One of the small gems niched in the Haifa Film Festival was the documentary Ahead of time, by Bob Richman. It portrays the life of a woman called Ruth Gruber, a name I admittedly had never heard before. I was intrigued by the film abstract introducing this Jewish heroine: “Born in Brooklyn in 1922, Ruth became the youngest PhD in the world at age 20, before going on to become a foreign correspondent and journalist at age 24. Ruth was the first journalist to enter the Soviet Arctic in 1935, and traveled to Alaska as a member of the Roosevelt administration in 1942. As a student in Germany, she attended a Hitler rally. Years later she was chosen by the Roosevelt administration to escort Holocaust refugees to America in a secret war-time mission in 1944“”. I think few of us can even come close boasting such credentials.
In the movie, Ruth appears in recent interviews when she is 97 years old (she turned 98 two weeks ago, on September 30th). She is stunningly beautiful and brilliant. When she talks about her past work as a journalist, she speaks in a highly modest and captivating style. When she says that the key of her success was the capacity for compassionate listening, we promptly believe her. It is hard to imagine a more sympathetic person than Ruth Gruber. How come I had never heard of her before?
The documentary cleverly intertwines historical footage with interviews filmed in the last few years, since the project of the documentary came about. As such, Ruth embarks on a trip that brings her back to the key events of her life. In 1931 she was sent to study in Cologne, where she was hosted by a Jewish family. She then befriended the daughter of the family, who was about her age. In the documentary, we see 97 years old Ruth going back to meet her German friend, in what is a very emotionally charged scene, yet not devoid of humorous moments.
In 1944, Ruth was chosen to board the boat which brought a group of a thousand refugees from Italy to America. President Roosevelt, as a symbolic gesture, issued an executive order to permit the refugees from Naples to “visit” America as “guests” of the President, in order to elude the Congress restrictions on Jewish immigration. With her gentle and reassuring presence, Ruth succeeded in winning the hearts of this group of fleeing Jews. She was therefore able to record the refugees’ case histories. She recalls telling them, “You are the first witnesses coming to America. Through you, America will learn the truth of Hitler’s crimes”.
This was not to be her last adventure revolving around boats and refugees. In 1947, while visiting Palestine as a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, Ruth learned that the British were refusing entry to a ship carrying 4515 survivors of the Holocaust, including 600 children (mostly orphans). All were imprisoned and transferred to three prison ships, re-directed to Cyprus. Ruth rushed to the island to witness the landing, but the ships never arrived. Instead, they were sent back to Marseilles, where they had originally sailed from. After three weeks, the British finally announced the refugees would be sent back to Germany. Eventually, the ship made it to Israel, but the agony was long and not without casualties. In the documentary, Ruth travels to Haifa to meet the now 86 years old captain of the Exodus boat, Yitzhak “Ike” Aharanovitz. The two hold hands in his Haifan apartment, while talking about the odyssey of the Exodus survivors and the problems of modern Israel. Although a fervent defender of Jews, and a Jew herself, we are left with the impression Ruth Gruber might have a few issues around this subject.
Ruth’s adventurous life has brought her to be the author of 18 books, as well as a number of articles and photographs which have been published in the most prestigious American newspapers. In 1998 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors as “a pioneering journalist and author whose books chronicle the most important events of the twentieth century”. When asked by a young reporter for advises on the journalist profession, Ruth has no hesitations: “to read, to read, to read. And to write. And not to be discouraged by the initial rejections, which are inevitable”. I felt intimately emboldened.
When I left the movie theater, I knew all too well what I had to do: to write this post, and then to go get a hold on one of her books.