Ruth Gruber witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath, but not as a victim. As a journalist, photographer, and humanitarian, she escorted the first Jewish refugees to America in 1944. Her reporting about the ship Exodus as it carried European-Jewish refugees to Palestine helped coalesce world sympathy for a Jewish homeland.
At age 102, having spent more than 70 years chronicling history and lending her voice to the victims of injustice, Gruber will share her exploits and recollections Sunday, April 14, at the opening gala of the Bar Kocva Israel Art Expo in Edison. The program will also feature the 2010 documentary of her life, Ahead of Time.
The expo will run through April 17 at the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County in Edison in celebration of Israel’s 65th Independence Day.
A Brooklyn native, Gruber became, in 1935, the first reporter to be allowed into the Soviet Arctic. In 1944 she escorted those first Holocaust refugees at the request of U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and in postwar Germany she covered the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
Her photo of Exodus detainees on a British ship holding a large Union Jack on which they scrawled a swastika became Life Magazine’s Picture of the Week.
“We all have to look into our souls to find our tools to fight injustice,” said Gruber in an interview at a previous appearance at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival. She often placed herself in danger during a career that includes 19 books detailing her life as a foreign correspondent, and relationships with such leaders as Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Golda Meir.
A confidant to David Ben-Gurion, whom she called “BG,” Gruber described the first Israeli prime minister as “the most prophetic leader I ever met.” He “promised” her just before he died in 1973 that there would be peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, predicting, accurately but prematurely, that it would begin with Egypt.
Gruber still answers e-mails and writes and lectures frequently, attributing her longevity to her active schedule.
“There’s no secret,” said Gruber. “It can be answered in four easy words: never, never, never retire. Retirement is the beginning of death. Keep your mind active. Keep your body active.”
Expo cochair Karen Zuckerman said she has read two of Gruber’s books, Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America and Raquela: A Woman of Israel.
“I loved her books and the way she writes just brings everything to life,” said the Edison resident. “When I read Raquela I was actually in Israel. We hadn’t been there in 20 years and I was both seeing and reading how everything was changing and sharing what I was reading with my husband. It was so exciting and just added so much to our trip.”
Zuckerman told her cochair, Barbara Spack, that she thought they should get Gruber to open the expo. As luck would have it, Spack, national communications and marketing chair for Hadassah, ran into Gruber at a Hadassah function and issued the invitation.
A feminist before most had ever heard the word, Gruber said her father encouraged both his daughters to have careers. Gruber entered New York University at age 15, and developed a “crush” on her German professor, subsequently developing a love of German language and culture.
That would open up worlds to Gruber, who in 1931 received a fellowship to study in Cologne, becoming the youngest person in the world at that time to receive a doctoral degree.
Gruber was placed with a Jewish family — later brought to the United States by Gruber’s family — as Nazism was taking hold in Germany. She recalled attending a Hitler rally with thousands of Germans shouting “Heil Hitler” and the fuehrer himself shouting “Death to Jews. Death to America,” and thinking, “These are the words of a madman.”
Gruber, who married at 40 and had two children over the next several years, bucked tradition by continuing to write under her own name. She likes to think she passed her sense of integrity on to those children and now grandchildren.
“So many people see injustice in this world and don’t do anything,” said Gruber. “If you see injustice you have to try to make this a better world. I tried to do what I could with a full heart.”