Dr Ruth Gruber: an inspiration to girls in New York and across the western world

I came across the most amazing 101 year old woman last week. Her name was Dr Ruth Gruber, and I met her during my visit on Friday to Nightingale-Bamford School, a great girls’ school in New York which is one of several partner schools across the world to my new school (from January 2013), Ascham School, in Sydney Australia. Dr Gruber was giving a talk about her life, partly narrated in film, and partly in answers to questions from her audience, as Nightingale-Bamford’s annual Werner Feig Memorial Lecture, and I was entranced.

Dr Gruber was born a Jewish American in 1911, and during the course of her life travelled widely, never afraid to stand up for her values, and always ready to take on adventures. She became the youngest person in the world to receive a doctorate, at the age of 20, and she once, in the 1930s – against the advice and in the face of the fear of the Jewish family with whom she was lodging – disguised herself as a German citizen so that she could see for herself what Hitler was like at one of his rallies. As she described how Hitler spoke – ‘every few words, he said ‘Death to the Jews’, ‘Death to America’ ‘ – the girls listening were frozen still, hanging on her every utterance, for here was someone who had witnessed at first hand the beginnings of the perpetration of the greatest evil of the twentieth century. She was forthright and clear, her mind as sharp as anyone 80 years younger – addressing the girls, she said: ‘You are the future. You each have tools. Use them to change the world.’

When asked whether she had ever faced discrimination because she was a woman, she was adamant that she had not, and it was obvious why – she had, quite simply, ignored any barriers that might have been in her way, and had pursued both what was true and what was right. It was her photographs and reporting of the fate of the ship Exodus, for example, fired upon by the British as it tried to take Jews to Palestine in 1947, that are credited with opening up the state of Israel. Her lifetime’s work was in supporting refugees and the dispossessed, and in bringing their stories to the attention of the world.

It was an honour to be in the presence of such a venerable woman, and as she signed a book for me with her shaking hand as we talked at the reception after the lecture, I had a strong, strong sense of her legacy. This is a woman who has made an enormous difference in the world, but who knows that her job is not done, and so is tireless in making sure that the message spreads about our own, individual responsibility for change.

Think of Ruth Gruber, and be inspired.

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