February 8, 2001
‘Haven’ for Sweeps
"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, which CBS-TV will present as a four-hour miniseries on Feb. 11 and 14 at 9 p.m.
The film is based on the remarkable experiences of Ruth Gruber and her book "Haven." Gruber, now a vigorous 89, is a phenomenon who got her Ph.D. at 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, recently taken by the U.S. army, 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, threatened by Nazi air and submarine attacks and marked by friction with wounded GIs sharing the ship, as well as among the Jews from 18 different countries.
The second part shows the refugees after their arrival in a former army camp in Oswego, N.Y., where they are held for 18 months. Gruber fights doggedly with the Washington bureaucracies to grant more freedom to the refugees and allow them to stay in the United States after the war.
Natasha Richardson (Vanessa Redgrave's beautiful daughter) acquits herself well in the demanding role of Gruber. Her screen mother is Anne Bancroft, forced to play the stereotypical Jewish mama, always worried about her daughter's travel and eating habits, wondering aloud when she'll get married.
Martin Landau plays Gruber's father, a quiet man (no wonder), but a devoted husband and pal to his daughter. Hal Holbrook is Ickes and Henry Czerny, Colm Feore and Tamara Gorski are among the more noticeable refugees.
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 describes as more innocent. But that's show biz.
Also annoying 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 preselected refugees from Naples, she did not save them. Again, the usual Hollywood hype, which does no harm, except to cheapen 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 filmmakers to initially portray almost all the U.S. soldiers and the people of Oswego as a bunch of anti-Semites.
Sure, there was lots of prejudice against Jews, both as refugees and within the U.S. army -- to both of which I can testify. 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 citizens that with few exceptions, "the town's reaction to the refugees has been nearly one hundred 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 better. CBS will air "Haven" in two-hour installments, starting at 9 p.m. Sun., Feb. 11, and continuing Wed., Feb. 14.