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Into the Light: Safe Haven, 1944

"Into the Light: Safe Haven, 1944" is a poem based on an actual historical event. The poem speaks to the facts and to the emotions surrounding the journey 982 people took "out of the dark, into the light." Walt Whitman, with his exuberant style of writing and intermix of long and short line, definitely helped shape this poem.


Into the Light: Safe Haven, 1944
by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal
"And you that shall cross from shore to shore…are more
to me and more in my meditations, than you might suppose."
Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

Thank God for you, Henry Gibbins,
ship of dreams laden with bedraggled brethren
dark and fair, tall and short, all frail-boned and gaunt,
each and every one a survivor
reborn in the wake of conscience.
Blessed, their leader, Ruth Gruber;
praised, her leader, Franklin D. Roosevelt;
and you, Captain Korn
—commanding officer extraordinaire—
your kind face and outstretched arms,
the ship's crew—their smiling faces, helpful hands;
the stalwart bulk and hallowed halls,
sky-crowned decks surrounded by sea-speckled rail
—far cry from barbed wire.
A joy, the glistening white toilets;
divine, clean fresh air that fills sunken chests, lungs
ashen from the fires of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-
Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka…
And you, buoyant sea, revered for strong currents,
changing tides, gulls that glide the breeze
and assuage wounded spirit;
and you, huge dining hall bejeweled with vegetables,
cornucopia of meats, kaleidoscope of sweets that swell
shrunken bellies, smooth withered souls.
"Are you America?"
Soft pillows and ample blankets nestled in tier after tier
of bunks, the nightmares you help smother,
sweet dreams you set in motion;
the talent shows, chess tournaments, movies, musicales.
"Are you America?"
Oh, most wondrous throng—my ancestry—
it is you who are America, my America!

© 2014 by Ruth Sabath Rosenthal. All Rights Reserved.


Note on "Into the Light: Safe Haven, 1944"

Henry Gibbins

The Henry Gibbins was a United States army transport ship sailing within the naval convoy that carried 982 "most needy" holocaust survivors out of war-ravaged Europe on waters sporadically blasted by German air fire.

The exodus, ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and carried out by Ruth Gruber on behalf of the United States government, was aptly named "Safe Haven."

The great ship, sailing through New York harbor on the 3rd of August, 1944, had not a dry eye aboard—the dazed refugees bedazzled by the Statue of Liberty against the Manhattan skyline, and the crew so grateful to have delivered all to safe harbor. Among the refugee-survivors were the author's husband, Alfred Rosenthal, Alfred's mother Lydia Rosenthal, his sister Edith, and his adopted brother Henry Brecher.

The perilous sojourn, from unimaginable enslavement and tyranny to safety, continued by railroad to Oswego, N.Y., to the Army base, Fort Ontario, which had been converted to a refugee camp for these homeless, country-less people.

On August 5, 1944, the bedraggled group arrived at the fort and, for eighteen months, lived there tending their wounds and immersing themselves in the process of healing and preparing for moves into houses and apartments across America, or any country of their choice that welcomed them.

Today, the site of Fort Ontario serves as a memorial to these survivors. The fort's administration building, renamed "Safe Haven Museum and Education Center," houses priceless photographs and documents mapping the extraordinary exodus out of darkness into the light.


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