Ruth Gruber led a remarkable life dedicated to rescuing her fellow Jews from oppression. After earning her bachelors and master's degrees by age 19, she accepted a fellowship in 1931 to pursue doctoral study in Cologne, Germany While completing her degree (The New York Times described her then as the world's youngest Ph.D. at age 20), Gruber attended Nazi rallies and listened to Adolf Hitler vituperate against Americans, and particularly Jews. She completed her studies and returned to America, attuned from then on to the threats that totalitarianism posed to the Jewish people.
In 1932, Gruber started her career as a journalist. In 1935, the New York Herald Tribune asked her to write a series about women under communism and fascism. She traveled across Europe to the far reaches of Siberia to cover the story. Harold Ickes, President Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, read Gruber's writings and asked her to study the prospects of Alaska for homesteading G.I.'s after World War II. Gruber's life-defining moment came in 1944, when Ickes asked her to take on another special mission: secretly escorting a group of 1,000 Jewish refugees from Italy to America.
Despite the grim news coming out of Europe throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, Congress steadfastly refused to lift the quota on Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe. Finally acting by executive authority, President Roosevelt permitted a group of 1,000 Jewish refugees in Naples to "visit" America. The refugees were to be "guests" of the President and lodged at Fort Ontario, a decommissioned army training base near Oswego, in northern New York. Ickes asked Gruber to travel to Italy secretly to meet and escort the refugees on behalf of Roosevelt.
Ickes gave Gruber the rank of "simulated general." He explained, "If you're shot down and the Nazis capture you as a civilian, they can kill you as a spy. But as a general, according to the Geneva Convention, they have to give you food and shelter and keep you alive." Arriving safely in Italy, Gruber boarded the Army troop transport Henry Gibbins, with 1,000 wounded American soldiers and the refugees. Throughout the voyage, the Gibbins was hunted by Nazi seaplanes and U-boats.
Gruber recorded the refugees' case histories. She told them, "You are the first witnesses coming to America. Through you, America will learn the truth of Hitler's crimes' " She took notes as the refugees told their stories, but she often had to stop because her tears blurred the ink in her notebook. The grateful refugees began calling Gruber "Mother Ruth" and looked to her for protection. As historian Barbara Seaman observed, "She knew from then on, her life would be inextricably bound up with rescuing Jews in danger."
On arriving safely in New York, the refugees were immediately transferred to Fort Ontario. As guests of the president without any rights conferred by the possession of a travel visa, the refugees were locked behind a barbed wire-topped, chain link fence. U.S. government agencies argued about whether they should be allowed to stay at the fort indefinitely or, at some point, be deported to Europe. Gruber lobbied Congress and FDR on behalf of keeping them at Fort Ontario through the end of the war.
Gruber ultimately prevailed, and in 1945, after Germany's surrender, the refugees were allowed to apply for American residency. Some became citizens and had extraordinary careers as radiologists, physicists, composers, teachers, physicians and writers. One, Dr. Alex Margulies, who came as a teenager from Yugoslavia, helped develop the CAT-scan and the MRI. Another, Rolph Manfred, helped develop the Polaris and Minuteman missiles and later dedicated his life to teaching developing countries about peaceful uses of atomic energy.
Her mission at Fort Ontario ended, Gruber's role as Jewish rescuer was just beginning. In 1946, she took leave from her federal post to return to journalism. The New York Post asked Gruber to cover the work of a newly created Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine.
When Harry Truman, Roosevelt's successor, learned that Jewish displaced persons were living in camps whose conditions paralleled that of Nazi work camps, he pressed Great Britain to open the doors of Palestine to 100,000 European Jewish refugees. Stalling for time, Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin suggested that he and Truman convene the joint Committee to meet with the refugees in Europe, as well as leaders in the Arab world and Palestine, before deciding whether mass Jewish immigration to Palestine was feasible. Truman assented, and Gruber, armed with her passport and camera, accompanied the committee members to the squalid DP camps in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
When the group arrived in the DP camps, Gruber reported in her dispatches to the New York Post, that the survivors greeted its members with signs like, "We want to go. We must go. We will go to Palestine." When asked why he wanted to go to Palestine, a 16-year-old orphan who had survived Bergen-Belsen replied, "Why? Everybody has a home. The British. The Americans. The French. The Russians. Only we Jews have no home. Don't ask us. Ask the world."
The committee members spent four months in Europe, Palestine and the Arab countries and another month in Switzerland digesting their experiences. At the end of its deliberations, the committee's 12 members - six Britons and six Americans - unanimously agreed that Britain should allow 100,000 Jewish immigrants to settle in Palestine. Britain's foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, however, rejected the finding.
Eventually the issue was taken up by the United Nations, which appointed a Special Committee on Palestine. Like Its predecessor, UNSCOP visited the camps in Germany, then traveled to the Arab states and Palestine. Gruber accompanied UNSCOP as a correspondent for the New York Herald. While in Jerusalem, she learned that a former American pleasure boat, renamed the Exodus, had been attempting to deliver 4,500 Jewish refugees - including 600 children, mostly orphans - when it was attacked by five British destroyers and a cruiser. Gruber left immediately for Haifa and witnessed the Exodus entering the harbor, looking, as Gruber wrote, "like a matchbox splintered by a nutcracker."
During the "battle," the British rammed the Exodus and stormed it with guns, tear gas and truncheons. Gruber noted that the crew, mostly Jews from America and Palestine, fought back with potatoes, sticks and cans of kosher meat. The second officer, Bill Bernstein of San Francisco, was clubbed to death trying to prevent a British soldier from entering the wheel house. Two orphans were killed, one shot in the face point blank after he tossed an orange at a soldier.
When she learned that the prisoners from the Exodus were being transferred to Cyprus, she flew there overnight. While she waited for the Exodus detainees she photographed earlier Jewish prisoners living behind barbed wire in steaming hot tents with almost no water or sanitary facilities. "You had to smell Cyprus to believe it," she cabled the Herald.
The British changed plans and sent the Exodus prisoners to Port de Bouc in southern France, where they had first embarked. Gruber rushed there from Cyprus. When the prison ships arrived, the prisoners refused to disembark. After 18 days, during which the refugees endured blistering heat, the British decided to ship the Jews back to Germany. World press reaction was outraged. While hundreds of journalists descended on Port de Bouc, only Gruber was allowed by the British to accompany the DPs back to Germany.
Aboard the prison ship Runnymeade Park, Gruber photographed the refugees defiantly raising a Union Jack on which they had painted a swastika. Her work in Ethiopia completed a cycle that started with her trip to Italy in 1944 to bring 1,000 Jewish refugees to Fort Ontario.
Gruber continued her career as a journalist following the war, authoring 19 books and working for various U.S. publications as a correspondent in the Middle East and Europe. Her book Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America, was made into a 2-part mini-series on CBS in 2001. The movie Exodus (1960), starring Paul Newman, was directed by Otto Preminger and was based on Gruber's 1948 book Destination Palestine: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947.
In 1951 she married a community organizer in the Bronx, and they had two children together. Ruth Gruber died on November 17, 2016, in her home in Manhattan, at the age of 105.