Ruth Gruber in her War Correspondent Uniform, 1946
An eye for history: the photographs of Ruth Gruber
By Laura Silver
Ruth Gruber has never stood idly by. At age 95, the photographer, writer and intrepid activist is being honored with a solo show in her hometown. Selections of her massive body of work are on display at Lower Manhattans Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust through October 8. The exhibition, From the Heart: The Photojournalism of Ruth Gruber, references the legendary photographer Edward Steichens suggestion that Gruber take photographs from the heart.
A selection of her black and white prints chronicling the early days of the Jewish State occupies the hexagonal-shaped inner sanctum of the museums yurt-like building. When it opened a decade ago, the third floor gallery housed a Holocaust-era Torah as the capstone of Jewish Renewal, the third theme of the core exhibition, which also covers Jewish Life A Century Ago and The War Against the Jews.
Like the three-dimensional montages that lined the walls of this six-sided gallery in 1997 (when I was on staff as coordinator of gallery education), Grubers images catch a passer-bys attention and beg an extended glimpse. The intimate collection of photos provides a front-row seat to lesser-known episodes in the history of Jewish immigration to Israel, including detention camps in Cyprus in 1947, a vocational training school in Morocco, and a school for girls in Tripoli, Libya. In a 1951 picture of a Romanian immigrant family just arrived in the port of Haifa, a family of five casts a collection of half smiles and sideways glances at the camera. A 1949 shot of Tel Avivs Brooklyn Ice Cream Bar shows an apron-clad woman with a broad smile that invites visitors to contemplate a bygone era.
Photojournalism is just one field in which Gruber has excelled. She grew up in Brooklyn and aced college in record speed: graduating from New York University in three years, then taking a year to earn a masters degree from the University of Wisconsin. Twelve months after that she had a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne, thanks to an Institute of International Education exchange fellowship that sent her to Germany and made her a witness to Hitlers rise to power. In 1931, The New York Times hailed Gruber, then 19, as the worlds youngest recipient of a doctorate degree. Seventy-five years later, Carroll & Graf released the first American edition of her thesis, Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman.
The subtitle could easily apply to Gruber herself. She is the author of 19 books, including I Went to the Soviet Arctic, Destination Palestine, Haven and Raquela. Her report and photographs on Exodus 1947, an American lend lease boat attacked by British destroyers while attempting to carry 4,500 Jewish refugees to Israel, helped inform Leon Uris best-selling novel, Exodus.
Gruber was an international correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune and emissary for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir. The American Society of Journalists and Authors awarded her a lifetime achievement award in 1998.
The photographs on display are engaging, but the display of her vintage cameras, and notepads, with sketches, maps and handmade tabs used to flag different subjects gives the visitor a sense of the how the work came into being and makes one curious about this grande dames entire oeuvre.
Luckily, 190 of her images including photos of the Soviet Arctic and Alaska in the 1930s and 1940s are available in a recently released hardcover, Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the 20th Century Tells Her Story (Schocken Books).