A Life’s Worth of Living – Witnessing the Life of Foreign Correspondent, Dr. Ruth Gruber, in Her New Book “WITNESS”

Lys Anzia – WNN Features

As award winning foreign correspondent, Dr. Ruth Gruber, reaches her 96th year this year, her new and 19th book is out. The book, “WITNESS – One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story,” crosses decades as it speaks of humanity, crisis and rescue. Just released by Schocken/Random House Books, “WITNESS,” maps in carefully carved descriptions the Arctic towns of the 1930s, the casualties of Hitler’s regime in the 1940s and the resettlement of the Jewish refugees in the decades following World War II.

In 1935, Ruth’s world in journalism was expanding as she received, at the age of twenty-four, permission from one of Stalin’s Soviet gate-keepers to enter the Arctic region as a foreign correspondent. Only four years before, Gruber was celebrated as the youngest doctorate in American history at the age of 20.

On entry to the northern Arctic, Gruber saw what few western journalists had ever seen up to that time. It was the inner life of the prisoners of Stalin’s gulags in the isolated regions of Siberia. As the gates of the region were opened to her, words spread among Ruth’s associates, “My journalist friends began showering me with sweaters, scarves, long underwear, mittens, wool hats and even a hot water bottle,” she wrote.

The trek would not be without risk and daring. Leaving on her trip to the Arctic Ocean, north from Moscow, Ruth grew that day as a correspondent and cultural archivist as she carried her small Hermes typewriter along with her notebooks. She would find the travels never to be boring.

As Ruth begins her flight in “WITNESS” to Yakutsk, in the Gulag, she writes,

“Finally in a heavy rainstorm I was driven to the waterfront where I saw a ‘junkers’ monoplane. It looked like a slender bird with the markings in Cyrillic letters: CCCP-H5 (USSR-North5). Victor Galishev, a tall, brawny pilot in a long brown leather jacket with a scarf around his neck and a cigarette in his fingers helped me aboard. There was another passenger. Ilya Andreevich Adamovich, a political leader who was flying home to Yakutsk. I knew he was either important or rich: his mouth was filled with gold teeth interspersed with pearly white ones. He told me, ‘Everyone in Yakutsk is waiting for you’. . . We flew along the Angara River and then along the Lena River, which Adamovich pronounced lee – YAY – nah. The inside of the narrow plane was freezing and pitch black. Galishev insisted, despite my protests, that I wear his thick leather coat.In the darkness I made my way to a tiny window and looked down. Lake Baikal lay in the distance separating Russia from Outer Mongolia. Adamovitch joined me at the window and pointed out the sights. ‘We’re flying over the Alexandrovsky Central, a terrible prison.’

Below was a large fortress. I shuddered as Adamovitch went on, ‘Many of our leaders were imprisoned inside it or exiled close to it. Stalin, Molotov, others – they were all in this area. Many of the others were killed.’
It was the gulag.”


As she archived the journalist’s “who, why, what, when, where” Ruth wrote her impressions as a journalist first and a woman second. Her ability to reach the heart of everyone she met helped her immensely. She was likeable and honest and took copious notes.

“We want you to write a four part series about the Soviet Arctic,” said Gruber’s boss and mentor, Helen Rogers Reid, owner of the well-known and respected, “Herald Tribune” newspaper.

“Ruth, you’ve scooped the world,” added Reid.


Dr. Ruth Gruber getting her picture taken at her show opening
Dr. Ruth Gruber, 100 year old photojournalist, at her show opening at the International Center of Photography. on May 19, 2011. Image: Susan Sermoneta

There would be many more scoops throughout the years as Gruber worked closely with Reid on assignments. It was enough to be a journalist in those years, but even more to tackle this as a woman journalist surrounded by men. Everywhere Ruth went she ignored the grand attention of the men and followed her story. She looked closely into the eyes of those she would interview. Later, Ruth went on to write about Alaska, covering the lives of the Eskimo/Inuit people. Often Gruber would surround herself with mothers and children who would sit with her as she jotted down words in her notebook. As she took out her camera she focused first on the eyes then on the environment as the key element of the story.

“I discovered there was a mystique about the camera,” wrote Gruber. “Photographs, just like articles and books, can help change the world. They can reveal the soul, the essence of people who are good and the essence of people who are evil. My goal was to capture the beauty of mothers and children and to bring to life workers, fishermen, pioneers, and so-called common people – though they were not common. They were, by and large, people who create and build, but do not destroy.”

