Ruth Gruber spent her teenage years studying, traveling the world, attending political rallies, and looking over her shoulder.
It was 1931; she was 19, Jewish, and studying in Cologne, Germany, under a fellowship, for her doctorate. She was also witnessing Nazi rallies, where she saw firsthand how Adolf Hitler gained power.
"I learned one of the biggest lessons, how you become a dictator, literally. He joined every group, reached the top, and then threw the whole government over. He didn’t have to fire a single bullet," said the 96-year-old Gruber, who made her name as a foreign correspondent and an activist for Jewish refugees.
Gruber, who was interviewed by phone, will speak about that work and her recently reprinted book "Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation" on Sunday, March 30, at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, after a showing of the film "Exodus 47," which is based on her book.
As a ‘4-year-old journalist for the New York Herald Tribune in 1935 and 1936, she went back to Germany, writing about women under communism and fascism. Things had changed; now, when she looked over her shoulder, it was not only to see if she was being followed, but by whom. This time people asked her, begged her, to help them get out.
The paperwork needed to vouch for immigrants to get into the United States was more than a foot long, she recalled. "You had to present your bank account and prove that you could really help them if they couldn’t find a job." Gruber said, apologetically, she was able to help only a few. "You try your best," she said. "You don’t always succeed."
But in 1944, working as a special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes on a top-secret mission authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was able to help 1,000 refugees get out of Italy and to Fort Ontario in Oswego, N.Y. She was given the rank of "simulated general," so, if caught by the German forces hunting her, she could not be tried as a spy. (The story became a book and then a TV miniseries, "Haven.")
Her work literally saved thousands more as she continued traveling and writing, even on her honeymoon in 1950 with her first husband, Philip Michaels, a lawyer. They were traveling in Libya when they were suddenly forced against a wall by Arabs, she recalled. "I thought this was the last day of my life, but we were saved by the French Legion."
In May of 1948, Gruber bore witness to another event, this time at the United Nations.
"The idealism we all had and the excitement at the United Nations the joy we all had in the press corps," she exclaimed. "There were people who were trying to prevent it, who wanted a trusteeship instead of a Jewish state. It would have meant the end of the possibility of a Jewish state. But [President Harry] Truman prevented it, and so Israel paid no attention to all these potential enemies. Then we learned that [David] Ben-Gurion had stood up at the museum in Tel Aviv and read the world’s newest declaration of independence and the joy! And people tried to stop it, but they were stopped themselves. The U.N. just went on fire. Everybody was shouting and applauding and even weeping, and the whole press corps was doing it too."
But the media are fickle and Gruber has taken note of the biased reports of some modern commentators.
That’s another thing Jews must fight for, she said, to make sure that the media do not take sides. "We have to send letters, we have to send cables, and we have to fight from the moment it begins. We have to challenge them."
The challenge is growing, she said, as anti-Semitism increases and feelings are turning against Israel worldwide.
Gruber is still fighting for Israel, maintaining, "The fact that there is an Israel, with a good strong army, a good strong government, is a real haven for Jews in danger everywhere."
But Jews are not the only ones who need champions. Gruber, speaking of the genocide in Darfur, said, "It’s [driven by] the same kind of hatred, jealousies, fears, antagonisms. It’s a cruel evil that can take place anywhere."
Much has been written about what event defined Ruth Gruber’s life, what made her place her foot upon the path. Some write it was her time in Germany, or at Fort Ontario, or witnessing the ship Exodus being fired upon by the British navy and then staying with the refugees all the way back to a German prison, or her trips through Siberia, Alaska, Ethiopia, Cyprus. Each time she witnessed, each time she brought the attention of the world to the injustices she saw.
Gruber did not single out any of these. "What is my life-defining moment?" she mused. "Where there are people in danger, whenever we see illegalities, we have to stand up and fight it and whenever we can help, we must do it. When I found I could help with the Ethiopian Jews, I went to Ethiopia and helped, and that’s what we have to do, we have to take the reins into our hands and go and help them."
These days, Gruber dotes on her grandchildren and surfs the Internet to keep up with events. She’s following the race for the presidency (hoping for Hillary Clinton to win), speaking at universities and high schools, and traveling around the world promoting her book. "I did 14 [press conferences] in a day and a half," she said of her recent tour to England. "I eat a healthy diet and keep the body in motion as much as possible."
Shul connects the generations for Israel’s 60th
To celebrate Israel’s 60th birthday, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley is offering a Kehilla series of programs to connect the generations in the telling of Israel’s birth and its significance.
Sunday, March 30, from 10:30 a.m. to 1′:30 p.m.: The documentary "Exodus 47" about the ship carrying Holocaust survivors that attempted to run the British blockade and was captured by the British will be screened. Ruth Gruber, the journalist who covered the story of the Exodus, will speak. (See related story.) Nat Nadler, a congregant who was an American volunteer on the ship, will make a presentation.
Friday April 4, at 8 p.m., during Shabbat services: The congregation’s rabbi emeritus, Andr? Ungar, will share his thoughts on the birth of Israel.
Friday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m.: The Shabbat service will be followed by two brief reflections from congregants on witnessing Israel’s birth, one American, one Iraqi. In addition, Nat Nadler will be honored and the eighth grade will perform a recreation of the United Nations partition vote. There will also be singing, dancing, and performances by Hebrew school students, with the adult and children’s choir.