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
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.
one of five siblings, was born in Brooklyn in 1911. That’s the year of
airmail delivery, of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York,
Italian annexation of Tripoli.
Her parents, Gussie and David Gruber,
owned a liquor store. As a teen, Gruber rebelled against Orthodoxy and
saw as the parochialism of Brooklyn. Life there “squeezed her,” she
graduated from NYU at 18 and won a scholarship to Wisconsin to do her
She was fascinated by Germany and its culture, and in 1931, she won
scholarship from the Institute of International Education to study in
She completed a doctorate in a single year, becoming the youngest person
world with a PhD.
Her thesis was about the feminism of a then
little-known British writer: Virginia Woolf.
In Germany, she loved das
Land der Dichter und Denker
, the land of poets and thinkers, but
dark side. An inborn reporter, she attended a Hitler rally in the
where she sat among the Germans as Hitler lead them in chants against
She returned to America, and wrote about the dire developments in
For The New York Herald Tribune she flew to Siberia to report on
prisoners living in the Soviet gulag. Secretary of the interior Harold
read the book that came out of that experience and dispatched her as a
envoy to explore Alaska’s potential for homesteading.
Then in June 1944,
Gruber learned that president Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed to take
thousand refugees who wouldn’t have to go through the quota system.
knew it was only a thousand while millions were being murdered, but I
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
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
Yiddish, telling them with pride that the portal to the United States
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
the war. Gruber successfully petitioned president Harry Truman to allow
stay. As the millions of Jews who had been denied entry because of the
draconian visa policy would have, the Oswego Jews became valuable
one example, among them was Rolf Manfred, who became the director of
for Aerojet Corporate, producers of the Polaris missile which rode
America’s submarines and kept the Cold War from becoming a hot
Gruber was in Haifa reporting when the British Royal Navy rammed the
Exodus carrying 4,500 passengers, mostly Holocaust survivors, and
them to prison ships. Her photo of the prison ship Runnymede Park which
survivors back to Germany ran as the Life magazine photo of the week.
photographed the passengers confined in a wire cage with barbed wire on
raising a flag on which a swastika had been painted on the Union Jack.
British officers demanded her camera, but with typical moxie, she
Gruber’s reporting on the events and personalities of pre-state Israel
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
of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America, was
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
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
woman. She cast about for a subject, met lots of people. Somehow she
the late Kalman Mann, who was director-general of the hospital, who
Raquela was a nurse and midwife who had experienced life
under siege in Jerusalem, treated Holocaust survivors in the internment
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
Gruber was seeking still another quality.
In the preface to
Raquela she writes: “Beneath her serenity and composure, I sense a woman
passion. Love was a word that sprang to mind as we continued talking –
her country, for her people, for her family. Hers was a passion for
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
and “tries to keep up with what’s happening. I’m hoping that
prophesy will come true and there will be peace between Arabs and Jews.
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 you.”
Happy Birthday Ruth Gruber. I salute you.
Ad mea v’esrim
(may you live to 120)! The author is a Jerusalem writer who
focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the
Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist
America. The views in her columns are her own.