No safe havens

At age 88, unrelenting humanitarian Ruth Gruber is far from settling into an easy chair with a stack of scrapbooks and a head full of fading memories. Instead, she’s hopping a plane this week from her beloved New York City to L.A. to meet with the screenwriter and director of an upcoming CBS miniseries based on her famous book, Haven: The Unknown Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees. And that’s just a quick break from working on her brand-new book, due out in October.

Gruber’s remarkable life began in Brooklyn in 1911. The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she excelled in school — graduating from high school at age 15 and from New York University (after completing summer studies at Harvard) at the tender age of 18. She won a fellowship to attend the University of Wisconsin, hitchhiked across the country to get there (“I looked like I was about 12 years old, and rode mostly with truck drivers,” Gruber recalls, explaining that hitching in those days was not the life-threatening proposition it can be today), and earned a master’s degree in German and English literature in one short year. Then, in 1931, just as Hitler was coming to power, Gruber received a fellowship to the University of Cologne in Germany — a proposition that delighted Gruber and terrified her parents. She hitchhiked home to deliver the good news, calling ahead to inform her parents that she had a major announcement to make. “I later found out that my mother said to my father, ‘I tell you, she must be pregnant,’” recalls Gruber with a laugh. “When I got there, I rushed to them, hugged them and said, ‘Guess what? I’m going to Germany!’ And my mother said, ‘Oh, I wish she was pregnant.’”

But Gruber returned safe and sound — having added a Ph.D. to her credentials, at the advanced age of 20 — and began her career as a photojournalist in the mid-1930s, working for the New York Herald Tribune. She became the first foreign correspondent to cover the Soviet Artic. To date, Gruber has authored 14 books, with two more due to be published in the coming year.

But it was Gruber’s work with Jewish refugees during World War II — documenting escapees from the Holocaust and victims of its aftermath in stunning photographs, articles and several books — that became her abiding passion and life calling. In 1941, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes chose Gruber to escort 1,000 mostly Jewish refugees, fleeing from the Nazi menace, on their journey to America. Gruber was given the unprecendented military rank of “simulated” general, in case she was shot down by Nazi planes and taken prisoner on the flight to Europe. Her experiences on board the crowded ship — where she became friend, confidante and even substitute mother to many of these terrified, disenfranchised souls — and her subsequent work with the refugees after they arrived in America and found that, far from living free in the “land of liberty,” they’d be housed behind barbed wire at an army base near Oswego, N.Y., became the basis of Haven (Coward-McCann, 1983).

Six years later, in 1947, Gruber was the only correspondent allowed to cover the harrowing voyage of the Jewish refugee ship Exodus and the subsequent transferal of its passsengers to British prison ships. The plight of the refugees — their hunger strikes and other wrenching agonies aboard the prison ships — were unflinchingly documented by Gruber’s pen and camera. Her book Destination Palestine: The Story of the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947 influenced Leon Uris’ popular book Exodus and the subsequent film. Her photos also provided material for the Oscar-winning 1998 documentary “The Long Way Home.” A new version of Gruber’s book, complete with 50 pages of brand-new material and 92 of her photographs, will be published by Random House this fall, with a preface by Richard Holbrook.

Over the past two decades, Gruber has covered the historic Camp David AccordS??? involving Egypt, Israel and the United States and has helped document the plight of Ethiopian Jews.

More than 40 of Gruber’s always-compelling, often-disturbing and sometimes-uplifting photographs, taken on the two refugee ships, are now on display at Asheville’s Jewish Community Center. Among them is the image that is arguably her most famous shot (it became a Life magazine photo of the week) — showing the crowded deck of a British prison ship in the foreground and a Union Jack flag defaced with a large, grim, black swastika in the background. Gruber herself will visit the JCC on Wednesday, May 5 to talk about her life and work.

Though she’s now closing out her ninth decade, Gruber is still a powerhouse — as evidenced by a recent phone conversation from her New York City apartment, where she simultaneously fielded other phone calls from publicists, publishers and old friends and bemoaned the fact that she had only 10 days to “go through every word, every comma” of the new book. She’s the mother of two and grandmother of four, and that — more than any of the rest of her astounding work — seems to be the accomplishment she’s most proud of. “I have to brag about my kids,” she says, early in our conversation, noting that her son, Dr. David Michaels, is the assistant U.S. secretary of energy, and her daughter, Celia Michaels Evans, is a news-video editor for CBS and an assistant producer at “60 Minutes.”

What follows are highlights from our lengthy conversation about her past and present:

MX: Was it a conscious goal of yours, when you first became a foreign correspondent at such a young age, to make your mark within your Jewish heritage, or were you just up for any adventure or challenge?

RG: Actually, I wanted to see the world. I wanted to embrace the whole world. I wanted to feel everything, to know what was going on everywhere.

