Ruth Gruber: Journalist, Documentary Photographer, Humanitarian
By Nava Atlas | On | Comments (0)
Ruth Gruber (1911 – 2016) led a life that was so incredible, it could have been a movie. And in fact, just one of the many courageous episodes in her 105-year life was made into a film. Ruth’s multi-faceted career as a journalist and documentary photographer isn’t as well known as it should be, and as with many women who were ahead of their time, deserves to be revisited and celebrated.
The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Ruth was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She was a brilliant student with a passion for Jewish culture, and always loved to write. At age fifteen she started college and was only twenty when she completed her doctorate in 1931 at the University of Cologne in Germany. That made her the world’s youngest Ph.D. at the time.
Ruth decided to stay on in Germany for a time, though being a young Jewish woman in Germany, as the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s was risky. But risk-taking wasn’t something Ruth avoided. She even went to Nazi rallies, getting a close view of Hitler at one of them. She later wrote that the sound of his twisted, hate-filled voice was one she could never forget. With her first-hand look at the rise of Nazism, Ruth returned to the U.S. and began writing for the New York Herald Tribune. Her first major series was about women’s lives under fascism.
“General” Ruth Gruber
At the start of World War II, Ruth worked as Special Assistant to Harold Ickes, one of President Roosevelt’s cabinet members. In 1944, he assigned her a secret mission — to help rescue Jewish refugees from nineteen Nazi-occupied countries and escort them to the U.S. on a military ship. Numbering nearly one thousand, they were invited as the president’s “guests” — the only attempt by the U.S. to shelter Jews during the war.
“You’re going to be given the rank of simulated general,” Ickes told her. “If you’re shot down and the Nazis capture you as a civilian, they can kill you as a spy. But as a general, according to the Geneva Convention, they have to give you food and shelter and keep you alive.”
Ruth escorted the refugees on a perilous ocean journey, only to have the U.S. refuse them, locking them behind barbed-wire in an Ontario fort. Ruth continued to lobby for them until they were finally given asylum in 1946. This dramatic experience inspired the 2001 film Haven, with Natasha Richardson in the role of Ruth Gruber.
British actress Natasha Richardson looked nothing like Ruth Gruber,
but Haven (2001) was a decent film about Ruth’s rescue of nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees
The ship Exodus
After the war, Ruth left her government post and return to journalism. Covering the story of the ship Exodus in 1947 was another dramatic episode in her career. As the ship carrying more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors to what was then Palestine neared the port of Haifa, the British navy intercepted it. The passengers were forced into the already overcrowded refugee camps in Cyprus. As a correspondent for the New York Herald, Ruth documented the barbaric conditions with her camera as well as her pen.
The book she wrote about the experience, Exodus 1947, inspired Leon Uris’s famous book and screenplay, Exodus, which helped turn public sentiment in favor of a Jewish homeland.
In the 1950s, Ruth married and had two children. She slowed down, but not for long. Even getting older didn’t stop her. “Whenever I saw that Jews were in danger,” she declared, “I covered that story.” In 1985, already in her mid-seventies, she did extensive coverage of the rescue of Ethiopian Jews. She continued traveling widely well into her nineties, lecturing about her experiences as a journalist and a witness to history in the making.
Ruth Gruber with Jewish Refugees, 1946 (Ruth is 4th from left in the back row)
Ruth Gruber’s legacy
Ruth Gruber was not only a witness to history as it unfolded, but helped shape historic events, concerning the plight of displaced Jews. She received numerous awards for her work as a journalist and human rights advocate, two sides of her work that often overlapped.
In addition to the television film Haven mentioned above, Ruth’s autobiography’s Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent (1991) was the basis of a documentary. Titled Ahead of Time, this film is quite hard to come by, unfortunately.
“I had two tools to fight injustice — words and images, my typewriter and my camera,” she said. “I just felt that I had to fight evil, and I’ve felt like that since I was 20 years old. And I’ve never been an observer. I have to live a story to write it.”
In addition to the many newspapers she contributed to, Ruth was also the author of nineteen books that detailed her experiences around the globe. Some of her titles in addition to those mentioned earlier include Haven, Raquela, Inside of Time, and Rescue.
Many of Ruth Gruber’s documentary photographs are archived at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Her life and achievements were celebrated in this appreciation and obituary in the New York Times.
A few quotes by Ruth Gruber
“Everyone can look inside his or her soul and decide what he or she can do to make a world at peace, to end this fighting that goes on every day around the world.”
“I had two tools to fight injustice — my typewriter and my camera.”
“You should have dreams, you should have visions. Never let any obstacle stop you.”
“I have a theory that even though we’re born Jews, there is a moment in our lives when we become Jews. On that ship, I became a Jew.”
Ruth Gruber page on Amazon
More about Ruth Gruber
- Interview on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website
- Ahead of Time (film): The Extraordinary Journey of Ruth Gruber
- Jewish Women’s Archive
- Obituary in the Washington Post
You might also enjoy: 6 Female Journalists of the World War II Era
*This post contains affiliate links. If the product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!