Dr. Ruth Gruber, From Haven to Exodus
Ruth Gruber led a remarkable life dedicated to rescuing her fellow Jews from oppression. After earning her bachelors and master’s degrees by age 19, she accepted a fellowship in 1931 to pursue doctoral study in Cologne, Germany While completing her degree (The New York Times described her then as the world’s youngest Ph.D. at age 20), Gruber attended Nazi rallies and listened to Adolf Hitler vituperate against Americans, and particularly Jews. She completed her studies and returned to America, attuned from then on to the threats that totalitarianism posed to the Jewish people.
In 1944, while war and the Holocaust raged, President Roosevelt decided to bring a thousand refugees from Europe to Fort Ontario, a former army camp in Oswego, a small town in upper New York State. Gruber was selected by Ickes to fly to Europe on a secret mission to escort the refugees to America. Ickes told her, “You’re going to be given the rank of simulated general,” and he explained: “If you’re shot down and the Nazis capture you as a civilian, they can kill you as a spy. But as a general, according to the Geneva Convention, they have to give you food and shelter and keep you alive.”
Escorting the refugees by ship from Naples, Italy, Gruber recorded their stories of how they had survived. Often she had to stop writing because tears were wiping out the words in her notebook. Soon the refugees began calling her “Mother Ruth.” The voyage became the defining Jewish moment of her life. She knew that from then on, her life would be inextricably bound with rescuing Jews in danger.
In 2001, a 4-part mini-series was produced about the 1000 refugees and the journey they made, starring Natasha Richardson as Ruth. It also features her wartime experiences. It is something I want to watch and will look for it. Gruber’s book about the experience, Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees, became the basis for the permanent Holocaust exhibit in the State Museum in Albany called “From Holocaust to Haven.” On Sunday, October 6, 2002, she helped dedicate the Safe Haven Museum in Oswego, NY. In her honor the museum library is called The Dr. Ruth Gruber Library and Resource Center.
The other defining moment was her involvement with the “Exodus” into Palestine and the difficulty of the British Government in allowing it. She truly became the voice and face of reason. If you never saw the1960 movie “Exodus,” starring Paul Newman, I recommend it. It helps in understanding Israel today and Britain’s continued support of it. Ruth’s handling of this crisis helped bring calm to the storm brewing around her.
She returned to the New York Herald Tribune as a foreign correspondent and traveled with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine through Europe and the Middle East. In Jerusalem, she learned that a ship called Exodus 1947, with forty-five hundred survivors of the Holocaust aboard, was battling the British in the Mediterranean. Gruber decided to cover the Exodus. The story of the Jewish refugees was just beginning.
In Haifa, surrounded by tanks and barbed wire, she watched as British soldiers carried down the battered bodies of Bill Bernstein, the beloved American second mate, and two sixteen-year-old orphans. Some of the refugees came down dejectedly; those who refused were pulled down. All were transferred to three prison ships, Runnymede Park, Ocean Vigour, and Empire Rival. The British told her they were being sent to the island of Cyprus, where in three years from 1945–1948 fifty-two thousand survivors of the Holocaust were imprisoned. She flew to Cyprus to wait for the ships, but they never came. Instead, they were returned to Port de Bouc, near Marseilles, the port from which they had sailed. After three weeks, the British announced they were sending the Jews of the Exodus back to Germany. They selected Gruber as the pool correspondent to represent the American press. Her photos of the agony inside the Runnymede Park were sent by the Herald Tribune around the world, and her photo of the swastika painted on the British Union Jack became Life magazine’s Picture of the Week. Her book, Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation, provided source material for the book and movie Exodus and for numerous TV documentaries.
In 1985, Gruber traveled to the isolated Jewish villages in the highlands to aid in the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews. Her book Rescue: The Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews was acclaimed by critics and such leaders as Menachem Begin, Abba Eban, and Elie Wiesel. The recipient of many awards, in 1995 Gruber was given Na’amat USA’s Golda Meir Human Rights Award for her life’s work. That same year, for Na’mat Woman magazine, she covered the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. In 1997, she won several prestigious awards from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance for her lifelong work rescuing Jews. In 1998 Gruber received a Lifetime Achievement Award from her peers in the American Society of Journalists and Authors as “a pioneering journalist and author whose books chronicle the most important events of the twentieth century.”
One final interesting fact is her lifelong friendship with Virginia Wolfe, whom she did her dissertation at age 20 before Virginia became known.
I applaud Ms. Gruber for her laser focus on her life’s work. She made the world a better place by her tenacity and courage to tell the truth. Because of the current world intolerance, I believe it important to shine a light on those who have fought it. One world, one race. Be kind to one another!