Ruth Gruber’s Magnificent Voyage

Vanity Fair – February 2001

A halo of yellow hair frames her penetrating blue eyes, which miss nothing. At 89, the diminutive author and lecturer Ruth Gruber is about to get the full star treatment. She leans forward to peer into the TV screen, having taken time from a cross-country book tour to come to Manhattan and view a video of Natasha Richardson playing her as she was in 1944, in a two-part mini-series CBS is airing this month. Haven is based on a true story, and Gruber is the heroine of what she calls “the best-kept secret of World War II.” A few minutes into the first tape, she spots herself and her daughter, Celia, flashing by in a nanosecond; they are extras in a scene depicting nearly 1,000 desperate, mostly Jewish refugees from the Holocaust waiting to board the U.S. ship Henry Gibbins. They were the only such group ever permitted to enter the United States during the war, and Gruber was, in the words of a surviving refugee, “the angel who delivered us.” “I wasn’t aware of how active the U.S. administration was in not allowing Jewish refugees into the country,” says Natasha Richardson. “I considered it an honor and a duty to be part of telling this story.”

“There were 7,000 extras, and so many actors came up and threw their arms around me,” says Gruber. “They said, ‘I told my agent I had to be here.’ One woman had lost her parents in the Holocaust. Another said her G.I. father’s dog tag was found in Dachau.” Filmed at a cost of $15 million, Haven is based on Gruber’s recently reissued book of the same name. Gruber, who was 32 in 1944 and had been raised in a “modern” Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn, considers the voyage the transforming moment of her life.

Gruber was precocious and prescient. By age 20 she had already returned home from studying abroad for her Ph.D., and was the youngest American at that time with a doctorate. Her thesis on Virginia Woolf, written at the University of Cologne, had won her honors; while studying in Germany, she had also witnessed Hitler’s demented hysteria firsthand at Nazi rallies and recognized his potential danger. In 1935, after receiving a fellowship to study women under Fascism, Communism, and democracy, she set off for Russia, having convinced the New York Herald Tribune’s editor that if he gave her the chance she could be the first foreign correspondent to gain entry to the Soviet Arctic. Traveling mostly in unheated, unpressurized, two-seat seaplanes, Gruber spent eight months in the northernmost reaches of Siberia, interviewing prisoners of Stalin’s work camps as well as the area’s most stalwart pioneers. She sent her dispatches—which did not always arrive—by remote radiophone. The result was I Went to the Soviet Arctic, published in 1939 and illustrated mostly with her own photographs. Much of the material in it was also included in Gruber’s 1991 autobiography, Ahead of Time, which Carroll & Graf is reissuing this month.

Gruber determined to go next to the northernmost point of Alaska, just a few miles from the Russian Arctic she already knew. Her Soviet book had brought her to the attention of Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes, who wrote in his diary that Dr. Ruth Gruber was “quite good looking. I could not quite make out whether she is Jewish or not.” He perceived, however, that “she is an imperious young woman who does not stand on ceremony and wants to have her own way.” At Gruber’s request, Ickes sent her to be his eyes and ears in the Far North, figuring out how to publicize Alaska and attract homesteaders. When America entered World War II in December 1941, Gruber was flying or dogsledding across the tundra by day and hostessing dinners for the military command at night. “I wore out more evening gowns in Alaska in a year and a half than in a lifetime,” she tells me. At one point in 1942, she was supposed to take off for Nome with a bush pilot but was delayed while a cable from Ickes was being decoded. “I’m sorry, I can’t wait for you,” the pilot told her. “I’ve got other passengers.” “They got on the plane and crashed,” Gruber says. “He flew into a mountain. So Ickes saved my life.”

