“I’m glad you caught me now,” says Ruth Gruber, talking by phone 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 re-publication of four of my books.” In between, she’ll stop off in Beverly Hills 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 historical events of the 20th century, as eyewitness and chronicler, can be equaled by few living contemporaries. Even a bare outline of her accomplishments boggles the mind: Born in Brooklyn, she was a Ph.D. at age 20, foreign correspondent in Nazi Germany, explorer in the forbidden and forbidding Soviet Arctic, and researcher in Alaska.
All that was only a runup to her biggest assignment. In June 1944, then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called in Gruber to tell her that President Franklin D. 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, earlier liberated by U.S. forces.Someone was needed to allay the refugees’ fears, prepare them for their new lives in America, and in general function as their hand-holder and housemother, Ickes said. Gruber, given the temporary rank of general, accepted the assignment.
Aboard the troopship Henry Gibbins, the refugees shared facilities with wounded GIs and airmen returning to stateside hospitals, and the relationship between the two groups gave Gruber a chance to display her diplomatic 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 Luftwaffe planes appeared overhead.
When the escorting warships opened fire, the reaction on board was twofold. 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 bring the two groups together. Ignoring non-fraternization orders given the GIs, she picked out the best singers and the prettiest girls among the refugees and, in the finest Hollywood tradition, put on a show. The GIs loved it.Today, “Mother Ruth,” as she was dubbed by the refugees, stays in touch with the survivors and revels in the thought of the approximately 5,000 grandchildren and great-grandchildren they produced.
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, and even to essay an extra’s role as 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, and her resulting book, “Desti-nation Palestine” influenced Leon Uris’ writing of the novel “Exodus,” and the making of the subsequent film.
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 (although she is not to be confused with Jewish Telegraphic Agency 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.”Gruber is a mother of two and 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.
How does one reach a vigorous old age? “I’ll tell you in four words,” she responds. “Never, never, never retire.”
The noon luncheon honoring Ruth Gruber will be held Aug. 9 at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The stars of “Haven,” including Natasha Richardson, Anne Bancroft and Martin Landau, have been invited to attend. Tickets are $100 per person.
For informa-tion, call the Israel Cancer Research Fund at (323) 651-1200.