Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story
By Ruth Gruber
Schocken, 288 pages, $27.50.
In a photograph that still haunts me weeks after I first saw it, a young girl, perhaps 7 years old, faces the camera, clutching a toy. An older boy — 9 or 10 — holds the girl’s wrist and smiles bravely. The girl does not smile. Her eyes look past Ruth Gruber’s camera into a place that holds terror and heartbreak.
This photograph — taken by journalist and photographer Gruber at a displaced persons refugee camp near Munich in 1946 — is just one of 195 striking photographs featured in Gruber’s new book, “Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story.” In her three decades of reporting — 1935 to 1967 — as a journalist and photographer, mostly with the New York Herald Tribune, Gruber gravitated toward places that held the sad steerage of war and dislocation: Palestine, Yemen, Cyprus, the Soviet Union, Iraq and other trouble spots. The faces that look out from the images in “Witness” are mostly those of families at the precipice of the unknown. Among them are Holocaust survivors and DPs in temporary camps in Cyprus, Yemenite immigrants newly arrived in Israel, Jewish refugees at sea on their way to the United States and even Eskimos in Alaska.
Gruber also provides the stories behind the photos, in crisp dispatches that still seem fresh — as if recently typed on her portable Hermes. Although hardly a memoir in the truest sense, “Witness” does give an insight to Gruber’s motives in relentlessly pursuing stories that involved no small degree of hardship and risk. Now 95, she is the author of 18 previous books, including “I Went to the Soviet Arctic,” “Israel on the Seventh Day” and “Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation.” At 20, Gruber was named “the world’s youngest Ph.D.” The diminutive Brooklyn native, who some say looked like actress Myrna Loy, was in turn despised and envied by more seasoned reporters for her uncanny ability to gain access to restricted parts of the world. In the 1930s, while trying to obtain a visa to the Stalin-ruled Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, American novelist Maurice Hindus gave Gruber a typical backhanded compliment: “Some of us old-timers are cynical or biased or weary. You haven’t gotten to that stage yet.”
“I told myself, ‘He thinks I’m naïve,’” she writes in “Witness.” “I am naïve. Naïve and female in a tough man’s world. Now twenty-five, I wanted to be a working stiff like the male correspondents who were traveling around the world with a typewriter and camera.”
Certainly one could say that Gruber crossed the line from objective observer to subjective sympathizer. Yet, how does one remain neutral in the face of such helplessness? In the foreword to “Witness,” Richard Holbrooke writes that although Gruber could have been a “celebrity-journalist,” her “primary interest was the fate of the people she covered. She was invariably drawn to the downtrodden, the forgotten, the drive-by victims of history.”
Gruber made her decision to commit her impressive talents to the oppressed not as a reporter but as a member of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. In 1944, Roosevelt announced that he would bring 1,000 Jewish refugees to the United States from Italy. Gruber had already completed a study of social and economic conditions in Alaska for Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, and she rushed to his office to offer her help.
“These refugees are going to be terrified, traumatized. Somebody has to hold their hands,” she said.
Ickes knew that somebody had to be Gruber, a Jewish woman. So Gruber boarded the ship Henry Gibbons in Naples for the 13-day voyage to New York Harbor. She found raggedy, desperate men and women, many still wearing concentration camp pajamas. One man lamented: “We can’t tell you what they did to us. It was too obscene, and you’re a woman.”
“Forget, if you can, that I’m a woman,” Gruber tells the man. “You are the first witnesses coming to America. Through you, America will learn the truth of Hitler’s crimes.”
Photographs of that voyage take the narrative to a level that is sublime, if such a word can be used to convey such misery. Men and women try their best to look dignified and hopeful, even in their death-camp garb. The children play chess and hold on to their books of English lessons. Although there is relief in the faces, there is also a wariness, a countenance of unfathomable sorrow.
While Gruber listened to the survivors’ stories, she realized how she would practice journalism. “For the rest of my life I would use my tools — my words and images — to fight injustice.”
Gruber writes that like the written word, photographs can change the world. “They can reveal the soul, the essence of people who are good and the essence of people who are evil. My goal was to capture the beauty of mothers and children and to bring to life workers, fishermen, pioneers, and so-called common people — though they were not common.”
The men, women and children who bravely look out from the pages of “Witness” are anything but common. They are the eternal faces of humankind: young and wrinkled, hopeful and resigned.
Stephen J. Lyons teaches literary feature writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.