Ruth Gruber is an icon; a fearless, passionate, and unrelenting champion of humanity in the twentieth-century. Her work, as an award-winning photojournalist and author, reveals history through images and words.
Gruber passed away a year ago, at the age of 105, leaving a legacy that enlightened the world on relevant issues and critical news for more than seven decades, spanning from the 1920s through the 1980s.
Her career as a photojournalist and U.S. government official, and her life as a pioneer, woman, Jewish American, adventurer, and political activist, are on exhibit through January 7, 2018 at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami as part of their Art Basel Season.
“The show is exhilarating,” says museum director Susan Gladstone. “It celebrates one of the twentieth century’s greatest innovators and humanitarians.”
A heritage of more than 60 of Gruber’s photographs are featured in the show - from historic images of Jewish refugees on the ship Exodus in 1947 to her later works of Ethiopian Jews during the civil war in the 1980s - plus personal letters, telegrams, magazines, and memorabilia serving as evidence of a life and career lived with resolve and meaning.
“Her ground-breaking work cites messages of courage, hope, and of living with a heroic purpose,” Gladstone adds. “Messages that we need to carry forward today.”
Gruber was born in 1911 in, as she says, “a little shtetl called Brooklyn”. Surrounded by a nurturing Jewish community, she thought the entire world was Jewish. “The butcher, the baker, the grocer…even the corsetiere who made my mother’s corsets… were all Jewish.”
Gruber’s family encouraged education. Armed with a fierce intellect and an insatiable appetite for adventure, she attended NYU at age 15; got a Master’s degree at age 19 in German and English literature from the University of Wisconsin; and became the youngest PhD recipient in the world at the age 20 from the University of Cologne, Germany.
Her doctoral dissertation, on the legendary Virginia Woolf, was inspired by Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own. Gruber wrote that Woolf, “is determined to write as a woman. Through the eyes of her sex, she seeks to penetrate life and describe it.” A similar scenario can be attributed to the celebrated photojournalist and author that Gruber would ultimately become.
Ahead of Time, a 2010 documentary of Gruber’s life, produced by her longtime friend Patti Kenner, features an articulate 96-year-old Grande Dame who describes herself, in her youth, as “…a rebellious kid. I was always restless…always fighting time. I had to get through everything fast”.
“Ruth wanted to encompass the world,” says Kenner, “An ambition she embarked upon in 1935, at age 24, as an international foreign correspondent and photojournalist for the NY Herald Tribune.”
Under the tutelage of Tribune owner Helen Reid, Gruber maintained an association with the paper throughout much of her career, emerging as the eyes and social conscience of the world.
Her experience as the first journalist - much less first female journalist – to document life across the vast Soviet Siberia and Alaska would prove to serve her well.
She lived among both the Eskimo/Inuit natives in Alaska and prisoners, many of them Jews, in Stalin’s gulags. She learned to persevere through the brutal cold, the strangeness and treacheries of local culture, and the oppressive stalking of the Russian SS.
Life there moved at its own pace – slow, unpredictable, and sometimes not at all - an inconvenient state of being for a restless soul.
“I quickly learned it was useless to be restless,” Gruber says in the film.
She decided to tame her impetuous nature and “learn to live inside of time.” Essentially, to be patient. A quality she believes has since enabled her to see details she might otherwise overlook in her eagerness to tell a story.
Gruber served as special assistant to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes during World War II, entrusted with prospecting homesteads in Alaska for American soldiers following the war.
In 1944, she accepted a secret mission, at the behest of President Roosevelt, to bring a thousand Jewish Holocaust refugees from Italy to America aboard the U.S. Army transport Henry Gibbins. Ickes appointed Gruber to the rank of Simulated General to spare her life, per the Geneva Convention, in case of Nazi capture.
Danger was imminent. 29 ships in the convoy made them easier to spot. While still in the Mediterranean, thirty Nazi planes flew overhead one night. The ships went dark. The refugees ran to their bunks.
It was then that Gruber understood that she and her work would forever be inextricably bound to survival and rescue.
The refugees were guests of the United States until the end of the war – at which time they were to return to Europe. They were interned at a decommissioned army base in Oswego, New York, sequestered behind a chain link fence with barbed wire.
“This was the only attempt by the United States to shelter and save Jews from Nazi persecution during WWII,” says Michael Lederer, whose parents were among the refugees.
With Gruber as their champion, the United States government, in January of 1946, made the decision to allow the refugees to apply for U.S. residency.
“I, like so many, will be forever indebted to this magnanimous woman with the soul of a general who, despite her small size, squeezed every centimeter of stature out of her slight frame,” adds Lederer.
Gruber’s coverage of the refugees while on board the Gibbins offered the first public accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust since the war had begun.
She covered the activities of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, photographing the untenable conditions at the displaced persons’ camps of Europe and Cyprus.
She had a front row seat while reporting on the Nuremberg trials in 1946.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a close friend, as were countless other notable individuals.
In 1947, she reported on the British attack of the ship Exodus. 4,500 (mostly) Holocaust survivors were trying to break the blockade on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Their attempts failed and all were subsequently forced onto three prison ships destined for Europe.
Gruber’s photos of the unforgiving conditions she witnessed while on one of those ships – the Runnymead Park - were published around the world, influencing international opinion toward the plight of Jewish refugees and their quest for a Jewish state.
Not one to retire, at the age of 74 Gruber was the only journalist on the 1985 secret airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“You couldn’t invent Ruth Gruber…not even in a movie,” wrote Richard Holbrooke, Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the foreword of Gruber’s book Witness, where she details her trek through the Soviet Arctic as well as the casualties of the Nazi regime she witnessed in the ‘40s, and the resettlement of the Jewish refugees in the decades following World War II.
“She was just a badass - no other way to describe it,” says Maya Benton, curator at the International Center of Photography. Benton spent several months with Gruber in her final years, organizing her photos and slides, helping to curate the exhibit now running in Miami.
“It was an honor. Ruth was a master practitioner of the medium, through which she gave voice to those whose traumas were hidden from view. She fought for their justice and refuge,” adds Benton.
“For a photojournalist whose work is held in such high esteem, Ruth never took a single class in photography,” said Kenner. She instead followed the sage advice of renowned photographer Edward Steichen: “Steichen told her to ‘Take pictures with your heart’,” said Kenner.
Gruber focused first on the eyes of her subjects, and then on the surrounding environment.
“I discovered,” wrote Gruber, “that photographs, like articles and books, can help change the world. They can reveal the soul, the essence of people who are good and the essence of people who are evil.”
The 2001 CBS mini-series Haven is based on Gruber’s life story. The show stars Natasha Richardson as Gruber and Anne Bancroft as her mother Gussie. Bancroft was nominated for an Emmy Award for her role.
While speaking in 2001 at a United Jewish Federation seminar at the University of Pittsburgh, Gruber said, “I had two tools to fight injustice. My words and images, and my typewriter and camera.
“I just felt that I had to fight evil, and I’ve felt like that since I was 20 years old,” she continued.
“And I’ve never been an observer. I have to live a story to write it.”
Maintaining her veracity and moxie to the end, Gruber went on to publish nineteen books and receive numerous awards and recognitions.
Her life began before women won the right to vote. Just prior to the end, she cast her final vote for President in November of 2016. She was hoping to witness the first female President of the United States.
By all accounts, Gruber was, and still is, ahead of her time. Frequently asked to share her secret for success, she unequivocally states, “Have dreams. Have visions. Let no obstacle stop you. Most importantly… know your worth.”
Students waiting on a U.S. Indian Service school bus, Ward Cove, Alaska Territory, 1941–43. © Ruth Gruber