Ruth Gruber likes to say that she lives “inside of time.” Early on, she learned that she couldn’t control time, particularly when she was living in Alaska during World War II as an emissary for Harold L. Ickes, secretary of the interior under President Franklin Roosevelt. When she would send a radio message asking to be picked up by plane, it would sometimes take days or even weeks, depending on the weather and the whims of the pilots.
She realized that being a restless, frenzied New Yorker wasn’t going to help her in the Arctic. Happy in this unusual job for a Jewish woman from Brooklyn, she utilized the waiting time to work, learning skills of patience and perseverance. As a reporter, those skills have helped her to see more widely, to pause and take in the fullness of her stories.
A 2009 award-winning documentary film about Gruber also highlights her relation to time. Its title, “Ahead of Time,” is also the title of her first autobiography.
Gruber, who turned 100 years old two months ago, is the author of 19 books that describe different episodes in her groundbreaking career as a government official and foreign correspondent. In 1944, she accompanied a thousand refugees from 18 countries in a dangerous journey from Europe to Oswego, N.Y. She also reported on the voyage of the Exodus in 1947, the establishment of the State of Israel and, later, on the exodus of the Ethiopian Jews. A living archive of 20th-century history, she was one of the few journalists David Ben-Gurion would see regularly, and she was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt.
She first made headlines in 1932 for being “the youngest Ph.D. in the world,” when she wasn’t yet 20 years old. When her thesis on Virginia Woolf, then a little-known British author, was published in Germany in 1935, she mailed it to her subject, who then invited her to tea. Gruber describes her visit as a magical day, with Woolf hosting her while lying in front of the fireplace, dressed in a long gray silk gown.
Gruber has been awarded The Jewish Week’s first Excellence in Journalism Award for her remarkable career as a writer and photojournalist. The honor will be given at a gala dinner next week at Sotheby’s. “With her intelligence and curiosity, her compassion and her ever-intrepid spirit, Ruth Gruber has made amazing contributions to our understanding of world events. Through her unwillingness to be merely an observer, she has also had a direct and positive impact on history,” said Stuart Himmelfarb, co-chair of The Jewish Week board and the dinner.
In an interview, she says that her challenge as a writer has been, “To get to the truth. To write it with passion, and with my heart.”
She adds, “You have to live something to write about it.” She always had a camera ready, along with a notebook. At the end of long days, she’d return to her hotel (or in Alaska, a school) and type up her notes, and later on would index her notebooks.
While she says there is no secret to longevity, she advises, “I have four easy words. Never, never, never retire.”
She is at work daily, in her light-filled office on the 18th floor of the historic El Dorado, the twin-towered Art Deco apartment building on Central Park West, where she has lived since 1951. A table is filled with flowers and plants sent on the occasion of her centennial birthday. In the spacious room, those walls not filled with bookshelves feature large windows overlooking Manhattan. Along with books, lots of awards and the annotated notebooks that span her career, many relics of her travels — a chess set from Siberia, wood carvings from Alaska, dolls from Israel, handiwork from Ethiopia, gifts from the refugees who still keep in touch — surround her. She still has the fur parka made for her by an Eskimo woman.
In conversation, Gruber easily accesses the events of her life in sharp detail, as though she were scrolling through one of her notebooks or looking at a photograph. As she speaks, she has powerful emotional presence and seems transported back in time to an earlier moment, framed in her memory. She carries a listener back too.
Elegantly dressed, she wears an ivory scarf that highlights the color of her lively blue eyes. Her gold brooch was designed for her and called “Flight to Haven,” inspired by her experience in Oswego, which has been chronicled in a television series called “Haven” as well as a musical.
“I became Jewish aboard the Henry Gibbins,” she says, noting that even people who are born Jews have a defining moment, and referring to the ship she reports on in “Haven”. She was the refugees’ escort and also their protector, teacher and guide to American life. She remembers taking down the life histories of the passengers, and knew that from then on, her life would be “inextricably bound up with Jewish rescue and survival.”
Hers is a journalism of activism. She went steps beyond reporting and took a stand and, as she says, “often became part of the story.”
Gruber remembers climbing aboard the Runnymede Park, one of three ships carrying 3,500 Holocaust survivors back to Germany from Haifa, after the British attacked their ship, Exodus, in the harbor in 1947. One of only three journalists allowed to board the ships, she went down a flight of slippery steps into the ship’s hold; she gets teary as she describes a scene that could be out of Dante’s Inferno. When the refugees realized that she was an American journalist with a camera, they urged her to take pictures, and someone put a baby in her arms.
Afterwards, the British consul tried to seize her camera, but she refused. When he accused her of smuggling the camera on board, she reminded him that it had been hitting him in the thigh on the launch. While on board, she managed to take what would become her most famous photograph: A Union Jack flag, with a Nazi swastika painted on top of it by the refugees. It was Life Magazine’s “Photo of the Week.”
“I felt I was not shooting a flag. I was photographing history,” she writes in an autobiography, “Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel.”
Gruber recalls rushing to Israel in 1973 when she heard that David Ben-Gurion was dying. She met him in his modest house in Tel Aviv, where soldiers were caring for him; his wife Paula had passed away earlier. She describes him resting on a narrow bed, covered with a big white quilt. Carefully, she plays back the memory: She called him Master, and asked whether he thought there would ever be peace between Jews and Arabs. Immediately, he answered yes, and sat up.
“Not in my time. But in yours and your children’s.”
She then asked, “Where?”
“Egypt,” he said.
When she was incredulous, he explained that a “whole new generation of young people are rising up who know we can cooperate. They still have diseases we cured 50 years ago. They have natural resources and raw materials that we need. Yes, there will be peace.”
That was the last time she saw him, and she says that he is the most impressive of Jewish leaders she met. She was brought back to that moment many times, when she heard accounts of the uprisings in Egypt last spring.
When asked about the roots of her fearlessness — whether traveling through Siberia in her 20s, or covering Israel’s War of Independence — she looks back to her childhood pursuit of reading. She’d take as many books as allowed out of the library and then read them in a single night.
“I was always fascinated by what was going on the whole world. I read all the books I could. I wanted to see everything, wanted to know what was going on. That’s what gave me courage.” She adds, “You work through fear; you have a job to do.”
Since she was a first grader in Brooklyn, she wanted to be a writer. She remembers falling in love with poetry after her teacher read to them, and then she overheard the same teacher tell her parents that she was going to be a writer. In addition, she credits a history teacher who was an African-American for teaching her about human rights, oppression and slavery, lessons that stayed with her for life.
Generations of writers, particularly women, have been inspired by Gruber. Dava Sobel, the author of several best-selling books including “Longitude” and “Galileo’s Daughter,” who is Gruber’s niece, speaks of her aunt’s tremendous achievements with pride, and says that she has always admired her style, “the way she could be so gracious.” She recalls traveling with Gruber to the March on Washington in 1963 and hearing Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. For Sobel, it was invaluable to “have a real writer in the family, someone who managed to have a family of her own and a professional career.”
Another motto of Gruber’s is “Dream dreams, have visions, and let no obstacle stop you.” She got married when she was 39 and had her children in her early 40s. Twice widowed, Gruber is now a proud mother, stepmother and grandmother. She recalls rocking her son and daughter in a handmade cradle of birch bark, a gift from a 104-year old Yakut woman in Siberia, mother of 20.
“We all have souls,” she says. “We must look in our souls and find our tools. My tools are words and images — my writing, books, articles, photographs — we must all find those tools and use them to build peace in the world.”