Passover is an appropriate holiday to honor Ruth Gruber, a woman who dedicated her life to rescuing Jews from oppression. Ruth was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, NY, one of five children of Russian Jewish immigrant parents David and Gussie (Rockower) Gruber. She was a brilliant scholar, entering college at the age of 15, and becoming the youngest person in the world to obtain a PhD at age 20.
At the brink of World War II, Ruth Gruber started traveling alone around the world, a remarkable feat for a 19 year old single woman in the 1930's. She won a scholarship for graduate study in Germany, and experienced first hand the rising anti-Semitism there as Hitler came to power. Returning home, she began a career as a journalist, writing for the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. In 1935, she won a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to study women under fascism, communism, and democracy. She became the first foreign correspondent, male or female, allowed to fly into Siberia. She interviewed pioneers and prisoners in Stalin's Soviet Gulag, many of them Jews, and wrote about her experiences in a book entitled: I Went to the Soviet Arctic.
In 1941, Secretary of the Interior Harold I. Ickes appointed Ruth Gruber as his special assistant. Her first assignment was to make a social and economic study of Alaska to open it for homesteaders and returning veterans, and she covered the territory by plane, truck, and dogsled for 18 months. Next came a secret mission that was her most important life task. Although the U.S. Congress refused to lift the quota on Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, President Roosevelt, as a symbolic gesture, issued an executive order to permit 1,000 Jewish refugees from Naples, Italy to "visit" America as "guests" of the President. They were to be lodged at an army training base near Oswego, New York. Ruth Gruber secretly met and escorted the refugees on their journey to the United States. She was given an honorary rank of "general," because if the Nazis were to capture her as a civilian, they would kill her as a spy. But as a general, at least the Nazis would have to feed and shelter her as a prisoner of war. Throughout the long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic, Ruth recorded the refugees survival stories. Upon arrival in the United States, they were held for 18 months at the army base, and Gruber fought on their behalf until they finally were granted U.S. citizenship. Gruber's book about the experience, Haven, the Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees, became a musical play in 1993 and a CBS television miniseries in 2001.
From that time on, Ruth Gruber's life was inextricably bound with the rescue and survival of the Jewish people. After the war, she worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Post. She covered the work of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, touring and reporting on the horrible conditions of the European Jewish refugees in the displaced persons camps. Her articles helped develop American support for the creation of a new Jewish state in Palestine. She subsequently covered the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. While in Palestine, she learned that a ship named Exodus had been attacked by British destroyers after attempting to deliver 4,500 refugees. She followed the Jewish prisoners from Exodus, to the squalid refugee camps in Cyprus, and by prison ship back to southern France. The refugees refused to disembark, despite enduring blistering heat aboard the ship for 18 days. Finally, the British decided to ship the Jews back to a refugee camp in Hamburg, Germany. The world press was outraged, and while hundreds of journalists were reporting the events, only Ruth Gruber was allowed on the prison ship to accompany the Jewish refugees back to Germany. Her photographs in Life magazine captured the agony of the refugees, including a memorable picture of the refugees raising a British Union Jack flag with a painted swastika. Ruth's book about the incident, Destination Palestine: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947, was used as source material for the movie and book Exodus.
In 1951, at the age of 40, Gruber decided to "settle down" and get married. She was married and widowed twice, to Philip Michaels and Henry Rosener, both lawyers and social activists. She has two children and four grandchildren. Her daughter, Celia, is a videotape editor who covered the war in Lebanon in the 1980's, and her son, David, was U.S. assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. She continued working as a special foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, writing about each new wave of immigrants into Israel, including the Iraqis, Yemenites, Romanians, Russians and Ethiopians. She also wrote a popular column for Hadassah Magazine, called "Diary of an American Housewife."
In 1978 she spent a year in Israel writing: Raquela: A Woman of Israel, a biography about an Israeli nurse, Raquela Prywes, who worked in a British detention camp and in a hospital in the desert frontier of Beersheba. This book won the National Jewish Book Award in 1979 for Best Book on Israel. In 1985, at the age of 74, Ruth visited isolated Jewish villages in Ethiopia to aid in rescuing the Ethiopian Jews. She recorded her experiences in another book: Rescue: The Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews. Ruth Gruber has received many awards for her writing and humanitarian acts, including the Na'amat Golda Meir Human Rights Award and awards from the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. In 1991, her autobiographic novel was published: Ahead of my Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent.
Ruth Gruber truly is a twentieth century Moses, using her skills as a photojournalist to help bring persecuted Jews from all over the world into Israel. In 2001, she will be 90 years old, and has just finished a 20 city tour to publicize the reprinting of four of her books. When asked the secret of her success, Ruth Gruber replies, "Have dreams, have visions, and let no obstacle stop you."
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