MX: Do you remember the moment or period of time when you first became politicized?

RG: Yes, absolutely. It was [while I was on the Henry Gibbins in 1944] with the refugees … when I realized the terror they’d experienced and how they’d had to hide out in attics and basements and wherever they could. I heard those horror stories and I realized there was no turning back. Documenting their stories, befriending them, making their transitions easier — that became my abiding passion.

MX: How did you come to be appointed to escort that first group of refugees?

RG: I had been asked by [then Secretary of the Interior] Harold Ickes, who’d read some of my earlier writings, to go to Alaska and make a study, because the government wanted to open up the territory for the GIs and others. He wanted a study of how to keep the environment safe and that kind of thing. I spent a year-and-a-half up there. … So he knew me and knew my work. And I knew he needed someone to escort these refugees. I went to him and I said, “I’m your woman.” Somebody had to fly over and hold their hands: I wanted it to be me. He said, ‘You speak German, you speak Yiddish — the job is yours.’

MX: Have you remained in touch with any of the refugees from either ship?

RG: Yes, those refugees are still my family. We have reunions wherever I go. I kept in regular touch with a lot of them from the beginning, and more and more kept turning up. When the book [Haven] came out, dozens more contacted me. … It’s wonderful.

MX: What was the hardest part of the process of escorting the refugees and helping them acclimate, and what was the most rewarding?

RG The hardest part was that they were bringing nationals from countries where, like today in Serbia, disputes had been going on for centuries. The Poles against the Germans, that kind of thing. Trying to create harmony between the disparate groups and trying to prepare them for life in America were the hardest parts. There were so many questions. They particularly, of course, couldn’t understand why, when they came to the “land of the free,” they were kept behind barbed wire. … The most rewarding aspect is being able to watch what these people have given back. They’ve given back everything America gave them and more. One invented the CAT scan and the MRI, for example. … The refugees became everything: doctors, dentists, lawyers, writers, professors. And the children, the young people, the millions that were killed in the camps … that’s probably the greatest tragedy, that their potential will never be known.

MX: Did any of the refugees offer resistance to your photographing them — misconstrue it as exploitation, or anything?

RG: No, the general reaction was, take more pictures. Take more pictures. … Some were handing me notes: “I have an uncle in Chicago, I have a cousin in Brooklyn; here are the telephone numbers, please tell them I’m safe.” And I took all the notes and made all those calls. But others were saying, “Don’t bother her with those trivialities: Let her take pictures. Let her show the world.”

MX: Well, you did show the world. Your work as a photojournalist truly made a difference, bringing horrific crimes and oppression to light. What I see today — with some exceptions, of course — is a real apathy among journalists, a real lack of fire in the belly and an attitude of “Who cares what’s fair and just?” or a fear of offending somebody, or an emphasis on superficial or sensationalistic stuff — or some combination of all that. Do you agree? And if so, why do you think that’s the case?

RG: Well, in the days I was working the most … we all really believed we could make a real difference. We were more idealistic, believing our words could help make it a better world. And journalists are allowed to talk about things now that in the ’30s, ’40s and even ’50s, we could never talk about. Private things. I mean, I covered President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, and nobody ever talked about the fact that he couldn’t stand, even though we, of course, knew about it. When we’d go to his press conferences, he’d already be at the desk in a chair, so we didn’t see him get there. Journalists then were, I think, just simply more concerned with bigger issues rather than private lives. I don’t know why, except for the fact that there was more real political tension — in the ’40s, especially.

MX: Will the scars that still resonate from the Nazi atrocities ever heal, do you think?

RG: Never. Those scars are right on people’s souls. One of my dearest friends — she was a 5-year-old refugee when I brought her over — now owns a restaurant in New York. … Her family fled to Italy after Hitler, and she ended up on the ship. Anyway, every now and then she will just start to cry. And why not? She lost her country, she lost her people, she lost her home. She came to America and had one of the worst tragedies: Her father contracted meningitis in the [Oswego] camp and died in Syracuse, but nobody was allowed to go out of camp, so she wasn’t allowed to see him before he died. And here she’s made a great life for herself and has five children and, I think, 12 grandchildren, and every now and then tears suddenly come to her eyes. No matter how well they’ve done and how successful they are — and many of them are doing so well — there’s just a deep, unhealable hurt. And I think we need to keep telling our children and our grandchildren, and make them aware that there is evil in the world — there always has been. And we have to keep fighting it. … Look what’s happening in Kosovo right this second — all those refugees. I watch the stories, and I know what they’re going through. It’s such a heartbreak.

Ruth Gruber speaks at Asheville’s Jewish Community Center (236 Charlotte St.) on Wednesday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m. The program is open to the community. A $5 donation is requested. Call 253-0701 for more info.

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