As Time Goes By: Ruth Gruber Reflects


By Masha Leon

Published April 11, 2003, issue of April 11, 2003.
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“If the [New York] Herald Tribune were around today, I’d be in Iraq,” the 91-year-old Ruth Gruber told me at the March 24 reception for WILD PAC at Patti Kenner’s Park Avenue apartment. Founded in 2001, WILD PAC is a nonpartisan organization that supports congressional leaders who advocate protection of America’s public wilderness lands.

Excerpting from her 16th and most recent book, “Inside of Time: My Journey From Alaska to Israel” (Carroll & Graff), Ruth Gruber described her April 1941 meeting with Harold Ickes, then secretary of the interior, who had sent her to Alaska. “I went for an interview and left with a job,” said Gruber, who at 23 was the first foreign correspondent — male or female — to penetrate the Soviet Arctic as chronicled in her 1939 memoir, “I Went to the Soviet Arctic.” Ickes hired her, it seems, to survey the region’s strategic location.

Used to “racing the clock,” Gruber told the guests gathered in the Kenner living room: “In Alaska, I redefined my life and learned to live inside of time. I had time and space to do what I wanted to do…. The Eskimos took me walrus hunting; I had to eat blubber…. There were rumors that I was working for naval intelligence, that I was sent to teach Eskimos about birth control, was a woman novelist who interviewed Eskimos about their love life.” Usually housed in schools, Gruber said, “In Kodiak, there was no school, only a jail…. The warden would give the convicts fishing poles. They caught fish…. We had delicious meals, and the warden kept the $1 allotted daily for feeding each prisoner.” She shared recollections of dances at the officers’ club in Dutch Harbor. “[It] made me feel like a cross between the Duchess of Windsor and Hedy Lamarr. I wore out more evening clothes in a year and a half in Alaska than in my whole life in New York.”

After the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Gruber recalled seeing Japanese fishing boats and canneries plying Alaska’s waters and sent a confidential cable to Ickes to recommend that the Aleuts needed to be relocated. “A thousand Aleuts were rushed… aboard Coast Guard Cutters” from “Kiska, Attu, Unalaska and Dutch Harbor. The Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942, and captured Kiska and Attu.” At the end of the evening, Gruber displayed the Eskimo parka she had worn in 1941, saying, “It’s made out of groundhog with wolverine around the hood. Wolverine does not freeze.”

* * *

To set the scene — Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War — a disconcerting soundtrack of shelling and machine-gun fire shook the Manhattan Ensemble Theater at the March 27 opening of William Gibson’s one-woman play, “Golda’s Balcony.”

In a bravura performance, Tovah Feldshuh uncannily morphs into the 77-year-old Meir, Israel’s irascible fourth prime minister. In a series of flashbacks, the action shuttles between Meir’s evolution as a Zionist firebrand, the unraveling of her marriage, allusions to Israel’s leaders and [her] lovers, the war at hand and her desperate threat to arm Israel’s nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to insure the country’s survival.

Among the opening-night crowd was Gruber, who in “Inside of Time,” describes Meir serving homemade cookies in her Tel Aviv apartment. “Is there a Golda anecdote that you did not include in the book?” I asked. Gruber told me about Raquela Prywes, subject of Gruber’s 1978 book, “Raquela: A Woman of Israel” (Three Rivers). She was “a ninth-generation Jerusalemite… a nurse-midwife who delivered the babies of Holocaust survivors in British prison camps in Cyprus, delivered Bedouin babies in Beersheba, and served in all the Arab-Israeli wars.”

“Raquela and I went down to Hadassah hospital in the Negev where there was fighting” recalled Gruber. “Raquela got a call that Golda’s pregnant daughter Sarah was ill on a kibbutz and might not survive…They put her on a truck, transferred her to an ambulance and brought her to the hospital. She had toxemia.” Then minister of labor, “Golda dropped everything and rushed to Beersheba where Raquela told her she could not see Sarah. Picture this: Golda goes into the hospital courtyard and is weeping. Imagine! A woman of granite weeping for days, her only daughter is dying and she can’t see her.” Gruber paused, “Her daughter survived.”

* * *

“The Gift,” a play by Shauna Kantor, based on a true story of the rescue of a woman and her two daughters from Nazi Germany by her father, David Kantor, had its U.S. debut on March 22 at the T. Schreiber Studio on West 26th Street, where it is being performed through April 13. With a 22-strong cast of talented actors and action that travels between 1939 and 1965, “The Gift” viscerally transmits the terror of being a Jew in Germany and the brutality of the Nazi regime. But what I found disturbingly out of context were the two final “walk-ons”: a young Chinese man angry at being called “a Chink” and another recalling being jeered at for not speaking English. By gratuitously inserting ethnic indignities, the Nazi Holocaust with its genocidal consequences is diluted.

From the play’s notes: “David Kanter was a Broadway stage manager… a confirmed Communist… blacklisted in the 1950s. He was the first to break the blacklist on Broadway by hiring Jack Gilford for the ‘Tenth Man.’” The next day I called Jack’s wife, Madeline Lee Gilford, whom I first met in 1982 when I interviewed Jack for the Forward.

“There was no Broadway blacklist,” she insisted, “but on TV, sponsors feared no one would buy their products…. Jack and Zero [Mostel] worked on Broadway… as did others.”

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