Picturing the past and present

In 'Witness' two women photographers look back and chronicle history as it was being made.

testimony book 88 298 (photo credit: )
testimony book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Witness By Ruth Gruber Schocken 288 pages; $27.50 Testimony By Gillian Laub, Ariella Azoulay and Raef Zreik Aperture 96 pages; $40 When I arrived in Israel on the deck of the refugee ship Galilah, the great names of Zionism familiar to me were Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Pierre van Passen and Ruth Gruber. The latter's press reports about the Second Aliya and the young state of Israel and the adventurous Jews who brought it about were so enthusiastic that I presumed she was some sort of paid propagandist. In fact, it was when sailing with the only wartime Jewish refugees allowed into the United States and later with the "illegals" attempting to break the British blockade, that Gruber really discovered her Jewishness. This is revealed in the 95-year-old's lively memoirs, now published together with 190 of her own photographs. Gruber was a Ph.D at 20 and a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune at 24, flying and driving through the Soviet Arctic where prisoners were building Siberia's new towns. Dogged by a minder, she was still able to photograph both prisoners and tough Russian pioneers. In 1943, Harold Ickes, Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, sent her on a mission to study Alaska as a possible home for families of US troops. She recorded that the Alaska Highway was built by 11,000 GIs, most of them unarmed southern black servicemen. Soon after, she spent 13 days on the US army transport Henry Gibbens which was bringing wounded GIs to the US; also aboard was a hush-hush group of 1,000 young Jewish refugees, the only ones allowed into the US, who were secretly brought to Oswego, New York. This experience resulted in her book Haven, which was made into Ruth, a CBS mini-series with Natasha Richardson playing Gruber. In 1947, a superannuated Chesapeake Bay pleasure ferry, the President Warfield - renamed the Exodus - attempted to land 4,500 Jews in Palestine. Boarded by British sailors and marines, the crew and refugees of the Exodus fought back before being hammered into submission. Gruber was on the wharf when the battered ship, still flying the Israeli flag, was escorted into Haifa, and described it as resembling a matchbox splintered by a nutcracker; her moving shots of the ship and of British troops on the wharf helping exhausted refugees are some of the best in this book. Gruber accompanied the hapless Exodus Jews when they were deported on three prison ships, sailing to Cyprus with 1,500 of them aboard the Runnymede Park. Her photo of a swastika painted by the deportees on the ship's Red Ensign is evidence of their defiance. Gruber then documented the trials of the refugees in the inhospitable Cyprus detention camps. Gruber allowed Leon Uris to base parts of his book on her Exodus story. Film producer Otto Preminger once remarked that he would have bought her book and not the one by Uris had he seen it first. Gruber traveled with UNSCOP, the committee that helped establish the grounds for a Jewish state. Later, she covered the airlifts to Israel of Yemenite and Iraqi Jews, and visited Jews in Ethiopia in 1985. She was in Israel as the final truce was signed. Witness is a remarkable look back at history as it was being made. But there is one picture that is sadly - and I hope not deliberately - miscaptioned. It purports to show an Arab woman being returned to Nablus, but shows the elderly Arab woman being helped across the famous wrecked bridge over the Jordan river, crossed by Arab refugees fleeing to Jordan in 1967. The girders are lined here by IDF reservists in hats worn during the Six Day War. WHILE RUTH Gruber's photographs, all taken many decades ago in black and white, are sometimes little more than snapshots, the stunning digital camera-age color prints by Gillian Laub in Testimony are often as brutal as they are technically perfect. As the book proceeds, ghastly wounds, burns and amputations quietly insinuate themselves into your vision of likeable human beings. Laub concentrates on the people and their often beautiful faces rather than their wounds, so that the viewer is suddenly hit by the double-take. What shape this extraordinary book are the life-enhancing comments by all the protagonists, Jew and Arab, that are printed alongside the photographs of themselves. There are Jewish and Arab victims of terror, as well as victims of accidental shootings. Many are sad; others wonder how they will carry on. All of them just want a world where everyone can live in peace. Laub's favorite place is the little Jaffa beach where both Arabs and Jews enjoy splashing with their friends and children. Some well-wrapped Jaffa Muslim girls record their joy in going to bathe in Tel Aviv (fully dressed) and say they would never live anywhere else. There are two little essays, one by an Arab, at the end of this book. But these remarkably human photographs render them superfluous.