CHICAGO — In so many ways, Ruth Gruber is larger than life. The 102-year-old photojournalist traveled to the Soviet Arctic as a foreign correspondent in the mid-1930s, covered the arrival of Exodus 1947 in Palestine, and reported on the rescue of Jews in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. The Brooklyn native who started reporting in the early 1930s has also published 19 books.

But what she called “the most important assignment of her life” was not as a journalist, rather as a diplomat — Gruber was a special assistant to the US secretary of the interior during World War II – with the astonishing rank of general.

In 1944, Gruber was instrumental in bringing some 1,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe to the United States — the only time the US brought Jewish refugees en masse.

As documented in her book “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America,” because of the strict quota system enforced by the US Congress, president Franklin D. Roosevelt used his executive authority to invite 1,000 refugees to be his “guests” at the fenced and barbed wire secured Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee shelter on a former army base in Oswego, New York.

Culled from over 3,000 applicants, 982 refugees boarded the transport ship Henry Gibbons and sailed from Naples in July 1944. There were also a comparable number of injured US soldiers onboard.

In an interview with journalist Susan Richards, whose father and his family were on the boat, Gruber, then 95, explains priority was given to people who had escaped from Nazi concentration camps and slave labor camps. Families were kept together whenever possible, though young men of military age were not allowed. Preference was given to those who could help run the refugee camp in the US, and those with communicable or “odious diseases” were excluded.

Ruth Gruber at her recent 102 birthday party. (YouTube screenshot)

Ruth Gruber at her recent 102nd birthday party. (YouTube screenshot)

All refugees were forced to sign a document stating they would return to Europe after the war ended and weren’t provided with legal status for their stay in the US. Gruber describes that the refugees were given a tag to wear around their necks that classified them as “casual baggage.”

Though the ship arrived August 3, 1944, the voyage was rife with danger.

In interviews for the biographical documentary “Ahead of Time,” Gruber, close to 100 at the time of filming, tells of this amazing chapter in her episodic life.

“In January 1944, Roosevelt decided we should open our doors and take in 1,000 war refugees. I was a member of the Roosevelt government… [Secretary of the Interior Harold L.] Ikes told me they’re going to make me a general. He said, ‘If the Germans capture you, they can kill you as a spy. But if we make you a general, they have to keep you alive!’

“We were part of a whole convoy. There were 29 ships, about 15 of them were warships. Every night the ship was blacked out completely. The whole convoy was blacked out,” says Gruber.

The ship was sailing in the Mediterranean when 30 Nazi planes flew over. All passengers were told to retreat to their bunks and the refugees ran to their hold, Gruber describes. When the Nazi planes flew over the refugees were silent on their bunks.

“They had been through so much, they could go through this. Though many were scared, they were silent. Even the babies were silent as if they knew this was a moment to be silent,” Gruber tells Richards.

“And I had an epiphany and I knew from this minute on my life would be inexorably bound with rescue and survival,” says Gruber.

The refugees were taken to Fort Oswego in Ontario, New York, a camp with Red Cross workers surrounded by barbed wire fencing. Gruber recalls how those who had escaped from Nazi camps were hysterical, saying, “How could you do this Mother Ruth?”

Ruth Gruber. Children playing chess on the refugees’ deck of the Henry Gibbins next to an outdoor medical station and pharmacy, 1944. (© Ruth Gruber)

Children playing chess on the refugees’ deck of the Henry Gibbins next to an outdoor medical station and pharmacy, 1944. (photo credit: Ruth Gruber)

Slowly the refugees grew used to life in the former army base. Gruber tells how the townspeople were “fascinated” and threw gifts over the fence.

“The schools of Oswego opened their arms to our children and these children were hungry for education,” Gruber says, noting some hadn’t been in school for up to 15 years.

At the end of war there was panic, tells Gruber. The refugees thought they would be sent back, as per their agreement with the now deceased Roosevelt. President Harry S. Truman’s decision to bestow citizenship to the refugees is attributed to the work of camp director Dr. Joseph Smart and Eleanor Roosevelt, who took up the cause.

In December 1945, the refugees were taken to Canada and given visas to the US.

“One thousand helps make up for the thousands we could have saved. It was to be sure late and too little, but it was something,” says Gruber.

“I had two tools: I had words and I had images and I realized every one of us has tools, we have to find those tools and use them and fight injustice.”

The fantastic voyage was described in Gruber’s “Haven” and eventually turned into a 2001 movie staring Natasha Richardson as Gruber, as well as a musical.

New photography exhibit at 102

Currently, Gruber’s work as a photographer is on show in Chicago (through June 1) at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.

Early on, the intimate show “Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist” echoes a claim about Gruber that appears frequently online: on Wikipedia, the site for the International Center of Photography (where this show originated), the Jewish Virtual Library, the Jewish Daily Forward, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Institute of International Education, and National Public Radio, among others:

“Born to Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Gruber became the youngest PhD in the world, at age twenty, with a dissertation on Virginia Woolf,” writes Maya Benton, the museum’s adjunct curator, in the introductory wall text to the show. That’s not exactly what the New York Times reported on August 16, 1932, however: “She not only was graduated with honors but at 20 years of age she is now the youngest German Doctor of Philosophy.”

