One of the most interesting women ever in only 73 minutes

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It was a volatile, uncertain and anxious world in which Ruth Gruber came of age in the late 1920s and early ’30s. But it was also surprisingly open to exploration for a woman with uncommon brains, drive, daring and backbone.

Gruber had all those qualities and more, so she left her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., at age 18 and set out to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer — and by 24 she was a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune.

In the course of her travels, Gruber heard Hitler speak in Germany in 1932, met Virginia Woolf in London in 1935, helped guide a shipload of European Jews to the United States in 1944, attended the first war crimes trial in Nuremberg and photographed the conditions aboard the Exodus in a French port in 1947.

Ruth Gruber in Alaska in 1941

Still a pistol at the age of 99, Gruber recalls this vibrant period of personal and world history in Bob Richman’s engaging “Ahead of Time.”

The documentary, which screened this past summer in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, opens Nov. 26 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and is being billed as a nonprofit film. All proceeds from ticket sales, according to the firm promoting the film, will benefit New York’s  Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Turned on to German culture when she attended NYU as a teenager, Gruber decided to pursue her graduate studies in Germany. You can imagine how her conservative, Russian immigrant Jewish parents reacted to her trekking so far from Brooklyn in 1931 and 1932, even if she did return with a Ph.D. — at age 20!

Her gifts as an interviewer, observer and writer were recognized by not only her longtime editor (and friend) at the International Herald Tribune,

but by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. He hired and sent Gruber to Alaska in 1942 to report for the Roosevelt Administration on the territory’s economic and security prospects.

But Gruber is proudest of, and most closely identified with, her contributions to European Jews and the fledgling state of Israel. Her gift for languages, and knowledge of German and Yiddish, proved essential in consoling, comforting and counseling the Jews she accompanied on a ship from Italy to New York. (She told the tale in detail in her 1983 book “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America.”)

Ruth Gruber with her Leica camera

The U.N.’s establishment of the State of Israel was a high point in Gruber’s life, as it was for practically every living Jew at the time. But she also remembers the difficult final stages before that victory, when the British blocked — literally, in the case of the Exodus — Jewish efforts to found a homeland.

It is difficult, 60 years on, to grasp the effect that her blunt reporting and visceral photographs had on world opinion. We get a sense from the reunion between Gruber and Ike Aronowitz, the captain of the Exodus, at his home in Israel a couple of years before his death last December.

Aronowitz’s respect and affection are manifest, attesting to Gruber’s role at that key moment in his life and the struggle. But he can’t resist giving her a jibe, for (we can only deduce) her left-of-center view of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

Filmmaker Bob Richman

It’s one of the more candid and effective sequences in the film, from which we can infer the level of esteem that Gruber’s combination of intellect, diligence, independence and morality commanded in a range of settings and conditions.

“Ahead of Time,” which is unexpectedly short (73 minutes) and focused (Gruber’s life since 1950 goes practically unmentioned), is enriched by a trove of photographs she took in various locations all those decades ago.

“Ahead of Time”
opens Nov. 26 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.