She Has Seen It All

The career of a 95-year-old ex-war-correspondent

In his introduction to Ruth Gruber’s Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells her Story (Schocken Books, $27.50), former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke describes Gruber’s life as rich and fulfilling. “Ruth became the chronicler of every major Jewish emigration to Israel — from North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Romania, Russia and Ukraine, and finally from Ethiopia, where, in her mid-seventies, she scrambled up and down muddy fields to find Jews living in dangerous and terrible conditions in the highlands. Ruth,” he continues, has lived “a life that has made a difference.” The 95-year-old New York-based photographer and journalist would heartily agree.

This, Gruber’s nineteenth book, highlights nine examples of her first-person, on-site reporting on events as varied as the Soviet Arctic in 1935 and the mass departure of 120,000 Iraqi Jews in 1951 — accompanied by nearly 200 photos. One of the most heartening chapters takes us back to 1944, when then-President Franklin Roosevelt decided to allow 1000 Jewish refugees to flee Italy for the U.S. At the time, European Jews were barred from entering America, and FDR’s dictum came as a result of sustained pressure from the War Refugee Board he had established. Gruber was then working for Henry Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, and was sent to Italy to assist the terrified group. Her description of 13 days aboard a ship, interviewing refugees — shoeless and shirtless men and ragged women and children — is harrowing. “From them, I learned that no person believes in his or her own death,” she writes. “I realized that from this moment on, my life would be inextricably bound with rescue and survival.”

One of Gruber’s most famous pieces of reporting was aboard the American ship Exodus, in 1947; she described vividly the plight of 4500 Holocaust survivors who tried to enter the Holy Land only to be attacked by British warships. Instead of allowing them to enter Israel, English soldiers diverted them to a camp in Cyprus. “It was a hot hellhole of desert sand and wind, of tents and Quonset huts,” Gruber writes. “The architecture had come straight out of Auschwitz.”

Throughout her chronicles, Gruber appears fearless, the personification of chutzpah. “I packed what I could in a duffel bag, slung my camera bag over my shoulder, and carrying my little Hermes typewriter in my hand, took off from Moscow,” she writes of her first reporting assignment. Despite a phenomenal sense of adventure, herein lies the book’s flaw. Since little biographical data is included, the reader is left to wonder about the source of her strength. How did her parents react to their unmarried daughter traipsing the world with only a camera, a notebook, and unabashed curiosity? And since her career began in the midst of the Great Depression, how did she become the Special Foreign Correspondent at the New York Herald Tribune? Answers would have helped Gruber’s powerful, humane persona seem less enigmatic, though no less admirable.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher and writer whose work appears in The Brooklyn Rail, Library Journal, The NY Law Journal, The Indypendent, The Public Eye, and womensenews.