Obituary: Ruth Gruber, Documenter of Jewish Refugee Struggle, 105

November 18, 2016

© Ruth Gruber

Ruth Gruber accompanied a British prison ship that returned Jews to Germany after blocking them from entering Palestine. She published the images in Exodus 1947.

Photographer, investigative journalist, activist and author Ruth Gruber died November 16 at her home in New York City, The New York Times reports. She was 105. A witness to the exodus of Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe, the formation of Israel and the emigration of Ethiopia’s Jews, Gruber published 19 books of her images and writings. Her advocacy and journalism earned her awards from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, the International Center of Photography and other organizations.  In accepting the ICP honor in 2011, Gruber said of her work, “I try to use these images to fight injustice and hopefully bring peace to the world.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1911, Gruber enrolled in New York University at the age of 15. At 18, she received a fellowship to the University of Wisconsin, where she received her master’s in German and English literature. At 19, Gruber accepted a fellowship to study at the International Education in Cologne, Germany.  While in Germany, Gruber witnessed Hitler’s rise and Nazi rallies.

After returning to New York City in the midst of the Great Depression, Gruber began writing. The New York Times published one of her news articles, and soon Gruber landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. Gruber became the first foreign news correspondent, male or female, to fly through Siberia to the Soviet Arctic. In her travels, she began experimenting with making photos to complement her writings.

Gruber returned to the U.S. and published I Went to the Soviet Arctic in 1939.

After reading her book, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes commissioned Gruber to travel to Alaska to study prospects for building military bases in the state after World War II.  During her time in the Alaska, she made some of the earliest color images of Alaska’s indigenous people.

In 1944, Gruber was once again asked by Ickes to work for the government: He sent her document a secret mission to escort 1,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied nations aboard the Henry Gibbins, which sailed from Naples to New York. Upon the refugees’ arrival in the U.S., Gruber lobbied the government to ask that they be granted permanent American citizenship once the war was over. President Roosevelt granted all 1,000 refugees the right to apply for American citizenship after the war.

In 1984, Gruber published Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees, documenting the journeys refugees faced as well as their accounts of their lives both before and long after the war, and the effects of trauma on their lives.

After the war, Gruber returned to journalism, covering the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine for The New York Post. For four months, Gruber photographed displaced Jews determined to create a Jewish homeland.

As a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, Gruber photographed the Exodus 1947, a ship carrying 4,500 Holocaust survivors that was attacked by the British Navy on its way to Palestine. When the ship arrived in Haifa, British soldiers halted the transport, transferred the refugees to three prison ships and forced them to return to Germany, where they were put in holding camps. Life magazine published her photo of men crammed into a wire cage under a British flag on which someone had painted a swastika. Gruber was selected to be the U.S. representative in a pool of international journalists that traveled on a prison ship and documented the German holding camps. In 1948 book, Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation included over 100 photos and first-hand accounts by the displaced Jews she met.

In 1985, Gruber covered the emigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and later published Rescue: The Exodus of Ethiopian Jews.  

In 1995, she won Na’amat USA’s Golda Meir Human Rights Award, and in 1997 she was honored by Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance. In 2011, the International Center of Photography awarded Gruber the ICP Cornell Capa Award.

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