The Human Spirit: Ruth Gruber turns 100

The esteemed writer and my personal heroine Ruth Gruber celebrates her 100th birthday.

Ruth Gruber 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Ruth Gruber)
Ruth Gruber 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Ruth Gruber)
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 American author.
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. Gruber, one of five siblings, was born in Brooklyn in 1911. That’s the year of the first airmail delivery, of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, and the Italian annexation of Tripoli.
Her parents, Gussie and David Gruber, owned a liquor store. As a teen, Gruber rebelled against Orthodoxy and what she saw as the parochialism of Brooklyn. Life there “squeezed her,” she said. She graduated from NYU at 18 and won a scholarship to Wisconsin to do her master’s. She was fascinated by Germany and its culture, and in 1931, she won another scholarship from the Institute of International Education to study in Cologne. She completed a doctorate in a single year, becoming the youngest person in the 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 abhorred the dark side. An inborn reporter, she attended a Hitler rally in the Messehall, where she sat among the Germans as Hitler lead them in chants against the Jews. She returned to America, and wrote about the dire developments in Europe.
For The New York Herald Tribune she flew to Siberia to report on prisoners living in the Soviet gulag. Secretary of the interior Harold Ickes read the book that came out of that experience and dispatched her as a special envoy to explore Alaska’s potential for homesteading.
Then in June 1944, Gruber learned that president Franklin D. Roosevelt had agreed to take in a thousand refugees who wouldn’t have to go through the quota system.
“I knew it was only a thousand while millions were being murdered, but I hoped it 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 and 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 and Yiddish, telling them with pride that the portal to the United States bore the 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 after the war. Gruber successfully petitioned president Harry Truman to allow them to stay. As the millions of Jews who had been denied entry because of the US’s draconian visa policy would have, the Oswego Jews became valuable citizens. For one example, among them was Rolf Manfred, who became the director of research for Aerojet Corporate, producers of the Polaris missile which rode shotgun on America’s submarines and kept the Cold War from becoming a hot war.
Gruber was in Haifa reporting when the British Royal Navy rammed the Exodus carrying 4,500 passengers, mostly Holocaust survivors, and transferred them to prison ships. Her photo of the prison ship Runnymede Park which took the survivors back to Germany ran as the Life magazine photo of the week. Gruber photographed the passengers confined in a wire cage with barbed wire on top, raising a flag on which a swastika had been painted on the Union Jack. The British officers demanded her camera, but with typical moxie, she refused. Gruber’s reporting on the events and personalities of pre-state Israel helped 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 Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America, was published in 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 write the 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 real woman. She cast about for a subject, met lots of people. Somehow she talked with the late Kalman Mann, who was director-general of the hospital, who recommended my mother.”
Raquela was a nurse and midwife who had experienced life under siege in Jerusalem, treated Holocaust survivors in the internment camps in 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 her.
Gruber was seeking still another quality.
In the preface to Raquela she writes: “Beneath her serenity and composure, I sense a woman of passion. Love was a word that sprang to mind as we continued talking – love for her country, for her people, for her family. Hers was a passion for life.”
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 New York, and “tries to keep up with what’s happening. I’m hoping that Ben-Gurion’s prophesy will come true and there will be peace between Arabs and Jews. He told 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 Israel Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.