Trailblazing journalist who brought 1,000 Jewish refugees to US dies at 105

Ruth Gruber, who captured some of the most iconic photos of the SS Exodus in 1947, dreamed of a world ‘with no more refugees who require haven’

Ruth Gruber, Alaska, 1941-43 (Unidentified photographer, courtesy)
Ruth Gruber, Alaska, 1941-43 (Unidentified photographer, courtesy)

When Ruth Gruber saw a report during World War II that 1,000 Jewish refugees were being brought to the United States, she rushed straight to her job with the Secretary of the Interior.

“I got rid of my breakfast and rushed to the office and said, ‘I have to see the Secretary.’ I told him, ‘Somebody has to go over and hold their hands; they’re going to be terrified,'” Gruber said in a 2010 interview in The Sunday Telegraph of London.

That somebody turned out to be her, and as she accompanied the refugees to the US, she interviewed them, which became the basis of “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America,” one of her 19 books but only one part of Gruber’s long, trailblazing life.

The journalist and humanitarian died on Thursday at her home in Manhattan, according to her editor, Philip Turner. She was 105.

Gruber, who was born in Brooklyn, started college at New York University at age 15 and had earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne in Germany by the time she was 20. Her dissertation was on Virginia Woolf, whom she later met.

Gruber then went into journalism, becoming a foreign correspondent and visiting such places as the Soviet Arctic and Siberia. She produced both words and photographs, covered the arrival of Exodus 1947 in Palestine, and reported on the rescue of Jews in Yemen in the 1950s and Ethiopia in the mid-1980s.

Ruth Gruber (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ruth Gruber (Wikimedia Commons)

During World War II, she was appointed special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, for whom she carried out a study to see if returning veterans could settle in Alaska.

In 1944, Gruber got involved in a mission to bring a group of 1,000 Jewish refugees from Europe to the United States. She lobbied fiercely for the refugees to be given American citizenship, which they eventually were granted.

She returned to journalism after the war, covering stories such as the plight of other Jewish refugees and the impetus to allow some to settle in what was then Palestine.

“I thought that wherever there was injustice we should fight it, and what better tool than journalism? I always carried my little Hermes typewriter that weighed about two pounds and my two cameras,” she said in the Sunday Telegraph interview.

The photojournalist was among the first to board the SS Exodus in 1947, capturing on film what would become an iconic photo of the Jewish passengers, Holocaust survivors, raising a flag emblazoned with a swastika.

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,” said Gruber in a documentary on the subject.

In “Haven,” Gruber wrote that she subsequently went down into the ship’s “prison pen.”

“It was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno. People were half-naked, sitting or sleeping on the metal floor… some held up pictures of babies for me to take pictures. I shot blindly — blind because the only light came through prison bars; blinded by their agony,” she wrote.

The Exodus ship (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
The Exodus ship (Wikimedia commons)

But it was her accompaniment of the refugees to US soil during the Holocaust that was to become her defining achievement, in her own eyes.

“The Haven experience is with me every day,” she wrote in her 1983 book.

“What is the end, have the years of journalism meant to me, years of covering the survivors and the displaced? Through journalism, I sought to understand people and politics, to explore new frontiers, to see and feel and taste and touch and try to capture with honesty and compassion what I have seen. I hope I have succeeded,” she wrote.

Pivoting to discuss her grandchildren, the journalist concluded: “And then I wonder what they will be like when they grow up. I pray they will do better than we did and build a world without hunger and fear, a world with no more refugees who require haven, a world at peace.”

Gruber has been honored with awards from organizations including the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. She married twice; both of her husbands died before her. Gruber is survived by her son and daughter from her first marriage.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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