This Day in Jewish History

1911: Happy, Healthy 105th Birthday, Ruth Gruber

Somehow Stalin gave Ruth Gruber access to gulags and the U.S. sent her to survey Alaska, and she sailed on the Exodus, too.

Ruth Gruber in 2007, with short dyed blonde hair, gold earrings and pin, and gauzy blue shirt.
Lysanzia

Today is the 105th birthday of journalist, photographer and Jewish-relief activist Ruth Gruber. Through her long and varied career has consistently run the theme of concern for the welfare of Jews in distress.

Ruth Gruber was born on September 30, 1911, in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in its Williamsburg section. She was the fourth of five children of David Gruber and the former Gussie Rockower, both Russian-born. The Grubers owned a liquor store before going into the real estate business after the start of prohibition.

Youngest PhD in Germany

The precocious Ruth completed Bushwick High School at age 15. That was followed by a B.A. at New York University, which she earned by age 18. A fellowship for a master’s in German and English literature at the University of Wisconsin led to another grant that allowed her to travel to Germany, to study at the University of Cologne, in 1931.

Gruber earned a doctorate at Cologne a year later, at age 20, making her the youngest person ever to complete a PhD in Germany (or, according to some sources, in the world).

Her time in Germany allowed her to witness the rise of the Nazi party. Gruber has described how she sat in the front row at a rally where Adolf Hitler spoke, "rant[ing] against the Weimar Republic, against capitalists and communists, against America, against Jews. His audience shrieked with approval, their hysteria matching his. ‘Juda verecke [May the Jew croak],’ he shouted. ‘Juda verecke,’” recalled Gruber in her 1992 memoir “Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent.”

Gruber’s doctorate was about the writing of Virginia Woolf, whom she met and presented with a copy of the completed text. Years later, when Woolf’s diaries were published, Gruber learned that her idol had referred to her in it as “an importunate and unfortunate Gerwoman,” although of course Gruber was anything but German.

Meanwhile, in the Arctic Circle

Back in Depression-era New York, unable to find an honest job, Gruber began working as a journalist, and in 1935 received a Guggenheim grant to study women living under different political systems. That led to an assignment from the New York Herald Tribune for a series about women in the Soviet Union.

Given unusual access by Stalin's government, Gruber ventured deep into the Arctic Circle and the Siberian gulag, interviewing prisoner and political exiles.

Impressed by her work, in 1941, Harold Ickes, the U.S. interior secretary, asked Gruber to do a similar survey of the Alaska Territory, with a mind to evaluating the possibility of it receiving homesteaders in the future. At one point, a small-minded congressman pushed through a bill cutting her from the federal payroll because she had written about the USSR, arguing that it was time to “stop the propaganda of communism.”

The only Jewish refugees the U.S. took

In the end, Gruber continued working with Ickes, who in 1944, had her commissioned as a "simulated general" in order to send her to Italy to accompany a group of 1,000 Jewish refugees on their secret journey to the United States, after they were invited by President Roosevelt to “visit” the country.

They were, in fact, the only refugees taken in by the U.S. during the war. After it, they were permitted to apply for citizenship.

Gruber’s experiences later formed the basis for her book “Haven,” which was made into a TV movie of the same name in 2001. (Gruber was played by Natasha Richardson.)

On the eve of Israeli statehood, Gruber attached herself to the refugee ship Exodus 1947, which the British turned away from Haifa harbor. She was the only journalist accompanying its human cargo on their journey back to Germany.

During Israel’s early decades, Gruber (not to be confused with the contemporary Jewish journalist Ruth Ellen Gruber) was a regular visitor here, covering the project of immigrant absorption: In 1985, at age 74, she reported on the first great exodus of Ethiopian Jewry, Operation Moses.

Along the way, Gruber found time to marry – and outlive – two husbands, and to have two children. Over the years she has published 15 books, which feature both her written work and her important photojournalism.

A happy and healthy birthday to Ruth Gruber.