Ruth Gruber, Journalist Who Covered Decades of Jewish Issues, Dies at 105

NEW YORK -
USNS Henry Gibbins. (NavSource)
USNS Henry Gibbins. (NavSource)

Ruth Gruber, a Jewish American photojournalist who witnessed life in Nazi Germany, documented stories ranging from Stalin’s gulags to the Nuremberg trials, and escorted a transport of nearly 1,000 refugees from war-torn Europe to the United States, passed away in her Manhattan home last week at age 105.

Her career spanned the better part of a century and was defined by what she often described as a humanitarian crusade.

“I had two tools to fight injustice — words and images, my typewriter and my camera,” she told a United Jewish Federation seminar, as quoted in her New York Times obituary. “I just felt that I had to fight evil, and I’ve felt like that since I was 20 years old. And I’ve never been an observer. I have to live a story to write it.”

The time she spent with the large group of refugees was one of the seminal events recorded in the 19 books she authored.

In 1944, Mrs. Gruber had taken a break from her work as a journalist and was working for then-Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes when she heard that President Roosevelt planned to provide shelter for 1,000 war refugees in America.

“Somebody has to go over and hold their hands; they’re going to be terrified,” she told Secretary Ickes. The secretary appreciated her feelings and agreed to send her, realizing the advantage of having a caring, German- and Yiddish-speaking individual on board to reassure the refugees, most of whom were Jewish. He even made Mrs. Gruber a “simulated general” so that, should the Nazis capture her, according to the rules of the Geneva Conventions they would be obligated to keep her alive for the duration of the war.

The group of 982 refugees made a dangerous voyage over the Atlantic, dodging U-boats along the way.

Playing chess on the refugees’ deck of the Henry Gibbins next to an outdoor medical station and pharmacy, 1944. (Ruth Gruber)
Playing chess on the refugees’ deck of the Henry Gibbins next to an outdoor medical station and pharmacy, 1944. (Ruth Gruber)

At first, most of the traumatized survivors were wary of Mrs. Gruber and her desire to hear of their experiences.

“As we got to know each other, they opened up and said, ‘You have to talk. You have to tell my story,’” she once recalled in an interview.

The experience was one that further charged her in her mission to bring attention to the plight of Jews around the world. The notes she took to record the survivors’ stories were often wiped away by her own tears.

Due to strict immigration restrictions, the refugees were interred at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, until after the war. Mrs. Gruber was one of those who met with representatives of Agudath Israel of America to help establish accommodations for the roughly 300 Orthodox members of the group, including kosher food, sefarim, and even the construction of a mikveh.

Through Mrs. Gruber’s efforts, together with the intervention of several other advocates, most of the refugees were eventually allowed to become naturalized American citizens, rather than being sent back to Europe as had been originally agreed.

Born in 1911 in Brooklyn to immigrants from Russia, Ruth Gruber distinguished herself as a brilliant student from a young age. By 18, she had graduated from New York University and, in 1932, traveled to the University of Cologne to study German literature. While in Germany, she bore firsthand witness to the Nazis’ rise to power and even attended a rally at which Hitler delivered one of his many anti-Semitic rants.

Upon her return to the United States, she began writing for the Herald Tribune. In the late 1930s she traveled on assignment to Siberia to report on conditions in the Stalin-era gulag prison camps.

In 1941 she was hired by Secretary Ickes to scout out the possibility of resettling American GIs in Alaska. The government position ultimately led to her involvement with the Fort Ontario group.

After the war, Mrs. Gruber returned to journalism, covering such seminal events as the Nuremberg trials and the affair of the famous ship Exodus.

She married Philip H. Michaels, a New York lawyer, in 1951. The couple settled on New York’s Upper West Side and had two children.

Her second husband, Henry Rosner, died in 1982, after seven years of marriage.

Her career continued for decades, putting an emphasis on what Mrs. Gruber saw as opportunities to bring attention to Jews in need. In 1985, Mrs. Gruber traveled to Ethiopia to record efforts to rescue Jews from remote locations, the subject of another of her books.

“Whenever I saw that Jews were in danger, I covered that story,” she said in a lecture at Stony Brook University in 2008.