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An Heroic Woman at 19 and 99

By: Steven Heller | September 6, 2010

Photo by Ruth Gruber.

September 30 marks the 99th birthday of the photographer Ruth Gruber. I doubt you’ve ever heard of her. Surprisingly, I had not known of her heroic acts until now.

Born in Brooklyn in 1911, Ruth Gruber defied tradition from the moment she became the world’s youngest PhD at the age of 20. By the age of 24, she was the first journalist to explore the Soviet Arctic, and a few years later escorted Holocaust refugees to America in a secret war-time mission for President Roosevelt. She became the eyes and conscience of the world with her photographs of the refugees aboard the ship Exodus 1947 and helped change the world.

She is the subject of an engaging new documentary Ahead of Time, the directorial debut of cinematographer Bob Richman (whose work on September Issue and My Architect are must see) and produced by Zeva Oelbaum. This film follows the remarkable life of Gruber:

“A spirited woman who rejected the gender boundaries of her generation – leaving Brooklyn for studies in Berlin, where she witnessed the rise of Nazism and began documenting her observations. An impassioned foreign correspondent, she began her illustrious career with the New York Herald Tribune, is the award-winning author of 19 books.”

When few others were concerned with the Holocaust Gruber recorded the case histories of survivors and refugees: “You are the first witnesses coming to America. Through you, America will learn the truth of Hitler’s crimes, ” she told her refugee charges. In turn, the refugees began calling Gruber “Mother Ruth” and looked to her for protection.

On this Labor Day it is uplifting to revisit Gruber’s life and work. Go here or here or here to watch the trailer. The film opens in LA on September 24 and NYC on September 10 and again on September 28.