Later, in Washington, she became friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt and answered all letters pertaining to Alaska for the First Lady. But she agonized as the United States stood largely mute while Hitler’s persecution of Jews went on unabated. “Franklin Roosevelt didn’t want the New Deal to be known as ‘the Jew Deal,’ ” Gruber explains. “He didn’t want people saying we were fighting the war for Jews.” Finally, in January 1944, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. showed Roosevelt a special report based on secret cables to the State Department from Switzerland and originally titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Only then did the Roosevelt administration decide to bring in a group of mostly Jewish refugees and house them in an abandoned army camp in Oswego, New York—but only after they had signed papers promising that they would go back where they had come from at the war’s end. The Interior Department, which was already presiding over the internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans, was in charge of these European refugees, who were set to embark from the bay of Naples in July 1944, much to the chagrin of some individuals in the U.S. State Department, who appeared to be overtly anti-Semitic. Fluent in German, Yiddish, and Russian, Gruber begged Ickes to let her escort the refugees to America.

As a young woman untested in combat, she knew she would face strong opposition from the State Department and Congress, but her most powerful foe was her own mother, the obdurate Gussie Gruber (played by Anne Bancroft in the mini-series), whose willfulness Ruth had spent her whole life trying to escape. Gussie personally went to Washington to vent her ire at Ickes (played by Hal Holbrook) for allowing her daughter to undertake such a dangerous mission. But Ickes had thought of an ingenious plan to help Ruth if she were taken prisoner at sea. “Don’t worry,” Gruber recalls Ickes telling her mother, “she’ll come home safe. We’re making her a general.” According to the rules of the Geneva conventions, captured generals could not be harmed by the enemy and had to be clothed and fed. Ruth’s papers identified her as a “simulated general.” “That assignment on the ship changed the course of my whole life,” Gruber says. “I knew my life was inextricably bound with rescuing people and survival.”

On the ship, which was part of a convoy pursued by U-boats and German planes, Gruber became “Mother Ruth” to the devastated escapees, who did not speak English and who poured out their horror stories to her. She also acted as a go-between with the wounded G.I.’s on board, who at first resented the refugees, irrationally blaming them for causing a Nazi air attack on the convoy. She had to be everywhere at once, tending to her overwrought charges and smoothing relations between the two groups. Once in Oswego, however, she had to witness the refugees’ wrath as they were quarantined for a month and interrogated. These brave survivors, many of them highly educated, were once again locked up behind barbed-wire fences, and Gruber was unable to persuade the government bureaucracy to allow them to do any work except farm labor, for which they were paid the same as a group of Nazi war prisoners kept nearby—80 cents a day. It was only after Franklin Roosevelt’s death that President Harry Truman permitted the refugees to be bused across the border into Canada so that they could obtain valid visas and legally re-enter the United States.

That experience forged Gruber into a warrior advocate, using both words and photos as her weapons. Her detailed reports were often models of the late Washington Post publisher Philip Graham’s definition of journalism: “the first rough draft of history.” “Fortunately, I never took a course in journalism,” says Gruber, “so I never knew you were supposed to be objective. All I knew was that I had to live the story to write it, and not only live it—if it was a story of injustice, I had to fight it.”

‘To be the Dorothy Thompson of Jewish journalists is to be in a niche within a niche,” says Gruber’s book editor, Philip Turner, of Carroll & Graf, comparing her to the celebrated journalist for the New York Herald Tribune who interviewed Hitler and wrote a syndicated column for 170 newspapers. Although Gruber is highly regarded inside the United Jewish Appeal and Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America—she has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Israel, on a par with the late Israeli premier Golda Meir—her groundbreaking reporting on the birth of Israel, particularly, was often ignored or appropriated by others. For example, the second defining experience of Gruber’s life, after the one described in Haven, formed the basis for her 1948 book, Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation. For years Leon Uris freely acknowledged how much he had been influenced by Gruber in writing Exodus, his best-selling novel, published in 1958. Gruber recalls that shortly before producer-director Otto Preminger’s epic movie of the same name, starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, was released in 1960, Uris got up onstage at the Hadassah Convention in San Francisco, where he and Gruber were appearing before a large crowd, to “tell a story on Ruth.”

