Ahead of Her Time, With Passion
Ruth Gruber is a story teller, a woman of images and an escapee from Brooklyn. Study was her first passport – at fifteen, to New York University, where she discovered a love of German culture, then to Cologne, Germany, where, in 1931, she became the youngest to ever earn a PhD. An early analysis of Virginia Woolfe. She has done much in her nearly 100 years, from observing Hitler- “his voice was something I will never forget” – as shouts of “Death to the Jews! Death to America!” rang through a stadium full of brown uniformed thousands.
Dr. Ruth Gruber was a celebrity at 20. Convinced that “women have the right to do any kind of work of which they are capable,” she wanted to encompass the world, to know what everything is like.” Returning to New York in the middle of the Depression, she became a freelance writer, then a New York Herald Tribune staff member. Her assignments led her to the Soviet Arctic to study women in the Arctic. “Women were doing everything – even planting vegetables north of the Arctic Circle.” She had her first “scoop, and “a love affair with the Arctic.”
Back in New York, Helen Reid, owner of the Herald Tribune, became Gruber’s mentor and virtual surrogate mother. “She gave me opportunities that were wonderful,” says Gruber.
In 1942, Gruber was sent to Alaska for 18 months by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Her mandate was to “act as his eyes and ears.” “The place was filled with soldiers, she said. “‘The army did not like Alaska.” Her reports helped open the territory to 20th Century American pioneers. “None of it would have happened without the support of Ickes,” she says. “I learned to live calmly, to live inside of time – a lesson from the Eskimos.”
In 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. brought President Franklin Roosevelt a report detailing the “acquiescence of the United States’ government in the Murder of Jews.” The President faced significant political opposition. “His enemies were determined to throw him over,” says Gruber. “He had to be a politician and do the work of a politician. You don’t become President of the United States by being a humanitarian.”
“Roosevelt knew what anti-Semitism was. His political enemies hated him – they called him “Rosenfeld.” His economic programs were derided as the “Jew Deal.” Still, he was accused of not being significantly proactive in efforts to save Europe’s Jews. Asked why the President did not order bombing of the railroads, she says “he knew that the Germans could fix the tracks overnight. He needed to attack the real enemy.”
In 1944, Harold Ickes was allowed to arrange the transportation and temporary residency of 1000 Jews. He authorized Gruber to act as their escort, and, to protect her, designated her “temporary” General. (Were she to be captured, as an American General, the Nazis would have been obligated to keep her alive.) Her proficiency in both German and Yiddish helped enable her to comfort and eventually gain the refugee’s confidence. Gruber’s reports were widely distributed. “Some write of those who are burned; Ruth feels the burn…she feels the burn,” said Mordechai Rossman, a refugee leader. Gruber’s 1983 book, “Haven” detailed their story. (Taken to Oswego, New York, President Truman allowed all to remain in America.)
“My life would be inexplicably bound by rescue and survival from then on,” says Gruber. Working for the Anglo-American Committee, she traveled to “DP” (Displaced Persons) camps where 800,000 unwanted populations were held in a human “storage dump.” She was sent to Nuremberg as a war correspondent for the New York Post – “an experience that you could never forget,” says the near centurion, and despite every effort to prevent her travel, went to Bagdad and then to Saudi Arabia to report on Middle East political developments.
Gruber was in Israel when the Exodus was attacked by the British. Arriving to Haifa July 18, 1947, “It was a matchbox splintered by a nutcracker,” she says. Its 23 year old captain was Ike Aronowitz. Reunited with her 47 years later, sparks still fly between the two. Political differences are clear; yet, so, too, is his respect and acknowledgement of the special passion that is Ruth Gruber.
Refusing to allow the ship’s 4500 passengers to remain in Israel, the British forced these survivors onto three prison ships, that sailed, not to Cyprus but to southern France, from where they were to be sent to Germany. The French refused to force the passengers to disembark. Journalists were eventually allowed aboard one prison ship, the Runnymede Park, where they were greeted by 1000 singing Hatikvah. Gruber’s iconic photographs of the remnant, again imprisoned and a swastika emblazoned Union Jack – “the most historic flag I have ever seen” – sent shockwaves through international media.
Ruth Gruber calls those years “the best part of my life.” It is a story that has everything. “You have to live it to write it.” Asked by the Algemeiner how she found the courage to carry out her wartime rescue mission, the former “General” Ruth Gruber says “it wasn’t courage, it was passion: you have to believe in what you are doing with all your passion.”
Her closing words were of David Ben Gurion, who she calls a “prophetic leader.” During her final interview with the prime Minister in his home in Tel Aviv, she recalls that he was “surrounded by soldiers – his real children.” Talking about the prospects for peace between Israel and her neighbors, he had said “I am still hopeful. There is so much we can do for each other.”
Ahead of Time contains the experience of just over four decades. Far too little mention is made of her work in the second half of her life. Perhaps, there is a second story to be told.