Benton says that Gruber was heralded at the time not only as the youngest PhD in German, but in the world. “This was confirmed by the many newspaper and article clippings in her archive from the early 1930s, many of which celebrated ‘World’s Youngest PhD,’” Benton says, “but unfortunately I cannot provide references as her archive is in her home and not accessible to me at the moment.”

Gruber also confirmed the claim herself, according to Benton, “and is quite adamant and confident that she was the world’s youngest PhD at that time.” (Several LexisNexis searches, as well as other news article archives searches didn’t yield any references to the “world’s youngest PhD.”)

The photos in the Skokie show, which are arranged around a seven-minute video celebrating the 102-year-old’s life, evoke the work of Jewish Magnum photographers like David “Chim” Seymour and Robert Capa. But Gruber’s client list included the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and the US government, rather than Magnum. (Eve Arnold became the first woman to become a Magnum member in 1957; Gruber was in her mid-40s at the time.)

Like the photographers of Magnum, however, Gruber had a great eye for monumental, historical significance, and for the ephemera surrounding those larger-than-life occurrences. A July 18, 1947 photograph, which appears in the show, captures a chaotic pile of baggage, unceremoniously discarded in front a ship in Haifa Port, Palestine. Several soldiers stand in uniform camouflage against the luggage — blurring the boundary between man and stuff — and several figures are barely distinguishable in the ship’s windows. By zeroing in on the belongings, and even making them into characters, Gruber underscored the troubling circumstances that the passengers faced.

“As the 4,500 refugees from Exodus 1947 are forced onto three prison ships, their baggage is carelessly thrown off the side of the ship and never retrieved,” reads the caption.

Gruber describes in the accompanying documentary the shock and dismay of the British at her presence on the contentious ship.

“I was to represent the entire American press. The British have regretted that for 50 years,” says Gruber.

She stood on one of the three British prison ships waiting to take the refugees away from Israel, the Runnymeade Park. “The refugees, they raised a huge flag — with the help of strong young women too — and they had painted the swastika on the British Union Jack. And I said to myself, ‘That’s history, that flag is history.’ And so I shot rolls of film,” says Gruber.

That it is so easy to see the quality of Gruber’s photographs — and to leap to Magnum comparisons — is not to be taken lightly.

“She was historically seen more as a journalist than a photographer,” says Benton. “One of the reasons I curated this show was to change that perception. She was, in addition to her pioneering work as a scholar, writer, journalist and humanitarian, a world class photojournalist.”

Ruth Gruber. Romanian families reunite in Haifa Port. Many had not seen each other since the beginning of World War II, Israel, 1951. (© Ruth Gruber)

Ruth Gruber. Romanian families reunite in Haifa Port. Many had not seen each other since the beginning of World War II, Israel, 1951. (© Ruth Gruber)

Some of the standouts in the show include a 1952 photograph of a Jewish boy wearing a dunce hat (composed of newspaper) as a punishment outside a Jewish school in Fes, Morocco; newly arrived Yemenite immigrants standing inside water pipes near Migdal Ashkelon in Israel (c. 1951); and a stunning depiction (1935-6) of scientists and explorers leaving a Soviet icebreaker to hunt seals.

Several other works in the exhibit, even as they portray difficult situations, have uplifting spirits. Three young boys hold hands and grin in Gruber’s “Camp 65, the Children’s Village, where orphaned survivors were cared for and housed, Cyprus Internment Camp, 1947,” and in “Young girls in Camp 65, the Children’s Village, where groups of orphaned children were cared for and housed, Cyprus Internment Camp, 1947,” a group of children hold hands in a circle. One girl with long, curly hair looks directly at the camera.

“Ruth always pointed to the indomitable human spirit in the most trying conditions — the scorched barren internment camps in Cyprus, the ships of survivors with no home on Exodus, Ethiopian Jews in the throes of civil war, Holocaust survivors, the native people of Alaska, women engineers in remote outposts of the Siberian arctic — she documented their lives and tenacity, and the underlying humanity of their plights,” Benton says.

In one photo, Gruber imbues her subject with an almost cinematic quality. Several children stand on the dock (near Exodus 1947), as an adult, whose back is turned to the viewer, stands in the foreground. All of the children except for one girl look to the horizon, while the girl confronts the viewer directly, with palpable fear. Although the image is still, one can almost sense a camera zooming in on the girl and causing all the other pictorial elements to fade away.

The caption: “Younger children move along the dock with fear, not knowing what lies ahead. More than 600 children gradually disembark on Exodus 1947. All refugees are sprayed with DDT powder and immediately transferred to one of three prison ships.”

All of the mystery and horror and discomfort — that comes along with not knowing what lies ahead in a very scary situation — appears on the girl’s face, and Gruber brilliantly choreographed the scene by building the whole composition around that single figure.