According to Gruber, Uris told the audience that Preminger had asked Uris to send him all the books he had used as sources in writing Exodus. Uris naturally sent him Gruber’s book, and when Preminger next called him, the flamboyant director said, “If I had read this book first, I never would have bought yours.” Moreover, Preminger used material from Gruber’s book that was not even mentioned in Uris’s. As it happened, Gruber had already been invited to the New York premiere when she met Preminger and asked him if the Uris story was true. “It’s absolutely true,” Preminger confirmed. “And you know what I’m going to do for you?” “I was thinking to myself, Maybe he’s going to give me credit,” Gruber recalls. Instead, Preminger told her, “I’m going to give you two tickets to see the opening of the movie.”

The path to publishing Exodus 1947 had been fraught with peril. In 1946, while Gruber was still working for Ickes, she was asked by the New York Post to go to London and report on the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, the commission formed to study whether or not Jewish Holocaust survivors warehoused in displaced-persons camps throughout Europe should be allowed to enter Palestine to create a Jewish state. Once again Gruber, traveling with the commission to Germany, Austria, Egypt, and Palestine, witnessed the conditions of Jews in these awful camps, which had not improved even after the end of the war. The British, who governed Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations to create a Jewish homeland, sided with Arab leaders, who were unalterably opposed to Jewish immigration. After overturning the commission’s unanimous recommendation to allow 100,000 displaced persons into Palestine—the position favored by the United States—the British government instead asked the United Nations to take over the rule of Palestine. That decision was the basis for another commission Gruber covered for the Herald Tribune, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (unscop).

Gruber abandoned unscop in July 1947, cabling her editors, anybody can cover speeches. She had heard of a former American ship, renamed Exodus 1947 and carrying 4,500 illegal refugees, which had been attacked in international waters by a British naval force. After a three-hour battle in which 150 were wounded and three died, the Exodus was forced to limp into the port of Haifa, its destination in Palestine. Gruber caught up with the ship at the dock. The British had set up a blockade and were sending the displaced persons away on three closely guarded “hospital ships,” which actually functioned as prison ships. At first it was thought the refugees would be transferred to a squalid camp in Cyprus, but after a three-week stay in scorching heat in Port-de-Bouc, a harbor city in southern France—where the refugees adamantly refused to disembark, even though the sympathetic French promised them food, shelter, and medical attention—the British sent them back to English prison camps in northern Germany. In other words, back to hell. Gruber’s photo of the refugees’ unfurled Union Jack with a swastika painted on it became Life magazine’s Picture of the Week.

About 1,000 negatives of her photos from that era are now in the Holocaust Memorial Museum archives in Washington, D.C., with more than 100 prints on display. But it is Gruber’s brilliant and painstaking reportage in Exodus 1947 that is overwhelming. She not only explains the plotting and the politics precisely but also re-creates the heat, the filth, the despair, and the total defiance of people who have moved beyond suffering in pursuit of their goal of settling in a Jewish state. At one point she is unwittingly chosen by the British to be the lone American press person to go aboard one of the ships in Port-de-Bouc.

“Below us was the cage,” Gruber writes in the book. “Squeezed between a green toilet shed and some steel plates were hundreds and hundreds of half-naked people who looked as though they had been thrown together into a dog pound. For a moment I had the hideous feeling they were barking. Trapped and lost, they were shouting at us in all languages, shattering one another’s words.”

Ironically, Gruber’s original reporting, titled “Destination Palestine: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947,” was a 128-page manuscript written for The New Yorker and edited by the legendary William Shawn, who had not yet taken over as editor in chief. One day over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, Shawn had some bad news for Gruber: Raoul Fleischmann, the magazine’s Jewish owner, had read her piece and rejected it. “He told me Fleischmann said it was ‘too Jewish.’ Then he said, ‘I called my friend Bruce Bliven at The New Republic, and sight unseen he said he would publish it.’ They ran it in several issues.” Gruber was also able to publish her Exodus story as a book.

Years later Gruber interviewed Harry Truman, after he had retired to Missouri. He told her, “We’d have no problems in the Middle East if not for that dirty three-letter word: ‘o-i-l.’ ”

To this day, none of Gruber’s books that mention the British role in the creation of Israel has been published in England.

