Ruth Gruber

By Claire Ward

Journalist’s name: Ruth Gruber
Years of birth/death: Sept. 30, 1911 (101 years old)
Nationality: American (born in “a shtetl—a shtetl called Williamsburg—in Brooklyn” New York)
Places where the journalist lived: USA, Germany
Short depiction of journalism work:

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Ruth Gruber taking a photograph while working in Alaska in 1941.

Ruth Gruber is a journalist, photographer, writer, humanitarian and a former special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. Born in 1911 in Williamsburg, New York, she is one of five children of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Gruber graduated from New York University at the age of 15 and completed a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at 18. At 19, she won a fellowship to study in Cologne, Germany, where she earned a Ph.D in German Philosophy, Modern English Literature and Art History. The New York Times profiled her upon her graduation at age 20, naming her the youngest Ph.D in the world.

While living in Cologne in 1931, Gruber attended Nazi rallies and upon returning to the U.S., she began her writing career, motivated to spread awareness about the threat of Nazi Germany. In 1935, she won a Guggenheim research fellowship and agreed to write a feature series about women under fascism, communism and democracy for the New York Herald Tribune. The Tribune also assigned Gruber to fly through Siberia to write stories on the Soviet Arctic. Says a 2001 profile Vanity Fair: “Traveling mostly in unheated, unpressurized, two-seat seaplanes, Gruber spent eight months in the northernmost reaches of Siberia, interviewing prisoners of Stalin’s work camps as well as the area’s most stalwart pioneers.”

Upon Gruber’s return, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes offered her a job conducting a study on the suitability of Alaska as a homestead for returning veterans. Ickes described Gruber as “an imperious young woman who does not stand on ceremony and wants to have her own way.” Over the course of 18 months, she covered the territory by plane, truck, and dogsled.

After the war, Gruber famously covered the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. Her photos for Life magazine of the Exodus—a ship carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees—included an iconic image of the refugees raising a British Union Jack flag painted with a swastika.

Gruber was married and widowed twice, to Philip Michaels and Henry Rosener, both lawyers and social activists. She has two children and four grandchildren.

Description of involvement in reporting or depicting the Holocaust
In 1944, while working for the Secretary Ickes, Gruber famously escorted 1,000 wounded American soldiers and Jewish refugees back to the U.S. from Naples. She was given “simulated general” status, so that if she were captured, the Nazis would be required to hold her as a prisoner of war. On the voyage, the refugees came to fondly refer to Gruber as “Mother Ruth,” as she worked tirelessly to record their stories. As historian Barbara Seaman observed, “She knew from then on, her life would be inextricably bound up with rescuing Jews in danger.”

Ethical issues raised by her work
Journalist or advocate? Ruth took up the cause of the people she reported on, and moved between traditional journalism jobs, humanitarian work and civil service. But according to Barbara Sofer, “She was able to be the consummate professional reporter without compromising her loyalty to the Jewish people.”

Relevant online links
Entry: “Ruth Gruber” — Jewish Virtual Library
“Ruth Gruber finds haven for 1,000 Holocaust refugees” – Jewish Women’s Archive
“I Went to the Soviet Arctic” — Foreign Affairs
“Magnificent Voyage” — Vanity Fair
“A woman of photos and firsts: Ruth Gruber at 100” — NPR

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