Human Spirit: Ruth Gruber Turns 100
October 7, 2011
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
When I learned
that esteemed writer and my personal heroine Ruth Gruber was turning 100,
my first thought was to call her son to learn more about her extraordinary
life. While tapping the numbers into my phone, I realized my error. Hadassah
professor Amnon Brezinski isn’t Gruber’s son; he’s the son of the late
Raquela Prywes, the protagonist of Gruber’s best-selling biography Raquela,
A Woman of Israel, published in 1978.
Decades after reading Raquela, I’d blended the story of the ninth-generation
Jerusalemite with the American author.
That’s not as unlikely as it sounds. In Raquela, Gruber weaves the romantic,
adventurous personal story of a pioneering nurse with the drama of Israel.
Gruber’s personal story is as romantic and adventurous as that of anyone
she’s ever written about. What’s more, she was able to be the consummate
professional reporter without compromising her loyalty to the Jewish people.
We can all take a lesson from her.
In the beginning, it didn’t look as if she would have a career so deeply
embedded with Jewish life. Gruber, one of five siblings, was born in Brooklyn
in 1911. That’s the year of the first airmail delivery, of the Triangle
Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, and the Italian annexation of Tripoli.
Her parents, Gussie and David Gruber, owned a liquor store. As a teen,
Gruber rebelled against Orthodoxy and what she saw as the parochialism
of Brooklyn. Life there “squeezed her,” she said. She graduated from NYU
at 18 and won a scholarship to Wisconsin to do her master’s. She was fascinated
by Germany and its culture, and in 1931, she won another scholarship from
the Institute of International Education to study in Cologne. She completed
a doctorate in a single year, becoming the youngest person in the world
with a PhD.
Her thesis was about the feminism of a then little-known British writer:
In Germany, she loved das Land der Dichter und Denker, the land
of poets and thinkers, but abhorred the dark side. An inborn reporter,
she attended a Hitler rally in the Messehall, where she sat among the
Germans as Hitler lead them in chants against the Jews. She returned to
America, and wrote about the dire developments in Europe.
For The New York Herald Tribune she flew to Siberia to report on prisoners
living in the Soviet gulag. Secretary of the interior Harold Ickes read
the book that came out of that experience and dispatched her as a special
envoy to explore Alaska’s potential for homesteading.
Then in June 1944, Gruber learned that president Franklin D. Roosevelt
had agreed to take in a thousand refugees who wouldn’t have to go through
the quota system.
“I knew it was only a thousand while millions were being murdered, but
I hoped it would be the beginning of a mass rescue.”
She volunteered to fly to Italy despite the war to accompany these refugees.
“It was a danger I was prepared to face,” wrote Gruber in her autobiography.
“I was a fatalist and believed I would die when my number was up.”
As their ship passed the Statue of Liberty, she translated the words of
Emma Lazarus into German and Yiddish, telling them with pride that the
portal to the United States bore the poetry of a Jew like them.
Before boarding, the passengers had to sign papers that they were just
visitors in the US and would return to Europe after the war. Gruber successfully
petitioned president Harry Truman to allow them to stay. As the millions
of Jews who had been denied entry because of the US’s draconian visa policy
would have, the Oswego Jews became valuable citizens. For one example,
among them was Rolf Manfred, who became the director of research for Aerojet
Corporate, producers of the Polaris missile which rode shotgun on America’s
submarines and kept the Cold War from becoming a hot war.
Gruber was in Haifa reporting when the British Royal Navy rammed the Exodus
carrying 4,500 passengers, mostly Holocaust survivors, and transferred
them to prison ships. Her photo of the prison ship Runnymede Park which
took the survivors back to Germany ran as the Life magazine photo of the
week. Gruber photographed the passengers confined in a wire cage with
barbed wire on top, raising a flag on which a swastika had been painted
on the Union Jack. The British officers demanded her camera, but with
typical moxie, she refused. Gruber’s reporting on the events and personalities
of pre-state Israel helped galvanize support for the Jewish state.
She married in 1951 at the age of 40 and had two children. She continued
as a reporter and wrote a popular American Jewish household column in
Hadassah Magazine. Haven, the Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees
and How They Came to America, was published in 1983, based on her old
notebooks and the government records of the era. A much-taller Ruth Gruber
portrayed by Natasha Richardson starred in a TV miniseries. At 74, she
flew to Ethiopia to meet Ethiopian Jews and to write the acclaimed Rescue,
the Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews.
I decide to call Prof. Brezinski after all.
He remembers the synergy of the long daily conversations Gruber shared
with his mother.
“She came to Israel determined to write a book about the country, but
through the eyes of a real woman. She cast about for a subject, met lots
of people. Somehow she talked with the late Kalman Mann, who was director-general
of the hospital, who recommended my mother.”
Raquela was a nurse and midwife who had experienced life under siege in
Jerusalem, treated Holocaust survivors in the internment camps in Cyprus
and Atlit, and delivered Beduin babies in the Negev.
Dr. Mann said she was also so beautiful that every man who met her fell
in love with her.
Gruber was seeking still another quality.
In the preface to Raquela she writes: “Beneath her serenity and composure,
I sense a woman of passion. Love was a word that sprang to mind as we
continued talking – love for her country, for her people, for her family.
Hers was a passion for life.”
A passion for life. That’s what Ruth Gruber has, too. At 100, Gruber,
with whom I spoke this week by phone, lives in an apartment in New York,
and “tries to keep up with what’s happening. I’m hoping that Ben-Gurion’s
prophesy will come true and there will be peace between Arabs and Jews.
He told me that shortly before he died.”
At 100, she laughs, “When I was young I thought 30 was an old lady.”
Her motto remains, “Have dreams, have vision and let no obstacle stop
Happy Birthday Ruth Gruber. I salute you. Ad mea v’esrim (may you
live to 120)!