Ruth Gruber, From Exodus to EthiopiaBy JAMES ESTRINRuth Gruber is a pioneering correspondent and humanitarian who recorded the expansion of the Soviet gulag system and the unending trials of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Her own life is chronicled in the 2007 memoir,Witness: One of the Great Correspondents of the 20th Century Tells Her Story” (Random House, 2007).
At 99, she is being duly recognized as an accomplished photojournalist, too. This month, she won the Cornell Capa Award from the International Center of Photography. (At the same event, Elliott Erwitt won the Lifetime Achievement Award.) An exhibition of Ms. Gruber’s photos from the Soviet Arctic, Palestine, Ethiopia and the Alaska Territory opens Friday at the center, in mid-Manhattan.
She began carrying a medium-format Rolleicord as a correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune in the 1930s. “I just put one finger on the shutter and I found I was really enjoying it,” she said. “Now I could make my own pictures that also told the story.”
The centerpiece of her work is her coverage of a 1947 debacle in which British authorities not only refused to permit 4,500 Jewish refugees into Palestine but forced them to return to Europe and debark in Germany. The refugees had reached Haifa on a passenger ship called Exodus 1947. There, they were transferred to three smaller steamers, including the Runnymede Park, which Ms. Gruber visited.
Ms. Gruber said only three journalists were allowed aboard the ships where the refugees were being held. She was the only one to bring a camera. In an interview this week at her Manhattan apartment, she described the grim scene:
I took countless pictures of them because I couldn’t believe what they had done. Nobody could destroy them. They survived the death camps, the D.P. camps, the broken-down ship [Exodus 1947] and now this ship.The people began to talk to me. Many of them spoke English. They said, ‘Go below and see our floating Auschwitz.’ There was a prison gate. I went down to the hold. It was dark. There were no beds, there were no sheets. Only people on the floor, crowded together. They slept on the floor, crushed together.When they heard an American young woman — a Jew — had come, they handed me phone numbers, asking me to call their relatives and tell them they were alive. I told them I would.They saw my camera and they yelled: ‘Take pictures! The world has to know how they’re treating us! Take pictures!’It was dark. The British had transformed this ship into a prison ship, with a little prison window. Briefly, light came through the window on all the people, and it was easy to shoot them holding their babies. Every man, every woman wanted a baby because that meant their lives were being healed, that they were human beings again.There was a woman holding a baby and I asked if I could hold it. I crushed it to me. I don’t know who needed to be held more — the baby or me.
After she was told to leave the ship, the British consul general demanded the film from her camera. She refused to yield it. She filed a story to The Herald Tribune in Paris and brought the film there the next day. The pictures were distributed around the world, focusing attention on — and building sympathy for — displaced persons.
Ms. Gruber tried to follow the people she had met on the Runnymede Park. Told by the British that they would be landing on Cyprus, Ms. Gruber flew there and spent a week awaiting their arrival, taking pictures as she did so.
“They never came,” she said. “They were sent back to Germany by the British government. Nobody got to Cyprus. It was a lie.”