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Arts & Culture Musical About Refugee Rescue Sticks Close to Actual History

In the middle of 1944, nearly 1,000 refugees were plucked from war-torn Europe and transported to the United States, where they spent the next 18 months interned at a former army post in Oswego, N.Y.

Not the most likely plot line for a contemporary American musical, but “Haven,” now in its world premiere run at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, works surprisingly well most of the time.

Talks are under way to take the show to Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia, as well as to Israel and Britain, said co-producer William Goldstein.

The central character of “Haven” is journalist and author Ruth Gruber, who was picked by the Roosevelt administration to escort the refugees on the voyage from Naples to New York, and then fought a prolonged bureaucratic battle to have them stay in the United States as legal residents.

Gruber — who is no relation to JTA correspondent Ruth E. Gruber — wrote a book about her experiences in 1983.Now a lively and witty nonagenarian, she has lived to see “Haven” transformed first into a four-hour television miniseries, and now into a full-fledged musical.

The first night’s performance opened explosively with the background roar of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but then switched quickly to a European setting, where the refugees await their fate behind a wire fence.

We first meet Gruber as she convinces her boss, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, to assign her to the wartime transport as all — around house mother for the refugees, and to prepare them for life in America.

Once on board, Gruber quickly learns that she has to defuse tensions — not only between her charges and the U.S. Navy crew and wounded GIs on the ship, but also among the disparate refugees from 18 countries.

She also encounters, and falls in love with, Sasha, a handsome refugee who has lost his wife and son to the Nazis.

As the ship passes the Statue of Liberty, the refugees’ initial elation changes into fear and horror as they board railroad cars and are taken to the barracks in Oswego, again fenced off from the outside world and guarded by American soldiers.

In the second act, the refugees despair as they learn that they are to be returned to their native countries after the war, while Gruber battles doggedly to change the edict.

To convince visiting congressmen of their desire to stay in America, the refugees put on a wonderfully hokey patriotic pageant, costumed as Abraham Lincoln, Uncle Sam and Indian maidens.

In the meanwhile, Gruber is pulling every available string and battling anti-Semitic U.S. government bureaucrats to ensure that her charges, who call her “Mother Ruth,” will not be sent back. Her efforts are rewarded when President Truman issues an executive order granting permanent residence to the survivors.

With themes of war, death, rescue, survival, fear, suicide and romance, “Haven’s” 22 songs touch on a whole spectrum of human emotions.

In the elegiac “A Number on My Arm,” a survivor recalls the horrors of the concentration camp. The foreboding “It Will Happen Again,” conjures up a nightmarish vision of a Nazi triumph even in America. In “Ruthie, Ruthie,” Gruber faces the crushing responsibility of her assignment.

The cleverest number is the sardonic “A Wink, a Whisper and a Nod,” which might be dubbed “The Anti-Semite’s Song,” in which Sasha runs down the list of unpleasant Jewish traits, beholden through a gentile’s eyes.

A musical is not a documentary, and “Haven” takes generous liberties with the facts. The most obvious one is an apparently inevitable, if entirely fictitious, romance between Gruber and Sasha, which is still more palatable than the torrid love affair between our heroine and a German with a swastika pin in the TV miniseries.

Actually, the musical remains truer to the spirit of the book than the CBS-TV four-hour version, which aired last February. In particular, the miniseries’ blanket indictment of Americans as fervent anti-Semites is largely eliminated in the musical.

We can also be grateful for the omission of Gruber’s parents, which in the TV version featured Anne Bancroft as a stereotypical Jewish mother.

A notable weakness in the present production is the depiction of Harold Ickes, a famously independent and cantankerous member of President Roosevelt’s Cabinet, who here comes across as a well-meaning, but rather bland and ineffective bureaucrat.

Gruber declared herself highly pleased with the musical version of her book. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I think they did an incredible job,” she said.

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