In the years that followed, Gruber’s career would take her to many more journeys. By luck or fate she would later become, in 1942, special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Interior, Harold Ickes.

As Hitler’s war in Europe grew Ruth wrote in “WITNESS,”

“In the months since my return from Alaska, I had been feeling helpless, angry, and frustrated. Working for Secretary Ickes, I knew that Jews were fleeing bombs, terror, anti-Semitism. What were we (the U.S.) doing to help them? Almost nothing. We saved famous people, like Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall, and the German novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, whose defining novel, ‘The Oppermanns,’ told the story of Hitler’s rise to power. (I wrote a preface for a new edition in 2001.) But except for saving such people, we were doing shamefully little to stop the annihilation of six million Jews.”

In 1944, Ruth would be in the right place at the right time. By miracle and provenance she would get her chance to jump in personally to help save the war refugees of Europe.

“In January 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a startling announcement; ‘I have decided that approximately one thousand refugees should be immediately brought from Italy to this country,” Gruber wrote.

The government had long held silent on the issues of the Jews under the vast direction of Breckenridge Long, who as Assistant Secretary of State, had barred nearly all incoming visas to all Jewish refugees. Now by order of the President, Ruth Gruber would be involved in another large chapter in world history.

“Now I discovered with gratitude and joy that Roosevelt had pulled the rug from under Breckenridge Long and had created a brand-new government agency, the War Refugee Board. Their assignment was to rescue Jews.”

In short time Ruth was brought into the project as she was briefed by her boss, Harold Ickes, and told to get ready for the assignment.

“Mister Secretary, this is the most important assignment of my life,” said Ruth. She goes on to describe in “WITNESS,”

“He nodded. ‘You know this project is the President’s idea. You’ll be going as his emissary. It’s top secret. We’ll have to make you a general.‘Me? A general’‘You’ll be flying in a military plane. 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, you must be given shelter and food and kept alive.”

This wasn’t the first time Ruth would face life or death.

Flying on her days in the Arctic and in Alaska she had faced other similar dangerous moments. Moments when it was questionable whether or not her plane would make it to its destination in heavy fog or under the hand an Alaskan pilot who regularly flew the terrain without a map.

Now Gruber was being given a chance to help the world. The opportunity ran through her veins like fire. Her ability as a journalist would come in handy. She spoke several languages, especially German fluently. She boarded an Army Air Force plane with her camera bag, notebooks, typewriter and suitcase full of summer and winter clothes. In her heart there was a world out there that needed saving.

In “WITNESS,” each chapter, each true story, unfolds one upon another like a skyscraper that reaches toward the sky in strong and concentric layers. Just as the epic story of Homer is told in “The Iliad,” Gruber tells us history up close, as it should be told, with a personal and direct connection to the heart.

The gift in her telling is that Ruth Gruber doesn’t hold back. In a life reached through decades of over 95 years Gruber has learned that holding back is not part of the better equation.

“WITNESS” is full of 190 of Ruth’s historic photographs. Each one shows an era, a time gone, a moment of intensity. Many of these photos have never been published before. These are images taken on the great plains of Siberia, in the homes of the Eskimo/Inuit of Alaska, in the crucial moments during the rescues of Jewish refugees from locations in Europe, Yemen and Iraq or the grueling British-run DP camps in Cyprus after the war.

The images don’t lie. Humanity is exposed here for its own sake. It’s own beauty.

In “WITNESS” Gruber speaks her words with conviction and responsibility. It is the same conviction that only a life’s worth of living can bring. “There are so many people to whom I owe gratitude,” says Gruber in the preface for “WITNESS.” It is not Ruth Gruber who owes this gratitude, but those of us who get the chance to read “WITNESS.”

-As a journalist for the International Herald Tribune News, Ruth Gruber covered first hand her story of the refugee ship Exodus 1947-

WITNESS – One of the Great Correspondents of the Twentieth Century Tells Her Story
Published by: Schocken 2007
ISBN: 0-8052-4243-0
Reviewed by: Lys Anzia
Genre: Photography – Photojournalism; History – Modern – 20th Century; History – Holocaust

Lys Anzia, a 2006 Pushcart nominee, is an American historical playwright and humanitarian journalist writing news features for international women’s advocacy through WUNRN and UN-INSTRAW for United Nations agencies and affiliates. She is founder/editor-at-large for Women News Network – WNN.

©2007 Women News Network – WNN