Foreign correspondents eyewitness account inspires, informs

It is spectacular to see in Ruth Gruber’s “Witness” how a foreign correspondent, who happened to be a woman, spoke so intrepidly to politicians, and had such a significant impact as a journalist, in the era of 1950s domesticity.

Ruth Gruber was an accomplished Jewish photographer and foreign correspondent, and the now-95-year-old recently published “Witness” to document her past travels and work with refugees during and after World War II. The book has almost 200 photos and eyewitness accounts of Gruber’s encounters with fellow journalists, politicians and refugees.

What is most amazing about Gruber’s account is how she dealt with sexism. Many of the men she worked with assumed she had to be a man to do what she does, and she was rejected from traveling and reporting jobs solely because of her gender.

At the core of “Witness” is the experience of the refugees Gruber encountered. “Show the world how they treat us,” yelled refugees aboard the Henry Gibbins, a refugee ship on which Gruber traveled. Gruber reported on the conditions within the ship, and pushed the U.S. government for citizenship for the refugees when they entered America. Eventually President Harry Truman granted her wishes as a “Chanukah present.”

Early in her career Gruber crossed the line from journalist to activist. Therefore, her ethics as a journalist were questionable — did she get she too involved?

Some would argue that she didn’t cross the line. As a Jew, they would say, Gruber was obligated to play an active part in aiding the Jewish community — otherwise she would be seen as part of the problem and not the solution.

In the Middle East she was a part of the solution, although she worked less with refugees and more with Israeli politicians, military and the United Nations.

“We will not touch a single mosque,” claimed the Israeli military unit she was traveling with, and this pivotal moment, which Gruber witnessed and wrote about single-handedly changed the vote at the United Nations.

Gruber was one of the most effective journalists at networking, and because of that, she was often singled out to interview prominent figures — which came as a shock to her male colleagues. She was on good terms David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and other prominent Israelis, and used those friendships to obtain in-depth interviews as well as voice her opinions to the leaders.

At one point she convinced Ben-Gurion to disband camps for fear of squalid conditions for the refugees.

In the latter portion of “Witness” Gruber documents the stories of Yemenite, Iraqi, Romanian, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, going into brief (and often insufficient) descriptions about their struggles. The book ends rather unceremoniously, leaving readers to read between the lines and interpret the themes of Gruber’s book on their own.

What also might have strengthened “Witness” would have been a discussion of Gruber’s personal life in relation to her travels — she only rarely mentions her daughter and husband — and the effect her work has on her today.

But Gruber still makes this book a must-read, not only for any person of Jewish heritage but for any journalist or photographer wanting to learn from a master of networking and reporting on political and social issues.