The American Jewish journalist and photographer Ruth Gruber, who died on Thursday, November 17 at age 105, had the knack of being at the right place at the right time to change history. As an eyewitness when the Exodus 1947 ship entered Haifa harbor after being attacked by England’s Royal Navy, Gruber followed the path of the refugees who had survived concentration camps only to be further tormented by British Mandate Palestine. When these British officers shipped the Jews back to Germany, Gruber snapped images of the defiant voyagers trapped in a wire cage topped with barbed wire under a Union Jack flag upon which they had drawn a swastika.
As Gruber told “American Photo Magazine” in 2012: “These were Jews the world had never seen before. They were going to live. They showed me what it means to fight. Not politically or non-politically, but to fight to survive. I talked to them for a while. They said, ‘Go below. Go see our floating Auschwitz.’”
Gruber’s indelible images of courage against cruel oppression made the front page of the world’s news media. But then, Gruber was never a shrinking violet. Born in Brooklyn to the Russian Jewish immigrants David and Gussie Gruber, as a teenager in 1931, she won a fellowship to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Cologne. There her dissertation advisor assigned her the subject of the then-contemporary author Virginia Woolf. Gruber’s resulting thesis was rediscovered and reprinted decades later as a pioneering feminist analysis of Woolf’s writings. Gruber’s admiration for Woolf was not reciprocated, as the latter noted in her diary for 1935 that “some good German woman sen[t] me a pamphlet on me into which I couldn’t resist looking” and in a letter to her nephew, Woolf complained that she had to receive an “importunate and unfortunate Gerwoman who thinks I can help her with the facts about Women under Democracy — little she knows.”
Returning to America, Gruber frequented Romany Marie’s restaurant in Greenwich Village, a local dive for arts types. Marie Marchand (1885—1961), known as Romany Marie, was of Romanian Jewish and gypsy origin. There Gruber met an Arctic explorer, Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, who arranged for her to accompany an expedition to the Soviet Arctic, and her journalistic adventures began. Gruber’s world travels were always accompanied by a lightweight Hermes typewriter and two cameras, a Leica and Rolleiflex.
After World War II’s outbreak, exploring and literary analysis would seem less urgently relevant. Hired as special assistant to U. S. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, Gruber was sent to Europe in 1944 to rescue one thousand Jewish refugees and wounded American soldiers from Italy. Gruber’s book “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America” was adapted in 2011 as a TV movie starring Natasha Richardson as improbably tall, British version of Gruber. Martin Landau played her father.
Gruber’s postwar reportages ranged widely, from “Felisa Rincon De Gautier: The Mayor of San Juan” (1972), a laudatory portrait of a feminist Puerto Rican politician, to “Raquela: A Woman of Israel” (1978) about the life and loves of Raquela Prywes, an Israeli nurse. As a septuagenarian, Gruber championed an Israeli minority population in “Ethiopian Jews in Rescue: The Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews” (1987), following up with compelling memoirs, “Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent” (1991) and “Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story” (2007).These in turn inspired a 2009 documentary, “Ahead of Time The Extraordinary Journey of Ruth Gruber”. Never publicity shy, graciously hosting interviewers at her Central Park West apartment even past her centenary, Gruber would sometimes play up the role of doting grandmother, as she did with Hadassah Magazine in 2011: “I have four grandchildren: Michael and Lucy Evans, and Joel and Lila Michaels. The girls, of course, are raving beauties and all four are ordinary Jewish geniuses.” Yet perhaps Maya Benton, curator of “Ruth Gruber, Photojournalist” a 2011 exhibit at the International Center of Photography was closer to evoking Gruber’s inner essence of steely fiber when she told NPR that Gruber was “just a badass — no other way describe it.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.