‘Ahead of Time’ proves apt description of journalist-advocate Ruth Gruber

‘Ahead of Time’

By Cliff Froehlich, Special to the Jewish Light

Journalist and polymath Ruth Gruber is likely unknown to many, but her life was so absurdly overstuffed with momentous events that the biographical documentary “Ahead of Time” covers a mere third of her 99 years, ending its chronicle in 1947. A proto-feminist, Gruber wasn’t explicitly polemical, but her work as a writer often focused on women’s issues, and her own life – especially during these early years – served as a striking example of female empowerment.

The Brooklyn-born daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Gruber was a prodigy, entering college at 15 and becoming the youngest person to earn a Ph.D., finishing her doctorate in Cologne, Germany, at the tender age of 20. Significantly, her dissertation was on Virginia Woolf, with “A Room of One’s Own” proving a key text.

As a Jew studying in Germany as the Nazis rose to power, Gruber was acutely aware of the threat posed by Hitler – she even attended a Nazi rally to assess the danger firsthand – and she would soon find herself a leading actor in the tragedy that was just beginning to unfold.

But first Gruber established her bona fides as a journalist and adventurous risk-taker by traveling to the Arctic, producing a series of articles for the New York Herald Tribune, and writing her first book, “I Went to the Soviet Arctic.” Her experience in northern climes apparently impressed U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who in 1941 recruited Gruber as a special assistant, dispatching her to Alaska to determine ways to open the territory.

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In ’44, Gruber was then asked by Ickes to undertake a secret mission, accompanying 1,000 Jewish refugees on a perilous journey from Europe to America – the only group of Jews whom America sheltered during the Holocaust. Gruber later wrote about the experience in her best-known book, “Haven.”

Resuming her journalistic career, Gruber covered the Nuremberg trials and the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine for the New York Post. Returning to the Herald Tribune, Gruber then accompanied the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine on its fact-finding in the Middle East, where the central event of her life took place: the arrival of 4,500 Jewish “displaced persons” on the ship Exodus 1947 in Haifa after an attack by British sailors. Gruber followed the refugees on their torturous journey back to Germany, and her reporting and photos – widely distributed by the Associated Press and Life – helped create support for the establishment of Israel.

“Ahead of Time” ends at this critical juncture, whereas Gruber’s life continues to this day, and the film feels incomplete because of its somewhat arbitrary endpoint. Although we hear a great deal from the contemporary Gruber – 96 at the time of shooting and still razor-sharp in her observations – the documentary dispatches with her subsequent 60-odd years, which included a marriage and two children, with a few summary end titles. Although “Ahead of Time” parallels the chronology of Gruber’s memoir of the same title, we’re left wanting more information, and a more thorough exploration of her later life and career would have considerably improved the film.

The documentary also avoids grappling in a substantial way with some essential concerns, including the blurred line between Gruber’s role as reporter and advocate – she acknowledges that she was “never just a journalist” – and her apparent concerns over the treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (which are only obliquely referenced).

In its too-brief 73 minutes, however, “Ahead of Time” provides an inspirational portrait of an absolutely astonishing woman.

‘Ahead of Time’

When: 2 p.m. Monday, June 13

where: Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema

Running time: 1:13

More info: In English/Hebrew with English subtitles

Introduced by Elsie Roth, Global Nurse Activist