Ruth Gruber: On the Cusp of History

Dead at 105 Years of Age




 By Eve Berliner


Ruth Gruber, international correspondent, photographer on the cusp of history, humanitarian of heroic tenacity.  Above, as special emissary of the Roosevelt Administration documenting frontier life in Alaska, 1941.




The exiles of Exodus 1947, barred from entering Palestine by the British, await deportation back to Germany.  A flag of defiance is raised overhead.





 Ruth Gruber: On the Cusp of History



By Eve Berliner



        Images that haunt the mind – a hoisted flag, desperate eyes, outcries, pieces of time and memory, Ruth Gruber, at 100 years of age, a wizened, rather beautiful little butterfly, deep deep blue eyes peering into time, her wings outstretched, drawn to the dispossessed of this earth, refugees of  Nazi death camps and fear, no one to give sanctuary. Her epiphany, the harrowing voyage of The Exodus 1947, a ship carrying 4,500 Jewish Holocaust survivors to British Mandate Palestine in defiance of the British blockade.  Shadowed by British men-of-war and under constant threat, the Exodus was brutally attacked by a British flotilla, leaving three dead, 150 injured.  The war torn vessel limped into the Port of Haifa, Gruber there with her camera to bear witness.  In the end, the British refused them entry and deported them back to Germany to the refugee camps of Elmden and Wilhelmshaven.


        “I knew my life would be inextricably bound by rescue and survival,” Ruth Gruber would utter.


        Ruth, on that final tragic journey with the desolate, in her white suit and wide-brimmed straw hat, amid the teeming masses on board the prison ship, Runnymede Park, a mother figure to them all. Her powerful story and searing photographs of the Jewish refugees surrounded on all sides by a barbed wire cage, raising the Union Jack flag – the flag of Great Britain – upon which they had defiantly painted the hated Swastika –  was published by the New York Herald Tribune on its front pages in Paris and New York, picked up by the Associated Press, and seen around the world! 


        It’s been an epic life.

* * *

        It all began on September 30, 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth, one of five children born to Gussie and David Gruber, emigres from Russia with aspirations for their daughter.  They resided at 14 Harman Street in Bushwick in an insular loving Jewish world and Ruth dreamed of being a writer. Her father gave her a little upstairs space to work and Greenwich Village on Harman Street was born.  A poet at age 15.


        But Ruth had to get away.  She had to get out of Brooklyn.  She had to get away from her family and the cocoon where she couldn’t breathe.  She loved her family but she needed to break free. 


        In 1931, Ruth won a fellowship from the Institute of International Education to study in Cologne, Germany where she lived with a German Jewish family, the Herz’s, and their daughter, Louisa, and won a Ph.D in one year’s time from the University of Cologne.  At age 20 she became the youngest person in the world to receive a doctorate.        The subject of her thesis: “Virginia Woolf:  The Will to Create As A Woman.”  Ruth was mesmerized by her courage to write as a woman and believe in herself as a woman.  Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” became her bible.   She would ultimately be invited to tea by Virginia Woolf, the image of Virginia in her long silk gown lying in front of the fireplace, a cigarette between her fingers, endures still; the letters they exchanged, one of her life’s treasures.


         The most ominous, portentous experience of her year-long stay in Germany, never to be erased from the mind, was her attendance at an enormous Hitler rally in 1932.  Hitler on the march, the Herz’s, her German host family, near hysterical at her unyielding determination to go.  She traveled by herself across the Rhine, and there, in a huge fair grounds filled with hundreds of thousands of people, she was seated in an area reserved for German citizens.  She found herself  remarkably close to the podium, surrounded by tens of thousands of brown uniforms, SS troops with Swastikas emblazoned on their arms. At last, the doors flung open and Hitler entered, surrounded by thirty bodyguards. A total silence fell upon the stadium.  No one dared to speak or move. 


        She could never forget that voice.  It was unlike anything she had ever heard . Piercing and almost subhuman, terrifying in its fever pitch of emotion and evil, its mad   crescendo screamed over and over: “Death to the Jews. Death to America!” 


* * *

        Gruber returned to the United States and at age 24 was personally asked by Helen Rogers Reid, publisher of The New York Herald Tribune, to join that great paper’s staff as a special foreign correspondent. 


Gruber became the first foreign correspondent to fly through Siberia into the Soviet Arctic! The year,1935.  Stalin’s long rumored Gulag was expanding.  Gruber penetrated the Siberian Gulag, interviewed Soviet political prisoners exiled in the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of.Yakatsk. She interviewed and photographed the exiles. There were said to be tens of thousands of prisoners all over Yakutkia Republic, Gruber pushing deeply into the Soviet Arctic, traveling to Igarka, near the Arctic Circle.


With the outbreak of World War II  in 1941, Ruth Gruber was asked by Harold L. Ickes, President Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, to become his special assistant.  Shortly thereafter, she was dispatched to Alaska!  The ostensible purpose  of her exploration was to determine the feasibility of homesteading wounded and shell-shocked returning American soldiers to the Alaska Territory.   Gruber documented frontier life and the unique role of women, traveling the Alaska frontiers.  She fell in love with Alaska. She became enchanted with the Eskimos and their way of life, and the powerful role that women played in their society. 


Upon her return to the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives blocked the pay of Dr. Ruth Gruber declaring, “It was time to stop the propaganda of Communism.”  Her new book, “I Went to the Soviet Arctic,” expressed “Communistic philosophy.”


“Any of us who vote to pay this woman’s salary is not fit to sit in the House of Representatives,:” shouted Rep.Taber.


