Obituary: Ruth Gruber, photojournalist who documented plight of Jews

Ruth Gruber, photojournalist. Born: 30 September 1911 in Brooklyn, New York. Died 17 November, 2016, in New York, aged 105

Ruth Gruber with the actress who played her, Natasha Richardson. Picture: AP/Damian Dovarganes
Ruth Gruber with the actress who played her, Natasha Richardson. Picture: AP/Damian Dovarganes

Ruth Gruber, a photojournalist and author who documented Stalin’s gulags, life in Nazi Germany and the plight of Jewish refugees intercepted by the British on the infamous passage of the Exodus to Palestine in 1947, has died at the age of 105.

Gruber called herself a witness, and in an era of barbarities and war that left countless Jews displaced and stateless, she often crossed the line from journalist to human rights advocate, reporting as well as shaping events that became the headlines and historical footnotes of the 20th century.

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Over seven decades, she was a correspondent in Europe and the Middle East and wrote 19 books, mostly based on her own experiences. Acting for President Franklin D Roosevelt, she escorted nearly 1000 refugees from 19 Nazi-occupied nations to a safe haven in the United States on a perilous trans-Atlantic crossing in 1944. They included the only large contingent of Jews allowed into America during the Second World War.

As with many of her exploits, the rescue became the subject of one of her books, Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America (1983). It was made into a two-part CBS TV miniseries in 2001, starring Natasha Richardson as Gruber.

Gruber was in Jerusalem in July 1947 to cover a United Nations conference when she learned that a Chesapeake Bay steamer — refitted by the para-military group Haganah as a transport for Jewish immigrants and renamed the Exodus 1947 — had been intercepted by British warships as it approached Palestine, overloaded with 4515 refugees, including many orphans and Holocaust survivors. She rushed to the Port of Haifa to report on the episode.

The vessel, listing and damaged in an offshore attack that left three dead and 120 injured, was seized by the British. Turned back within sight of the Promised Land, the refugees were transferred to prison ships and returned to Germany, where they were interned in fenced compounds reminiscent of the Nazi concentration camps.

Gruber, acting as a pool reporter for news organisations, photographed and wrote about horrific conditions aboard the ships and in the camps. The international outcry that followed profoundly embarrassed the British, who were then governing Palestine, and helped pave the way for Israeli independence in 1948 and the eventual reinstatement of nearly all the interned Jews.

Gruber, who worked for The New York Herald Tribune, The New York Post and, briefly, The New York Times, covered the Nuremberg war-crimes trials and many events in the history of Israel, including its war for independence.

Her empathetic coverage, she often said, was rooted in her pride as a Jew and as a journalist with a mission. “I had two tools to fight injustice – words and images, my typewriter and my camera,” she said in 2001. “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.”

Ruth Gruber was born in Brooklyn on 30 September, 1911, to David and Gussie Gruber, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. A brilliant student, she held abiding passions for Judaism and German culture, including Goethe, Nietzsche, Schiller and Schopenhauer. She graduated from Bushwick High School at 15 and New York University at 18, by then already fluent in German.

On fellowships, she earned a master’s degree in German at the University of Wisconsin at 19 and a doctorate in German literature at the University of Cologne at 20, one of the youngest ever to achieve that distinction. In 1932, on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, she traveled across Germany, saw festering anti-Semitism, even attended Nazi rallies and once saw Hitler deliver a tirade.

She returned to New York and, after reporting locally for The Times, joined The Herald Tribune in 1935. She was soon crossing Soviet Russia on assignment.

In 1951 she married Philip H Michaels, a New York lawyer who died in 1968. In 1974 she married Henry J. Rosner, an official at New York City’s social services and human resources agencies. He died in 1982. Besides her son David Michaels, an assistant secretary of labor in the Obama administration, she is survived by a daughter, Celia Michaels, a former CBS News editor who covered the war in Lebanon in 1980; two stepdaughters, Jeri Drucker and Elaine Rosner-Jeria; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Another stepdaughter, the writer Barbara Seaman, died in 2008.

Gruber was the subject of a documentary film, Ahead of Time, in 2010. She received many humanitarian awards and counted Eleanor Roosevelt, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir as friends.

As she said in 2008, she always knew how to be in the right place at the right time. “Whenever I saw that Jews were in danger,” she said, “I covered that story.”

Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT Syndication Services