“I would use my words and images, my typewriter and my camera as my tools. I had to live the story to write it, and not only live it – if it was a story of injustice, I had to fight it.”
While not typically considered a war correspondent, the iconic Ruth Gruber definitely lived the aphorism – “Journalism is the first rough draft of history.” Her career as a reporter was not merely to serve as a person witnessing history but as a participant in its struggles.
Her lifetime of ‘firsts’ began with her education. At the age of 20, she became the youngest person in the world to earn a doctoral degree. Ruth earned that degree in Cologne, Germany in 1931. The Brooklyn New York girl had already experienced a number of firsts – graduating high school at the age of 15, from New York University at 18, and then blew through a Masters Degree in American and German Literature at the University of Wisconsin. A scholarship took her to Germany where she experienced the unrest, protests, rallies and the beginnings of Hitler’s rise to power.
Then she encountered the same closed doors as did many other women journalists. She couldn’t find a job. Her first published work was a short piece about her home community in Brooklyn. It wasn’t much but it brought her to the attention of the New York Herald Tribune and landed her a reporter’s job, no small accomplishment in the depths of the depression.
It was enough to launch. As a foreign correspondent, she traveled to the Soviet Arctic and wrote about the lives of women living there under communism. The stories and photos from her trip became the basis for her first book I Went to the Soviet Arctic, published in 1939. She wrote 19 books in all during her incredible life.
Ruth Gruber in Alaska, 1941
That book came to the attention of Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. Impressed with her writing and ability to build a persuasive argument, he hired Ruth and in 1941 sent her off on another adventure. This time her assignment was to another land in the far north, Alaska. For a year and a half, she studied the region, its people and its promise, reporting back on the state’s suitability to serve as a re-settlement location for soldiers returning from World War II. And while she didn’t know it at the time, her economic and cultural assessments were also feeding into Ickes’ notions of Alaska serving as a location suitable for Jewish refugees following the war.
Her adventures were detailed in several of her books, Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent, and Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel. As she explained it, her view of time was realized during her days in Alaska. She had been impatient for one event to end and another to begin when she realized she wasn’t fully present. She wasn’t truly in the moment, living inside of time. The revelation changed her focus, and made her insights, observations and views of the reality she was living in much richer, her experiences deeper and fully appreciated.
Ruth was ready for the next adventure. By 1944 she was still serving as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, but she was a journalist at heart. She had been following the issue of the State Department’s reluctance to admit Jewish refugees to America when President Roosevelt announced an executive decision to bring 1,000 refugees to the country. When she told her boss someone needed to accompany those refugees as their advocate, he agreed. “You’re right,” Ickes commented. “I’m going to send you.”
That voyage from Italy to New York in the summer of 1944, cemented Ruth’s belief in her destiny, the role she held and would continue to fulfill in being not only a witness to history, but a reporter who lived inside the major events of the 20th Century. Aboard that ship crossing the Atlantic she recalled, “I realized my entire life would be bound with rescue and survival.” She not only accompanied those refugees from war to a new life in America, she became their protector, friend and advocate. Her experiences were later detailed in the book Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America. It was later made into a television movie, Haven, starring Natalie Richardson.
Ruth Gruber with refugees arriving in New York on August 3, 1944
After the war’s end, the New York Post asked Ruth to take a leave of absence from the Department of the Interior to cover a fact-finding trip by the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine. Their mission was to develop recommendation on the solutions to the problem of stateless and homeless victims of the war. Ruth asked her boss for permission to go, but he turned her down flat.
When he reconsidered, Ruth hustled to join the committee as they left for Europe. There, she saw firsthand the waves of displaced persons, refugees from the camps, the conditions survivors faced, the poverty and hunger. Ruth saw and felt it all. She even witnessed some testimony at the Nuremberg trials. When she returned home her boss had resigned from the Department of the Interior and Ruth knew it was time for her to move on as well. In 1947, she covered the story of the refugee ship Exodus in which Holocaust survivors battled the British in their attempts to reach Israel. Another book followed, Exodus: The Ship That Launched a Nation and another movie, Exodus.
She wrote many books through the years, on topics as diverse as a profile of Virginia Woolf, Puerto Rico, and Science. But Ruth stayed true to her guiding mantra, she lived inside her stories and fought for their truth. Perhaps the most comprehensive of her works, is the book in which she finally tells her own story – this time with the major historical events of the 20th Century as background, not as the focus. Published when she was 95, this is Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story. An accomplished photographer, this volume also includes 190 of her own photographs.
Ruth at the dedication of the Safe Haven Halocaust Refugee Shelter Museum and Education Center on October 6, 2002.
Ruth Gruber was one of the most prolific and accomplished journalists of her time. She was a true witness to history and an amazing woman who lived her own story.
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