‘Weren’t you bitter?,” Natasha Richardson asked Ruth Gruber when they met. The answer is and always has been no. “I always felt at the Herald Tribune, why are they paying me?,” Gruber said when I asked if she felt overlooked. “I would give a million dollars to go to some of these places.” Richardson had told me, “You’d think with all the doors being closed in her face, there’d be an anger, a bitterness. But instead there is just an enormous, pulsating heart.”

Gruber was the rebellious fourth child of five siblings. Her father, David, owned a liquor store in Brooklyn, and her parents placed great value on faith and education. “Religion very much clothed my life as a child,” Gruber says. “If I ever did anything wrong, I would go to the window and ask God to excuse me three times. He was a living presence for me, and he always excused me.” She was six when she first felt the power of language, listening to her first-grade teacher, a young African-American woman, recite poetry. “It sounded like the most beautiful music, and that’s when I knew I loved words and they would be a part of me.” The teacher once paid a surprise visit to the Gruber house, the purpose of which, Gussie instantly assumed, was to report Ruth’s misconduct. “She didn’t do anything wrong,” the teacher said. “I just want to tell you to be very careful of her. She is going to be a writer.”

Throughout her early years, Gruber was blessed with caring teachers who recognized her gifts and encouraged her. One high-school teacher, an African-American man, sometimes took her to the theater on Saturdays. “He wanted me to learn about oppression. We saw Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” She entered New York University at 15, and her English professor, an Irish woman, sent some of her compositions to Harper’s Weekly and The Atlantic Monthly, which rejected them. “She was very consoling—took me to lunch, taught me how to eat fish properly, and said, ‘Don’t think about this. Just keep writing.’ ”

Gruber finished N.Y.U. in three years and at 18 received a fellowship to study for a master’s in German literature at the University of Wisconsin. During Easter vacation she learned that she had been offered another fellowship, to pursue her Ph.D. for one year in Germany. She knew her mother would have objections, and quickly decided to confront her in person. She hitchhiked as far as Albany and asked her parents to pick her up at Grand Central Terminal. Gussie immediately jumped to the conclusion that Ruth was coming home to announce she was pregnant. When her mother heard instead that Ruth wanted to study in Germany, she told her husband, “I wish she was pregnant.”

In 1932, at the height of the Depression, Gruber returned from Germany to find a gaggle of reporters waiting at the dock in New York to interview her about her feat of completing a doctorate at such a young age. Her youthful accomplishment had already been recognized in Europe; she had even been awarded a gift to honor her by the then mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer. But she fled the reporters in tears, not wanting publicity. Jobs were scarce as Gruber tried to find writing assignments, and she longed to escape from Gussie and live the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. One night at Romany Marie’s, a popular Village watering hole, Gruber and a girlfriend were asked to join the table of the noted Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who soon hired Gruber to translate research on the Arctic for him for a dollar an hour. “Until I started translating all these documents, I didn’t know anything about the Arctic,” she says. “He taught me to be skeptical about everything, because he was a great myth breaker, and he really made me love the Arctic and frontiers.”

Her intrepid reporting from the Arctic a few years later made Gruber a great favorite of Helen Reid, the socially prominent owner of the Herald Tribune, who often invited her to dine and speak in her various homes. Gruber never actually had an office at the Herald Tribune. “I didn’t need one,” she says. “I would see something and decide that was a story I had to cover. They would always say, ‘Do it.’ And as soon as I came back, Helen would say, ‘Come up to Purchase [New York, where Reid had a country house].’ We’d get down on the floor. She’d put a big map down, and she would live the whole story. It was such fun.”

Gruber did not marry until she was 39. Through her work for the Interior Department, she had become friendly with Puerto Rico’s first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marín. During one of the parties surrounding his inauguration in San Juan in 1949, he introduced Gruber to Philip Michaels, a lawyer eight years older than she, who managed a furniture store in the South Bronx, where he also functioned as a community organizer. They married in 1951, and when she became pregnant for the first time, at 40, her family and doctors advised an abortion. Gruber refused. Her daughter, Celia, a former videotape editor for CBS living in London, was born in 1952, and her son, David, two years later. He is an assistant secretary at the Department of Energy in Washington, in charge of the $1.9 billion entitlement to compensate workers who have been exposed to radioactive material.

