A wounded refugee from the Exodus (1947)
A wounded refugee from the Exodus (1947) Credit: Courtesy Illinois Holocaust Museum

“Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist” is a slightly misleading title for an exhibit opening this weekend at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. Gruber, who turned 102 last September, worked for more than half a century as a photographer, and even longer as a writer—but she considered her articles and photos merely tools for a larger project.

“She believed if she could tell stories, that would affect people and make them advocate for change,” says Maya Benton, who curated the traveling show for the International Center of Photography. “She understood the power of the right story and the right photo and her ability to choose the image to make people do something.”

Gruber took her most famous photo in 1947 aboard the British prison ship Runnymede Park, docked in Haifa harbor. It shows a Union Jack with a swastika painted on it hanging over the ship’s deck, surrounded by barbed wire; hundreds of Jewish refugees stand crammed together below. Forty-five hundred refugees, all Holocaust survivors, had attempted to land in Palestine on the ship Exodus, but the British, who controlled Palestine at the time, refused to let them in. The ship’s occupants were herded onto three prison ships that would take them back to Europe. Gruber was the only journalist allowed aboard. British officials attempted to confiscate her camera, but she smuggled it back to shore and wired the picture to her editor in Paris.

Within hours, the photo was on the international newswires, and it became Life‘s picture of the week. “It was the photo that changed everything,” Benton says. “It has a light, bleached tone. You can feel the scorching sunshine and the privation.”

“Ruth’s photo helped influence people,” says Patti Kenner, a friend of Gruber’s who produced Ahead of Time, a documentary about her life being shown Sunday at the IHM. “It helped lead to the state of Israel being born.”

For Gruber, though, covering the Exodus was part of a larger project using words and images to draw attention to the plight of Holocaust survivors. In 1944, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, for whom Gruber worked as a special assistant during World War II, appointed her steward for the Henry Gibbins, a U.S. ship that would bring 1,000 Jewish refugees from Italy to upstate New York. She interviewed them onboard—at first, they were afraid they’d shock her with the more gruesome details—and took pictures of people trying to make their lives more ordinary, like a pair of boys playing chess. “Ruth wanted to show the humanity underneath this traumatic story,” Benton says.

Benton spent five months with Gruber in early 2011, going through a lifetime’s worth of photos, negatives, slides, and notes; Gruber has lived in the same New York apartment for more than 60 years. Some of the slides, notably color photos Gruber took in 1941 when Ickes sent her to study life on the Alaskan frontier, had never been printed.

“Maya wanted to focus on Ruth’s photos of the Alaska territory and the Soviet arctic [from a trip in 1935],” says Arielle Weininger, chief curator at the IHM. “Ruth is so well-known for the Exodus, but Maya wanted to show how adventurous she was.” Gruber traveled through the arctic on single-engine planes. She was sometimes stranded for weeks in remote outposts. She always wore lipstick.

“Ruth’s lived at least ten different lives,” Benton says. “She’s like the genius version of Forrest Gump.”

“Ruth Gruber: Photojournalist” contains 62 photos from the 1930s to the ’80s, when Gruber traveled to Africa to photograph refugees from the Ethiopian Civil War. She can no longer hold a camera, Benton says, but she still writes every day. After the screening of Ahead of Time, Gruber will answer audience questions via Skype.

Correction: This review has been amended to reflect that the occupants of the Exodus were forced to board prison ships in Haifa, where Gruber photographed them; neither the refugees nor the Exodus landed at Cyprus.