By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
For all the excellence of World War II movies such as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, I've always felt they were a little disingenuous.
How easy it is for American audiences to lap up these stories about World War II atrocities committed by others. How convenient to cast Nazi Germany as the sole villain in the mass extermination of its Jewish citizens.
Tough as it may be to see such brutalities dramatized on Hollywood's big screens, we have a much easier time watching when the bad guy is somebody else.
But how will we feel when the enemy is much closer to home?
CBS tackles that question in a potent miniseries, Haven, at 9 tonight and Wednesday on WTSP-Ch. 10. It tells the story of Ruth Gruber, a U.S. Department of the Interior employee and New York-born Jewish woman who fought for the approval to shepherd nearly 1,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors from Europe to temporary refuge in Oswego, N.Y.
Unlike previous TV depictions of the Holocaust, Haven spends little time on the survivors' agonies in Europe. Instead, the story focuses on their two-week boat trip to America in 1944 and the weeks they spent in an Army barracks "quarantine" that looked uncomfortably like a concentration camp surrounded by razor wire.
Along the way, Gruber and her charges face the rampant anti-Semitism and sexism that gripped America back then, ugly truths left out of loving World War II tributes such as Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation.
We see Franklin Delano Roosevelt's agreement to bring 1,000 Jewish survivors to America (only 982 were actually chosen), derided by many as "the Jew Deal." We see U.S. soldiers on the boat with the survivors -- angry because 1,000 wounded troops were left in Italy to make room -- blaming Jews for the war, just as the Nazi Party did.
"We were an overly anti-Semitic country (then)," said Gruber, who spoke with reporters in January to publicize the miniseries. "Congress was isolationist. . . . Roosevelt was worried that they were calling him "Rosenfeld.' So it was a time when it was very hard to bring in refugees."
Gruber, played with astonishing authenticity by British actor Natasha Richardson, faced down powerful members of the War Refugee Board for the right to join the refugees and aid in their transition.
Already a noted journalist with a Ph.D. in English literature and art history, Gruber had traveled to the Soviet Arctic and Alaska on previous assignments and spoke fluent German, courtesy of her graduate studies at the University of Cologne.
Richardson plays her as a sensitive yet tough achiever, smart enough to handle such an enormous assignment and passionate enough to keep pushing U.S. officials to do more.
"I thought there might be quite a few people thinking, "Why on earth did (producers) want this English shiksa to play Ms. Gruber?' " said Richardson, who studied extensively with a voice coach to pick up Gruber's distinctive Brooklyn patois.
"I had absolutely no idea that the U.S. government had not just looked the other way, but went out of their way to keep Jewish people from coming into this country," added the former Cabaret star, who happens to be married to Schindler's List star Liam Neeson. "I felt that I must do it. It was a great story that needed to be told."
What turns the tide for these refugees are their stories. They saw relatives shot before their eyes; lost homes, careers and fortunes when the Nazis erased their status as people; survived months and years of torture in concentration camps.
You can tell when the stories are coming. Sentimental music tickles the edges of the scene and then swells. The camera begins to focus on the actor, moving in close as the emotions grow.
Colm Feore (The Insider, Stephen King's Storm of the Century) is mesmerizing as a former vaudevillian who watched his son shot and killed by Nazi soldiers. Eva (Sheila McCarthy) is a mother who watched her baby die in a concentration camp; her husband blames her for that death and for sleeping with a Nazi to save his life.
In the film, these stories transform the soldiers, government officials and Oswego's townspeople, convincing all but the most racist characters that such suffering had earned the Jews a place in America.
"I learned about Jewish courage, Jewish terror. . . . I realized every one of them was alive through a miracle," said Gruber, who developed a picture essay about the refugees for Life magazine in 1944. "Fifteen-year-olds told me, "I never thought I'd live long enough to go to school.' Some of them didn't know how to read and write."
But this mechanism is also Haven's biggest weakness. You can tear off a scab only so many times before the viewer grows numb.
And there's something horribly unjust about forcing these characters to regurgitate their deepest tragedies continually to somehow erase Americans' hatred, as if seeing their homes, businesses and lives forever demolished by the Nazis wasn't enough.
Still, Haven strives for a depth that other TV movies -- especially CBS' sentimental sort -- rarely attempt. Gruber continually flashes back to a romance she had with a German graduate student, a relationship that undermines the notion that all Germans were Nazi sympathizers.
Refugees are shown storming the boat's mess hall for fear that the tables full of food might run out (well into the trip, characters kept hoarding food). The government is shown allowing thousands of German soldiers to enter the United States as POWs while initially limiting Jewish immigration to the 982 at Oswego.
And the act of showcasing a smart, effective woman in a World War II epic -- reaching out to CBS' core Sunday and Wednesday night viewership, of course -- also speaks volumes.
"This was a Holocaust story told through the eyes of an American woman who was a real hero," said CBS executive Judy Ranan. "It's time to do a movie about a female hero who did something during World War II that was responsible for saving lives."
Such scenes almost make up for the cartoonish way in which some characters profess their hatred and just as quickly learn the error of their thinking. Bruce Greenwood (13 Days) is particularly ill-served by a story line in which his anti-Semitic shopkeeper is transformed after agreeing to help search for a refugee lost in a snowstorm.
Big-name character actors are sprinkled throughout the production, including Martin Landau and Anne Bancroft as Gruber's parents, Hal Holbrook as Gruber's boss and C.S.I. star William Petersen as a Treasury Department official.
But the face to watch here is Richardson, who commands nearly every frame as Gruber, a woman who eventually met with President Harry Truman himself to convince him to allow the refugees to immigrate, seven months after the war's end.
"It was the most defining moment of my life . . . my time on that boat," said Gruber, now 89, who has written 15 books and served for 20 years as foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. "I knew that from that moment on, my life would be inextricably bound with rescue and surviving."