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The hard-eyed witness

Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel, Ruth Gruber, Carroll & Graf: 382 pp., $26

May 18, 2003|Blanche Wiesen Cook | Blanche Wiesen Cook is the author of "Eleanor Roosevelt: Volumes 1 & 2" and "The Declassified Eisenhower." She is university distinguished professor at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

As issues of war and peace, justice and vengeance currently tear our hearts, journalist Ruth Gruber gives us the benefit of wise perspective, deep concern in the second volume of her autobiography, "Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel." Gruber has always been fiercely independent and powerfully talented. Born in 1911 in the "shtetl of Williamsburg, Brooklyn," she was an adventurous rebel who defied tradition, challenged authority and confronted danger. She has lived a marvelous life, in large part fighting for justice on behalf of World War II refugees.

The first volume of her memoirs, "Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent," detailed her early triumphs and struggles. She graduated from high school at 15, from New York University at 18. She earned a master's degree in German literature from the University of Wisconsin. She then completed a pioneering dissertation on Virginia Woolf at the University of Cologne, and at 20 became famous as the youngest PhD in the world. It was 1932, Hitlerism was on the rise, the Depression raged and Gruber could not get a teaching position.

She became a journalist and never looked back. Leading newspapers competed for her stories, and she was sent where no foreign correspondents had ever gone, including the Soviet Arctic and the gulag. She returned to Hitler's Germany and met Jews who were eager to leave but were blocked by harsh immigration barriers, including the bitter U.S. policy of delay and denial.

As a photojournalist, she was mentored by the best. Photographer Edward Steichen told her: "Think with your heart. Take pictures with your heart." Every picture Gruber took, every word she wrote, every detail, was from the heart. The second volume of her memoir opens with her 1941 assignment to Alaska for a New York Herald Tribune series -- altered when Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes hired her to do reports for the U.S. government. He was inspired by her 1939 book, "I Went to the Soviet Arctic." Alaska, after all, was the shortest route to Asia; at the Bering Strait only 55 miles from Russia. Gruber's adventures in Alaska are fascinating and painful. The area's Inuits and Aleuts taught her how to live "inside of time" and record the realities of everything she witnessed. From her protests against tribal poverty and the humiliations of segregation in the military to her stand against environmental plunder, such as the seal killings of the Pribilof Islands, to the challenges she faced in a contemptuous macho culture in Alaska, her chronicle is written without bitterness, although she does name names.

The most urgent chapters involve Gruber's efforts on behalf of refugees during and after the war. Today, Gruber is best known to popular audiences as the woman played by Natasha Richardson in the CBS miniseries "Haven," based on her 1983 book. In 1944, while "[Adolf] Eichmann was in Hungary selecting 550,000 Jews for death in Auschwitz," Gruber had an epiphany aboard the Army troop transport Henry Gibbins with refugees bound for a makeshift sanctuary at an Army outpost in Oswego, N.Y.

"Standing alone on the blacked-out deck ... I was trembling with the discovery that from this moment on my life would be forever bound with rescue and survival. I would use words and images, my typewriter and my cameras as my tools. I had to live the story to write it, and

After the war, opposition to refugees increased. Congress wanted those in Oswego returned immediately. Panic spread. With no place to go, the Jews who survived Nazi camps continued to languish. Gruber appealed to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., who had done so much to create the War Refugee Board in 1944. Now he was uninterested.

Evidently, Morgenthau had promised Roosevelt that the refugees would be returned to their homelands as soon as the war ended: "I cannot sleep with my conscience if I go back on my promise to the dead president." After pressure from Ickes and Gruber, President Truman went against the recommendations of the State and Justice departments. The Oswego refugees were safe.

From 1946 to 1948, Gruber traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East as a journalist, covering the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Truman asked Britain's prime minister to open Palestine to 100,000 displaced persons. Britain refused. Gruber's description of these negotiations, the regional tensions, the stunning needs, the layers of suffering do much to explain the ongoing agony of this divided, tormented land.

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