Remembering Ruth Gruber, Who Photographed The 20th Century's Darkest Moments | WAMC

Remembering Ruth Gruber, Who Photographed The 20th Century's Darkest Moments

Nov 18, 2016
Originally published on November 18, 2016 6:17 pm

The photographer and author documented life in Nazi Germany and in Josef Stalin's gulags, as well as the arrival of Jews in Israel. She died Thursday in New York, at the age of 105. You can see several of her photographs here.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Ruth Gruber was a witness to many of the 20th century's worst moments and a few of its best. She was a journalist passionate about the plight of the Jewish people. She died yesterday in New York at age 105. NPR's Rose Friedman has this appreciation.

ROSE FRIEDMAN, BYLINE: As a young woman, Ruth Gruber told her father she wanted to be a writer. In her 90s, she recalled his response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTH GRUBER: What kind of career is that for a nice Jewish girl?

(LAUGHTER)

FRIEDMAN: Here's what kind of career that turned out to be. Over and over, Gruber went to where the action was. In a documentary about her life, she recalled being at a Nazi rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AHEAD OF TIME: THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF RUTH GRUBER ")

GRUBER: I pretended I was a German citizen. And I sat the closest to Hitler's party.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAZI RALLY)

ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking German).

GRUBER: It was something I will never ever forget.

FRIEDMAN: In 1935, the New York Herald Tribune hired her. She was the first Western reporter to visit Stalin's gulags in the Soviet Arctic. Then during World War II, she worked for the U.S. government. When President Roosevelt decided to bring a thousand Jewish refugees to the U.S., Gruber was sent to Europe to accompany them. She told NPR in 1999 that meeting those refugees was a shock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GRUBER: I had no idea what they had gone through. So I was completely surprised by the stories. And I kept seeing visions of them watching their parents burned in front of them, their children snatched from them.

FRIEDMAN: After the war, Gruber returned to journalism. In 1947, she was on assignment in Jerusalem for what would become her most famous story. A ship called Exodus, carrying more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors, was sailing toward Palestine. The British intercepted it and came aboard forcefully. Three people were killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRUBER: I was standing at the dock when they pulled the Exodus in. She had been smashed like a sandwich by British warships.

FRIEDMAN: Gruber boarded the ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRUBER: People crowded around me and raised a flag. And they had painted the swastika on the Union Jack.

FRIEDMAN: She took a photo which became life magazine's picture of the week. The publicity embarrassed the British government and contributed to the establishment of the state of Israel the following year.

That wasn't the end of Gruber's career. It wasn't even the middle. She covered Israeli independence, the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, even the Vietnam War. For a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, Ruth Gruber was fearless. Rose Friedman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.