Ruth Gruber: Brave Witness

At 99, Ruth Gruber has seen more heartbreak and suffering than most of us could bear, both during World War II and the postwar persecution of Jewish refugees. Tonight, Showtime begins airing "Ahead of Time," a documentary about a journalist whose stories and photographs changed world opinion.

An extraordinary person from the beginning of her life, Gruber became, at 20, the youngest person in the world to receive a doctorate. After working for a time as a reporter, she became an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and during World War II was given a secret mission to bring 1,000 refugees to the U.S. The refugees settled in Oswego, New York.

In 1947, after Gruber returned to journalism, she was a reporter and photographer for the New York Herald Tribune when she witnessed the ship Exodus 1947 dock at the port of Haifa, in what was then Palestine. The refugees on board hoped to find a safe haven there, in the territory that would become Israel one year later.

The ship, which carried 4,500 refugees, many of them death-camp survivors, had been attacked by the British Navy because most of the passengers had no legal immigration certificates. (Britain was in charge of the territory of Palestine.) Gruber was designated as the only American reporter who could board the ship and write and photograph what she saw. "Theyve regretted that for sixty years," she dryly told Ann Curry, who interviewed her this week for the Today Show.

The result: hundreds of black-and-white photographs of crowded decks showing refugees, many still stick-thin from the death camps, staring with a mix of anger, sadness and defiance. "They said, Take pictures. Show the world," Gruber told Curry. "Nobody was going to destroy them." The pictures, distributed around the world, led people to favor the establishment of a Jewish state.An encounter aboard the ship still haunts her. A young mother, devastated by her experience in the camps, said to her, "My life is over." Gruber replied, "Dont say that. They cant do anything worse to you than that. Youll get there." The 24-year-old woman replied, "I know Ill get there. Im going to live."The Exodus story did not have a happy ending. After being deported from Palestine, the refugees, still under British control, were imprisoned in camps in Germany and Cyprus for the next two years. In 1949, England recognized the new state of Israel and all surviving passengers were allowed to emigrate there.Even today, Gruber spends her time speaking against hatred and violence, encouraging her audiences to stand up for humanitarian principles. "Theres so much we can do," she told Curry, "if we just open ourselves to doing." "Ahead of Time" will air throughout the month on Showtime.
1 2 Next
Print Article