Arts & Culture: Film on Trip of Jewish Refugees Exaggerates U.S. Anti-semitism

“Haven” is an intriguing but seriously flawed depiction of how nearly 1,000 European refugees were transported and admitted to the United States in 1944.

The film is based on the remarkable experiences of Ruth Gruber — no relation to JTA correspondent Ruth E. Gruber — and her book “Haven.”

Gruber, now a vigorous 89, has lived a fascinating life. She received her doctorate at age 20, did stints as an arctic explorer and foreign correspondent, and became special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes during the Roosevelt administration.

In June 1944, Ickes asked Gruber to fly to Naples and escort the predominantly Jewish refugees, who were being admitted to the United States as a one-time gesture by Washington.

The first part of the miniseries chronicles the refugees’ 13-day voyage. The voyage was threatened by Nazi air and submarine attacks, and it was marked by friction among the Jews from 18 different countries — and between the Jews and the wounded GIs sharing the ship.

The second part shows the refugees after their arrival in a former army camp in Oswego, N.Y., where they were held for 18 months. Gruber fights doggedly with the Washington bureaucrats to grant more freedom to the refugees and allow them to stay in the United States after the war.

Natasha Richardson — Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter — acquits herself well in the demanding role of Gruber. Her screen mother, played by Anne Bancroft, plays the stereotypical Jewish mother, always worried about her daughter’s travel and eating habits and wondering aloud when she’ll get married.

Martin Landau plays Gruber’s father, a quiet man and devoted husband and friend to his daughter. Hal Holbrook is Ickes.

Outstanding in a minor role is Luke Kirby as a refugee boy who quickly adjusts to American ways.

So much for the good news.

On the downside, screenwriter Suzette Couture and director John Gray apparently could not resist the temptation to insert gratuitous flashbacks of a torrid love affair between Gruber and a German student, which Gruber herself says consisted of little more than a chaste kiss.

Also misleading is the advertising campaign for “Haven,” which features a determined-looking Natasha, surmounted by the words “Her Courage Saved a Thousand Lives.”

As Gruber is the first to acknowledge, she “escorted” the pre-selected refugees from Naples, she did not “save” them. The usual Hollywood hype cheapens the deeds of those who actually risked their and their families’ lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

But there are deeper flaws. The most puzzling one is the apparent decision by the film’s makers to initially portray almost all the U.S. soldiers and the people of Oswego as anti-Semites.

Many people held prejudices against Jews. But to smear almost all Americans of that generation with the broad brush of anti-Semitism is not only inaccurate, but finds no justification in Gruber’s book.

In addition to numerous acts of personal kindness by both soldiers and townspeople, Gruber reports in her book the words of one of Oswego’s leading Jewish citizen that with few exceptions, “The town’s reactions to the refugees has been nearly 100 percent favorable.”

The kindest explanation one can give for this unfair slanting is that the filmmakers wanted to dramatize the later “conversion” by once-hostile soldiers and civilians as they got to know the refugees.

In the United States, “Haven” will air over CBS-TV in two two-hour installments, starting at 9 p.m. on Sunday Feb. 11 and Wednesday, Feb. 14.

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