Here is the book’s closing sentence:


“But I know that some day I shall go back, and bathe again in the Yenisel at Molokov Island, take midnight walks in Igarka, work with its newspaper people and pioneers, get up at dawn at a polar station, swim in the Arctic Ocean and rush back to a steaming breakfast shouting “Zdravstvuitye” until that full-mouthed greeting seems to ring across the Arctic.”

* * *


        In 1944, while war and Holocaust raged, Gruber was assigned a secret mission to escort 1,000 Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States, in what would be a harrowing voyage of sanctuary. Acting on executive authority, President Roosevelt secretly circumvented the government policy of strict quotas that kept our doors effectively sealed against Eastern European Jews, and moved to give shelter to 1,000 Jewish refugees. He dropped the project in the lap of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes who assigned Ruth Gruber to lead the mission. Ickes formally declared Gruber to be a General.  In the event the military aircraft in which she was flying to Europe was shot down by the Nazis, her life would be protected by the Geneva Convention. 


Throughout the 13 day rescue, the Army troop transport Henry Gibbins was hunted by Nazi seaplanes and U-boats.  In the end, the refugees were locked behind a chain link fence with barbed wire at Fort Ontario in Oswego New, York, the threat of deportation at war’s end a  cruel reality. Gruber fought on, lobbied for the United States to give them permanent refuge. 


When the war ended the Oswego refugees remained in America.


This was the only attempt by the United States government to shelter Jewish refugees during the Second World War.

* * *

         In 1946, Ted Thackrey, editor in chief of The New York Post, asked Gruber to cover the work of a newly created Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine.


        The Committee was to decide the fate of 100,000 Jewish refugees who were living in European camps as displaced persons, [DPs]. The Commission traveled throughout Europe, Palestine and the Arab countries for four months, collecting testimony in Munich, Cairo, Jerusalem, Tyre [Lebanon], Haifa, Baghdad and Saudi Arabia [Gruber not permitted entry] – with  another month of deliberation in Switzerland.  They toured the displaced person camps of Germany, many filled with orphaned children. They went to Dachau. They attended the Nuremberg Trials of the German war criminals, Gruber staring into the face of Hermann Goering, head of the German Luftwaffe, dressed in his immaculate blue uniform stripped of its medals.  


Ben Gurion testified before the Commission, as did Chaim Weizman and Golda Meir.

In the end,  the twelve members of the Commission unanimously agreed that Britain must allow 100,000 Jewish immigrants to settle in Palestine.  President Harry Truman implored Great Britian to open the doors of British Mandate of Palestine. 


But the British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, would not relent. 
The answer was “No.”


Britain renounced its Mandate over Palestine.  It no longer wanted to rule.


The nascent United Nations created its own Committee – the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine – UNSCOP.


Tribune owner Helen Reid assigned Gruber to accompany UNSCOP as a special foreign correspondent, traveling, once again, to Europe, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.


On November 29, 1947, the 58 members who comprised the United Nations General Assembly began voting on the Partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab entities, Gruber, in the press section overlooking the proceedings, as 33 nations including the United States of America and the Soviet Union, voted Yes, 13 No votes, largely from the Arab states, 10 Abstentions, Great Britain among them.


The State of Israel was born.


* * *

Through the ensuing years, Ruth’s work has remained relentless – covering the Yemenite “magic carpet,” transporting of 50,000 Yemenite Jews to refuge in Israel on “wings of eagles,”[1949], the secret airlift of 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel, [1951],  the North African exodus off the coast of Tunisia and the ingathering of Jews from Romania, the Soviet Union and Ethiopia [1951 to 1988].  Ruth would be the chronicler of every major Jewish emigration to Israel.

* * *

The little birch bark cradle had been given as a gift  to Ruth in 1935 by an old woman named Marfa Mokhaolovna in a small village near Yakutsk in the Soviet Arctic. 

The 104-year-old Yakut woman castigated her for not being married and warned her sternly, “Don’t wait too long.”  She brought out a beautiful birch bark cradle and said she had rocked every one of her 20 children in that cradle.  It was constructed of birch bark ingeniously carved to fit a baby’s body.  There was a hole at bottom’s end which emptied into a birch bark potty.


“It’s yours,” said the old woman.


Ruth carried Marfa’s cradle back to New York and sixteen years later rocked her own children, Celia and David, in it, who passed the revered tradition along to Ruth’s grandchildren,  Michael and Lucy, her daughter’s children, Joel and Lila, her son’s.


        An unconventional spirit, , Ruth Gruber married Philip H. Michaels at the age of 40 in 1951. He is the father of her children.  Her second marriage to Dr. Henry J Rosner in 1974, occurred after her first husband’s death.


Ruth Gruber is the author of 19 books about the worlds she has traveled and the history she has witnessed.  She was honored  in 2010 by the International Center of Photography with a major exhibition of a lifetime of her photographic work. She is the subject of a searching and acclaimed. 2010 documentary portrait entitled, “Ahead of Time: The Extraordinary Journey of Ruth Gruber.” 


Ruth Gruber, one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century, a renowned photojournalist of immense poignancy and power, fearless. There is in Ruth a deeply felt sense of self as a Jew, as a woman, and as a human being. She was a feminist pioneer of immense courage, her life consumed by rescue, sanctuary and liberation of the victimized, the hunted, her dedication to the fate of those she covered profound.


        Her great hurt, she would tell the New York Times in February of 2001,  is that the United States of America did not act to give refuge to the desperate, top officials of the State Department deliberately, delaying the visas of Jews, the visas of thousands of people who ultimately perished in Nazi concentration camps, a tacit acquiesence by the United States government to the annihilation of Jews.


 “They knew what was going on.  They knew about the death camps. They could have saved hundreds of thousands.


        “The indifference haunts me, it haunts me every day.”



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