Ruth Gruber has been described as a journalist, author, photographer, humanitarian, and a US government official. True as far as it goes, but those are just convenient labels, akin to describing Muhammed Ali as a boxer. They do not do her justice. Gruber was one of those rare people who truly made a significant difference in other people’s lives. Moreover, she accomplished all that without becoming a household name. Probably, most of you have never heard of her, which kind of proves my point.
Ruth Gruber was born in Brooklyn, NY on September 30, 1911. She was one of five children. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. From an early age Gruber knew she wanted to be a writer. Fortunately for her, unlike most families of that era, Gruber’s parents believed in higher education for all their children, even their daughters, and they supported her dream. Gruber’s educational achievements were extremely rare for a female of that period. At 15 she enrolled at NYU; at 18 she was selected for a postgraduate fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; later, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne, Germany, becoming the youngest person in the world to do so.
While in Germany she witnessed firsthand various Nazi atrocities towards Jews and other people whom the Nazis considered to be “undesirables” and “inferior.” This horrified her and made a lasting impression. When she returned to the US after having completed her studies she resolved to spread the word about the Nazis, and for the rest of her life she remained a strong advocate for the Jewish people and other underdogs.
In an era when women journalists, where they existed at all, were usually relegated to covering the social pages or other benign areas, Gruber became a dynamic exception. She not only investigated and reported on many dangerous situations, she actually sought them out. She was a fearless advocate for the underdog. Some examples:
- In 1935, while working for the NY Herald Tribune, she reported on the trials and tribulations of women living under Communism and Fascism. As part of this assignment she flew to Siberia to report firsthand, no small undertaking at that time, becoming the foreign correspondent to do so.
- In 1944 the US government sent her on a secret mission to escort approximately 1,000 Jewish refugees and wounded American soldiers from Italy to the US. This was a dangerous undertaking during wartime and was to become what I consider the crowning achievement of her life. More on this later.
- In 1946, while working for the NY Post, she was assigned to report on the activities of the newly-formed Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine. The purpose of this committee was to determine the fate of the approximately 100,000 European Jewish refugees, who were ensconced in displaced persons camps. Many, if not most, of them wanted to emigrate to Palestine, but the British, who governed the area under the League of Nations Mandate following WWI, were resisting (to placate the Arab chieftains in the area who controlled vast quantities of oil). Eventually, this matter was handed over to the UN to resolve, and Gruber reported on that as well.
- In 1947 Gruber was an eye witness to the famous (or, some would say, infamous) plight of the Exodus. I could write an entire blog on this grisly matter, but no need, since most of you are cognizant of at least the gist of it from having read Leon Uris’ best selling book and/or having seen the subsequent movie. When the British finally shipped the DPs back to Germany Gruber was the only journalist they allowed to accompany them. Her photographs of Jewish prisoners being confined to wire cages with barbed wire on top defiantly raising a Union Jack with a hand-painted swastika on it were particularly notable.
- In 1978 while living in Israel for one year she wrote a powerful non-fiction book called Raquela: A Woman of Israel about an Israeli nurse, Raquela Prywes, who had worked in a British detention camp and an Israeli hospital in Beersheba. The book won the National Jewish Book Award for 1979 for Best Book on Israel.
- In 1985, at the age of 74, she traveled to isolated villages in Ethiopia and described the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews in a book entitled The Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews.
And, now, back to her secret wartime mission. During WWII Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, had appointed Gruber as a Special Assistant. One of her assignments was to escort the abovementioned Jewish refugees and wounded American soldiers back to the US. She had to convince Ickes to let her go. There was a real danger that she would be killed or captured, and being that she was a woman, Ickes was very reluctant. Years later, she remembered she told him “Mr. Secretary, these refugees are going to be terrified – traumatized. Someone needs to fly over and hold their hand.” Ickes’ reply, you’re right. I’m going to send you.”
Upon her arrival, the refugees were shocked to see a woman, and some were reluctant to tell her their gruesome experiences. She recalled telling one man, “try to forget that [I am] a woman.” Fluent in both Yiddish and German, she quickly won them over. During the voyage, she became both a teacher (teaching English) and a nurse (treating the sick and hurt). She became a mother figure, even earning the sobriquet “Mother Ruth.”
There was a real concern that if she were to be captured, being Jewish, things would not go so well for her. There is a story that Gruber’s mother found out about this assignment and fearing for her daughter’s safety personally confronted Ickes about it. Whether true or not, Ickes ended up appointing Gruber a “simulated general,” which, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, afforded her with all the protections of a general in that event. During the voyage home Gruber interviewed many of the refugees and, of course, wrote a compelling book entitled Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America. Her book became the basis for a CBS miniseries starring Natasha Richardson.
A footnote to this story is that Congress steadfastly refused to lift the quota on Jewish emigration. Gruber lobbied extensively on their behalf. Finally, FDR, by Executive Order, directed them to be housed on a decommissioned Army training base in Oswego, NY as the country’s “guests” for the duration of the War. In 1946 Congress finally authorized them to apply for residency. Gruber’s tireless lobbying of both Congressmen and President Truman, played a major role in this decision. This was the only occasion in which the US sheltered Jewish refugees during WWII.
As you have seen, Gruber was one of the rare individuals who actually made a difference. Not only did she directly save thousands of lives, but, as an advocate, she impacted government policy to the benefit of many more.
In her memoirs, Gruber recalled when she realized she was on the cusp of something special. She wrote: “Standing alone on the blacked-out deck [of the Haven] I was trembling with the discovery that from this moment on my life would be forever bound with rescue and survival.”
Gruber always lamented that the US could have and should have saved countless more Jews. I strongly agree with that assessment. In 2007 she told a reporter from the Madison (WI) Capital Times, “I wanted to shake the country by its lapels and say, ‘How can we let this go on. How can we let this happen?’ ”
Ruth Gruber passed away last November at the ripe old age of 105. As I said, she was a staunch advocate for Jews and for all oppressed people everywhere. She was one of the few people who truly made a difference. May she rest in peace. She will be sorely missed.
“Gruber always lamented that the US could have and should have saved countless more Jews. I strongly agree with that assessment.”. What would Grubet say today vis Syrian refugees? And would you again agree?
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