SKOKIE — “Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist” may seem like an ordinary title for such an extraordinary new exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
But the simplicity of the name is very much by design. The emphasis on “photojournalist” suggests, maybe for the first time, that Gruber was not only a bold and courageous adventurer, an enlightening and lucid writer, an important journalist documenting seminal events and traveling to places that few dared, but she was a terrific photographer, too.
The evidence is now on display in the museum’s traveling exhibition basement space. “Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist” creates a spaciously designed pathway that takes visitors chronologically though Gruber’s lifetime of profound work and also includes video — some of which Gruber took herself — along the way.
The result provides both intimate insight into Gruber’s eventful life as well as a fascinating showcase for her photography — some of it never before seen, other works meticulously restored.
Gruber, now age 102, is still active by all accounts. Visitors to the exhibition’s opening Sunday even got to Skype with her as she answered a few questions from her New York home.
“Ruth is very feisty, very serious, she’s very modest,” said Patti Kenner, executive producer of “Ahead of Time: The Extraordinary Life of Ruth Gruber.”
The movie documentary was screened in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition.
“When we said we wanted to make a film on her life, she told me ‘I don’t want anything fluffy,’” Kenner recounted. ‘I don’t want any bragging. I want something serious.’”
Gruber’s work was nothing but serious.
She achieved ground-breaking results in the Soviet Arctic in the 1930s, which are displayed with text and her early photographs toward the exhibition’s start. Gruber is, perhaps, best known for her photography of passengers on the ship Exodus 1947.
Jewish refugees were adrift and seeking a home following World War II, traveling from France to British Mandatory Palestime in 1947. Most on board were Holocaust survivors without legal immigration papers. The British Royal Navy fired on the ship, took control and deported all passengers back to Europe.
Gruber witnessed the ship entering the Haifa harbor after the attack and photographed refugees detained by the British as well as when they were sent back to France. She was also on board the prison ship Runnymede Park where the refugees were confined and sent back to Germany.
It was aboard this ship that Gruber snapped what was undoubtedly her most famous photo. Refugees are seen confined and defiant, raising a Union Jack flag on which they painted a swastika. The original photo is on view under glass in the exhibition alongside a full-page display of the iconic image in a Life magazine.
Gruber’s body of work was always palpably heartfelt and vital, much of it documenting often voiceless migrants from all over the world — Yemen and Iraq, Romania and Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.
“I was always restless,” Gruber once said. “I wanted to encompass the whole world. I wanted to know what everything was like.”
A rebellious and gifted young woman, Gruber received fanfare early in her life after earning a Ph.D.. at only age 20. She worked for the New York Herald Tribune for years. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ikes, for whom she also worked as a special assistant, called her “imperious” and one “who does not stand on ceremony and wants to have her own way.”
Gruber once heard Hitler speak and later sat in the front row of the Nuremberg Trials.
“I knew what these people had gone through, and I knew that I had to get their stories,” she said about Jewish refugees fighting for their homeland — a place they could call their own. British authorities wanted to confiscate important photos she took during that time, but she refused to hand them over.
Rena Olenicki, a teenager aboard the Exodus 1947 more than 65 years ago, attended Sunday’s opening at the museum.
“This happened a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t remember that much, but my parents had pictures and I remember some things.”
Like any teenager, Olenicki remembers she met her first love aboard that ship. But she said she looks now at the recipient’s picture and thinks “this was crazy.”
“Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist” was first staged by the International Center of Photography, which Museum Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Arielle Weininger discovered on its website. She knew Gruber was an important journalist and photographer — especially in the aftermath of World War II when so many Jews were displaced — so she thought her story would make a good fit.
“I really didn’t know at first the show covered the totality of her work,” said Weininger. “When I found out it was all these different parts of her life, I wondered whether we wanted to cover all that or only focus on the Exodus story.”
Weininger didn’t wonder for long, though. She quickly realized Gruber’s story was only worth telling from start to finish.
“The more you learn about Ruth,” she said, “the more you want that whole story. Her story is so amazing, and those early parts are so interesting to learn about. The only way to do this exhibition right was to do it all.”