Born in Brooklyn in 1911 (where she grew to adolescence believing that everyone was Jewish), the prolific author and photo-journalist Ruth Gruber will reach her 99th birthday on Sept. 30. Her life story is currently being told in “Ahead of Time,” a documentary film that is well worth seeing.
She first obtained notoriety when she became the world’s youngest Ph.D., earning her doctorate on the writings of Virginia Woolf, in Germany, on the eve of the Nazi takeover. She became a correspondent for the Herald Tribune where she again made news reporting on the Soviet Arctic in 1935. Gruber repeated a similar task in 1942, this time reporting on conditions in Alaska for the Roosevelt administration.
This earned her the credibility to again work for the government in escorting a thousand Jewish refugees from Europe, to the US, where they were interned in Oswego, NY. This was one of the few concrete achievements of the Roosevelt administration in rescuing Jews from the Holocaust—an effort forced upon FDR by his Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, who had assembled evidence of the State Department’s work to block Jewish immigration and had threatened to make this public. The film makes reference to this fact.
Her next milestone event was in reporting on the “Exodus” story, from Palestine, for the New York Post. This was the Haganah ship, filled to the gills with Jewish refugees, which attempted to run the British blockade of Palestine in 1947, only to be stopped and violently boarded by British sailors and marines. Three of the ship’s passengers and crew were killed and many were injured.
There are some superficial parallels in this incident with the deadly Israeli takeover of the Turkish ship attempting to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010; both involved humanitarian issues and both were propaganda triumphs for the side whose ship was intercepted. But I wouldn’t for a minute want to equate the efforts of the Haganah with the values of Hamas ruling over Gaza. Still, both incidents had a backdrop in tragic circumstances.
The film records, without comment, a recent event, when Gruber visited current-day Israel; she is interviewed by the journalist and historian Tom Segev. It struck me that Segev rather smugly and condescendingly asked Gruber if her compassion for refugees only applied to Jews, or if it included Palestinians. To the credit of this still sharp elderly lady, she did not stumble. She responded that she was saddened at the injustice of how Palestinians remained in camps.
My takeaway from the Jewish aspects of this film, and Ruth Gruber’s extraordinary life, is that even if we have good reason to criticize Israeli policies in later decades, Israel was legitimately conceived and born as a haven against anti-Jewish oppression. We should not forget this.