Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story

Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story

Ruth Gruber

Language: English

Pages: 288

ISBN: 0805242430

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


With her perfect memory (and plenty of zip), ninety-five-year-old Ruth Gruber–adventurer, international correspondent, photographer, maker of (and witness to) history, responsible for rescuing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II and after–tells her story in her own words and photographs.

Gruber’s life has been extraordinary and extraordinarily heroic. She received a B.A. from New York University in three years, a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin a year later, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne (magna cum laude) one year after that, becoming at age twenty the youngest Ph.D. in the world (it made headlines in The New York Times; the subject of her thesis: the then little-known Virginia Woolf).

At twenty-four, Gruber became an international correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and traveled across the Soviet Arctic, scooping the world and witnessing, firsthand, the building of cities in the Siberian gulag by the pioneers and prisoners Stalin didn’t execute . . . At thirty, she traveled to Alaska for Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s secretary of the interior, to look into homesteading for G.I.s after World War II . . . And when she was thirty-three, Ickes assigned another secret mission to her–one that transformed her life: Gruber escorted 1,000 Holocaust survivors from Italy to America, the only Jews given refuge in this country during the war. “I have a theory,” Gruber said, “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.”

Gruber’s role as rescuer of Jews was just beginning.

In Witness, Gruber writes about what she saw and shows us, through her haunting and life-affirming photographs–taken on each of her assignments–the worlds, the people, the landscapes, the courage, the hope, the life she witnessed up close and firsthand: the Siberian gulag of the 1930s and the new cities being built there (Gruber, then untrained as a photographer, brought her first Rolleicord with her) . . . the Alaska highway of 1943, built by 11,000 soldiers, mostly black men from the South (the highway went from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, 1,500 miles to Fairbanks) . . . her thirteen-day voyage on the army-troop transport Henry Gibbins with refugees and wounded American soldiers, escorting and then photographing the refugees as they arrived in Oswego, New York (they arrived in upstate New York as Adolf Eichmann was sending 750,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz).

In 1947, Gruber traveled for the Herald Tribune with the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) through the postwar displaced persons camps in Europe, and then to North Africa, Palestine, and the Arab world; the committee’s recommendation that Palestine be partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state was one of the key factors that led to the founding of Israel.

We see Gruber’s remarkable photographs of a former
American pleasure boat (which had been renamed Exodus 1947) as it limped into Haifa harbor, trying to deliver 4,500 Jewish refugees (including 600 orphans), under attack by five British destroyers and a cruiser that stormed the Exodus with guns, tear gas, and truncheons, while the crew of the Exodus fought back with potatoes, sticks, and cans of kosher meat. In a cable to the Herald Tribune, Gruber reported that “the ship looks like a matchbox splintered by a nutcracker.” She was with the people of the Exodus and photographed them when they were herded onto three prison ships. Gruber represented the entire American press aboard the ship Runnymede Park, photographing the prisoners as they defiantly painted a swastika on the Union Jack.

During her thirty-two years as a correspondent, Ruth Gruber photographed what she saw and captured the triumph of the human spirit.

“Take photographs with your heart,” Edward Steichen told her.

Witness is a revelation–of a time, a place, a world, a spirit, a belief. It is, above all else, a book of heart.

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frightened mother and newborn baby sister, she ran barefoot across minefields to escape the Nazis, who had just entered the small town in Italy where her family was hiding. There was Abe Furmanski of Warsaw, with the look of a prizefighter, who described the torture he escaped in German-occupied France. “In closed trucks that were meant to hold twenty people, the Germans pushed a hundred or more. Quicklime was placed on the floor ten inches high. The doors were sealed tight so no air could

she spoke, the people applauded enthusiastically. I saw her smile with gratitude. She spoke in English, and though most of the people could not understand a single word, they felt her compassion and caring. She ended her column that night: “Somehow you feel that if there is any compensation for suffering, it must someday bring them something beautiful in return for all the horrors they have lived through.” On April 12, 1945, word ran through the camp: the president is dead. The refugees went

friends on the Times and the Herald Tribune to write editorials explaining why these one thousand refugees should be allowed to stay. The editorials were strong, but the climate was still unchanged. By November, with the war over, the people were beginning to panic. “Go back to the camp,” Ickes told me, “and see what you can do to calm them.” I left immediately. As always, many greeted me with their theme song, “Don't Fence Me In.” Artur Hirt, a former Polish judge, accosted me: “The paper we

body was followed by the bodies of two sixteen-year-old orphans. Hirsch Yakubovich, from the DP camp at Kloster-Indersdorf, had been watching the action from a porthole. He tossed an orange at a marine entering the ship. The marine shot him in the face and killed him. The other orphan, Mordecai Baumstein, from the DP camp at Bad Reichenhall, was trying to beat off the marines with a can of beef when a marine shot him in the stomach. Some of the crew, Americans in their early twenties, disguised

have one more question. What can you say to the American people?” The Mediterranean sun shone on his white hair. “What can I say to the American people?” He mulled over his answer. “Preserve three things: your strength, your wisdom, and your goodwill toward all nations.” Helen shook his hand. “This has been the best journey of my life.” In the summer of 1974, I took my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Celia Michaels, to the Soviet Union. Thousands of Soviet Jews were fighting for the right to

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