Warehouse. After seeing “Haven” in 2001, Lasky’s son, Joel Lasky (now living in Dallas), remembered playing with “Haven” refugee classmates inside the barbed-wire encampment at Fort Ontario.

Lasky recalled: “Dad was then president of the synagogue and, as liaison between the Jewish community of Oswego and national Jewish agencies for the refugees, provided extra food and other materials for the refugees.” One of Gruber’s refugee charges, Rabbi Tzechoval, taught Joel Lasky the maftir for his bar mitzvah, and two “Haven” refugees — Leo Mirkovic, an opera singer, and Leon Levitch, a pianist (now in California) performed at the simcha.

* * *

If you have not yet discovered the exquisite Dahesh Museum of Art (at the corner of Madison Avenue and 56th Street) — the sole institution in the United States devoted to European academic art of the 19th and 20th centuries — now is the time to make its acquaintance. Its current exhibit, “From Homer to the Harem,” presents rarely displayed works by Jean Lecomte Du Nouÿ (1842-1923) of Middle Eastern subjects ranging from sexually charged erotica (“The White Slave”) to Christian-Muslim themes. An unusual must-see.

And amid the lush montages — a surprise: an ethereal “Judith” (1875) and a majestic 1882 “Rabbis: Commentary on the Bible on Saturday” with meticulously painted miniature Hebrew text relating to Passover. Though he’s said to have been inspired by Jews he’d observed during his stay in Morocco, I’d like to think that his exquisitely rendered and reverential treatment of these two canvases also may be due to the fact that Du Nouÿ’s first wife, Valentine Peigne-Crémieux (1855-1876), was the granddaughter of French-Jewish statesman, Isaac- (née Moise) Adolphe Crémieux (1796-1880).

According to assorted references, Crémieux, a minister of justice after the fall of Napoleon III in 1870, eliminated the death penalty for political offenders, abolished slavery in the colonies and extended full French citizenship to the Jews of Algeria. A believer in the separation of church and state and free compulsory education, as president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1896, he advocated international Jewish emancipation and founded Jewish schools in Alexandria and Cairo. Hurry! The exhibit closes September 19.

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