Arts & Culture: Chronicler of Major Jewish Events Does Not Know the Word ‘retirement’

`retirement’ “I’m glad you caught me now,” says Ruth Gruber, talking by phone recently from her Manhattan apartment. “Tomorrow at 7 a.m. I’m leaving for Toronto, where CBS is doing a four-hour miniseries based on my book `Haven.’

“Then Random House is sending me on a 20-city tour to publicize the republication of four of my books.”

In between, she’ll stop off in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Aug. 9, proclaimed Ruth Gruber Day by the mayor, to accept an award from the Israel Cancer Research Fund.

Not too bad for a lady of 88, whose participation in the defining events of the 20th century, as eyewitness and chronicler, can be equaled by few living contemporaries.

Even a bare outline of her accomplishments boggle the mind: Born in Brooklyn, she earned a doctorate at the age of 20, was foreign correspondent in Nazi Germany, an explorer in the Soviet Arctic and researcher in Alaska.

All that was only a run-up to her biggest assignment. In June 1944, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called in Gruber to tell her that President Roosevelt had authorized the admission of 1,000 European refugees, predominantly Jewish, into the United States, as a one-time gesture.

The refugees – men, women and children from 18 countries – had already been selected out of some 3,000 desperate applicants and were waiting at the Italian port of Naples, which had been earlier liberated by U.S. forces.

Someone was needed to allay the refugees’ fears, prepare them for their new lives in America and function as their housemother, Ickes said.

Gruber, given the temporary rank of general, accepted the assignment.

Aboard the ship Henry Gibbins, the refugees shared facilities with wounded GIs and airmen returning to stateside hospitals.

The relationship between the two groups gave Gruber a chance to display her people skills.

As the Henry Gibbins, part of a convoy of 29 ships and 16 destroyers and cruisers, plowed through the Mediterranean Sea, a squadron of 30 German Air Force planes appeared overhead.

When the escorting warships opened fire, the reaction on board was two-fold. The Jews were jubilant that “somebody finally has guns shooting for us.”

But many of the wounded soldiers, convinced that Hitler had sent the planes because he knew that the ship was loaded with Jews, cursed that after surviving battles, “we’ll now sink because of the goddamn Jews.”

After the Nazi planes were driven off, Gruber realized that she had to do something to unite the two groups. Ignoring nonfraternization orders given the GIs, she picked out the most professional singers and the best-looking women among the refugees and put on a show. The GI audience loved it.

Today, “Mother Ruth,” as she was dubbed by the refugees, stays in touch with the survivors and revels in some 5,000 “grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

At the request of John Gray, director of “Haven,” Gruber has been traveling to Toronto, where the film is being shot, to meet with Natasha Richardson, who portrays the young Gruber. She even acted as an extra, playing a refugee.

The wartime experience bound Gruber “inextricably to the survival of the Jewish people,” she says.

A second defining moment came when she managed to be the only correspondent to cover the voyage of the ill-fated refugee ship “Exodus.”

Her writings and photos of the voyage were splashed across the world’s front pages. Her subsequent book, “Destination Palestine” influenced Leon Uris when he wrote “Exodus,” along with the film of the same name.

Gruber has continued to work as an author, with 14 books to her credit, including one on the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, and as a journalist.

She, by the way, should not be confused with JTA correspondent Ruth E. Gruber.

Gruber’s books now being republished, with added material, are “Haven,” “Destination Palestine,” “Raquela: A Women of Israel,” and “Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent.”

“There seems to be a renewed interest in World War II and the fate of the survivors by a new generation that know little about the subjects,” she says.

Gruber is a mother of two, grandmother of four and enjoys being 88.

“I somehow like putting down 8 and 8, but I’m not looking forward to writing 89,” she says.

Her accomplishments and years entitle Gruber to dispense, on request, wisdom to the younger generations.

What is the secret of her success? “Have dreams, have visions and let no obstacle stop you,” she advises.

How does one reach a vigorous old age? “I’ll tell you in four words,” she responds. “Never, never, never retire.”

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