“I went with her on most trips,” David Michaels recalls of his early childhood. Gruber was then writing a regular column, “Diary of an American Housewife,” for Hadassah’s monthly magazine and traveling to Israel every year, where she was on familiar terms with all the major leaders. In the 60s, Gruber published two books on Puerto Rico. Then, in 1968, Philip Michaels died. Gruber continued to raise money for Israel and became known as a spellbinding speaker, especially on the subject of the Haven experience. “I’ve heard her over and over,” says her friend Sylvia Miller, a former Hadassah board member, “and so many times seen her hold an audience in the palm of her hand.”

Time and again, Gruber, who had saved all her notebooks and documentation from the Oswego days, tried to interest her book editors in the stirring episode of World War II that so moved audiences. “ ‘World War II?’ they’d say. ‘Who gives a damn? Refugees? Who cares?’ ”

In 1974, Gruber got married again, to Henry Rosner, New York’s deputy commissioner of human resources, who had begun his career under former mayor Fiorello La Guardia. That year she also published a book, They Came to Stay, a collaboration with former congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who had adopted two Asian babies. Gruber and her daughter traveled to Vietnam during the war there and also to Korea to do the research for the book. Then, after Rosner’s retirement in 1976, she and Rosner spent nearly a year in Israel, where Gruber wrote Raquela, which tells the history of Israel through the life of a ninth-generation Jerusalem midwife. It became a best-seller, and the profits afforded her the opportunity to write Haven, which was published to rave reviews in 1983.

Then, in a most unlikely location, another wave of persecuted Jewish refugees appeared for Gruber to chronicle—in Ethiopia. In 1985, destitute black Jews were being airlifted to Israel for resettlement. Gruber was now 75 years old and once again a widow. To get her story, she had to travel to remote Ethiopian villages, first in drought conditions, later through driving rain and mud slides. She called the resulting book Rescue. In her 80s, she has published her autobiography and revised both Exodus 1947 and Haven, which carries a foreword by her niece, Dava Sobel, the author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter.

Last Thanksgiving, I caught up with Ruth Gruber in the midst of a tour which, in a single week, had taken her to Texas, Michigan, and Connecticut to publicize her books. When I rang the doorbell of her apartment on Central Park West, where she has lived for 49 years, I knew she would have a limited time to talk, because she was going to a black-tie dinner that night at the Pierre Hotel.

She opened the door to greet me in a fire-engine-red, floor-length hostess gown and gold slippers. She was carefully groomed and jeweled, warm, gracious, and acute, and most eager to talk about the impressive accomplishments of the surviving Haven refugees, with whom she still keeps in close touch—one, she told me, helped invent magnetic-resonance imaging (M.R.I.). Her modest apartment is filled with mementos and a floor-to-ceiling museum case of Arctic, Alaskan, Middle Eastern, and African artifacts. One hallway is lined with her photos, including pictures of the Oswego camp, part of which is being turned into a museum, with its library named for Ruth Gruber. She served me an aperitif of Amaretto mixed with peach-and-carrot juice.

The next day we dined at My Most Favorite Dessert Co., a kosher restaurant in the theater district owned by Doris Schechter, who was only five years old when she crossed the Atlantic with Gruber on the refugee ship Henry Gibbins. Schechter considers Gruber a second mother and “a national treasure.”

During the ride back to her apartment, Gruber told me about her plans to go on the CBS press tour with Natasha Richardson to publicize Haven. She was also about to deliver a lecture at the United Nations on Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition, she informed me, she is getting ready to start her 16th book, about the five most fascinating women she has ever known, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir, and Lena Horne.

Never entertaining for a moment the notion that she might be ready to end an exciting, 70-year career in journalism, Ruth Gruber is still ready to deliver the next story.

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