A backward glance, a forward step
The most veteran employee of 'The Jerusalem Post' looks back at close to seven decades of his personal history at the newspaper, and with his customary optimism forward to the future...
Alexander Zvielli. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
I WAS discharged from the British Army in Sarafand (today’s Tzrifin) on December
1, 1945. I had spent the previous six years either in flight, or under some form
of command – first as a Polish refugee, then as a Russian prisoner, and finally
as a soldier – and now, at age 24, I was free.
Orphaned by the Holocaust,
I wanted to build a “normal” life: I wanted to leave the war behind, find a job
and start a family.
Outside my army base, the road ran from east to west.
I chose to go east with a vague sense that I would find it easier to face my
future in Jerusalem.
It was hard to imagine what I might do for work. My
English was shaky, my Hebrew nonexistent, and the war had halted my education
before I could attend university.
Luckily, I was skilled in a particular
craft: I knew how to operate a Linotype machine, a behemoth contraption that was
vital to an efficient typesetting operation. I had learned the skill at my
father’s urging, in the belly of our family’s Warsaw printing press.
a war breaks out,” I remember him saying, “you had better have a profession; the
mere promise of a young mind won’t stop you from going hungry.” How right he
There were advantages in becoming a printer. At my father’s press, I
met many fascinating personalities: Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose novel Samson the
Nazirite we printed in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish; Avraham Stern, alias Yair,
for whom we printed the Polish weekly Jerozolima Wyzwolona (Free Jerusalem), and
a daily in Yiddish; Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Grynbaum, Moshe Sneh – born Moshe
Kleinbaum – and many other Zionist icons I remembered for their endless
discussions on how to dismember the oppressive British Empire. And finally,
there was the quiet Isaac Bashevis Singer, the unassuming proofreader of
Literarische Bletter (“Literary Pages”), the future Nobel Prize
And so I went to Tel Aviv to meet the all-powerful secretary of
the Histadrut’s Printers’ Union. He sent me to Jerusalem, straight to the
Jerusalem Press, printers of The Palestine Post. I left my things at the nearby
Himmelfarb Hotel (today Gefen), and introduced myself to the manager, who told
me to come to work on that same evening.
The Jerusalem Press was the
preeminent printing facility in town. I felt instantly at home amid the rhythmic
clatter of its Linotype machines, and I found my job quiet and interesting. The
paper addressed the most important political questions of the day: Will the
British open Palestine to Jewish refugees? What will become of the Mandate? Will
the Yishuv build a state? Excitement abounded.
Above all however, there
was no longer a sense of relief about the end of the World War II; in its place
was a new feeling – both energizing and intimidating – that the Jews’ next great
struggle was afoot.
Despite this precarious environment, my personal
situation was good. Employment was hard to come by, but I had a job; housing was
scarcer than work, but I could afford to rent a clean bed in a hotel, sharing
the room with two other newcomers. No one had time to study, but I worked at
night and perused the library by day.
Best of all, I had met a charming
young lady named Dana at the hotel. Although Dana and I spent most of our time working – she was a secretary at the American Joint
Distribution Committee – we found enough opportunities to be with each other and
enjoy this marvelous time in our lives.
The frequent curfews kept us
closed within our rooms, and Dana, her sister Eva and their mother Anna, all
refugees who had just arrived from Russia, became my foster family.
Dana and I were happy, we did not kid ourselves; these were trying times, and
everyone had to do his part. Keen to fulfill my duty, I found purpose at the
Post because it was a fighting newspaper. It produced the most direct and widely
read criticism of the British Mandate, and its main objective was to expose the
Crown’s duplicity in promoting the Arab cause, while imposing the 1939 White
Paper policy on Jews; and in limiting Jewish immigration and land purchases,
while tens of thousands of Jewish refugees in Europe waited impatiently for
their salvation and anti-Semitism drove others out of Poland and
Every new issue of the publication provoked a harsh reaction
from the Mandatory Censor, and British soldiers and officials regularly harassed
the paper’s personnel.
One night as I walked down Hasolel Street (now
called Hahavatzelet Street) with a fellow Post staffer I encountered a female
co-worker being assaulted by two intoxicated soldiers. We freed our colleague
from the assailants and resumed our commute to the office. That was
In this environment, the Post required a strong
Gershon Agron was the editor-in-chief, and he fitted the bill. He
had co-founded the Post in 1932, incorporating the Jewish Agency’s Palestine
Bulletin, and managed the paper dexterously until 1955, when he was elected
mayor of Jerusalem.
Exacting but fair, Agron demanded no more of his
staff than he himself could contribute. He was a natural mentor, and every
employee at the Post had a place under his wing. He often invited the paper’s
entire workforce to attend staff meetings.
Laconic but encouraging, the
feedback Agron provided reflected his general demeanor. About one of my first
articles, he wrote: “Keep it up, but come straight to the point.
Over time, the chief’s unique blend of efficiency and enthusiasm
would characterize the Post’s staff as a whole. This would soon come in handy
during the paper’s darkest hour.
I was not supposed to work on Sunday,
February 1, 1948. Late in the evening, I got word that a fellow Linotype
operator was ill, and I volunteered to take his shift.
It was a gloomy
period in my life, because I had recently proposed to Dana, and she could not
make up her mind. We had been on a “break” for a few weeks, so she could
consider her options. I was sick of it, so I called her on the phone. “Dana,
dear, I miss you, and I’m hungry,” I pleaded, “Can you bring me a sandwich?”
“Not a chance,” she replied, “I’m still thinking…” and after a short pause she
hung up the phone. This put me in a sour mood. Still, I showed up for work and
even agreed to switch Linotype machines with a fellow named Haim Farber, several
years my senior, who preferred my Linotype, because it was newer and easier to
handle. It was a bum day, indeed.
At 10:45 p.m., I was sitting at my
Linotype when a profound blast overtook my senses. The Post had been bombed. All
the lights went out, but I managed to feel my way in the dark over to a
colleague – Nissim Yerushalmi – lying on the ground beside me. He was
unconscious, and I barely maintained balance as I dragged him blindly through
It was hard to find my way. People were shouting in every
direction, and with each step I encountered something that was not supposed to
be there: a burning roll of paper, a mangled machine, a body.
By the time
I got outside, my benumbed colleague in tow, the fire was raging. Three Post
staffers were killed: Haim Farber, Nathan Rabinowitz and Moshe
Many were wounded, half-blinded from the flying lead, glass and
dust. My Linotype saved me from the blast, but both my eyes were sore.
the middle of this mess, Ted Lurie, Agron’s executive editor and eventual
successor, achieved an impossible feat. With Agron in Tel Aviv, Lurie assembled
a few reporters and put them to work. Not one day would pass, he resolved,
without a new issue of the Post coming out.
With the help of printing
presses nearby, Lurie and his makeshift staff channeled Agron’s tenacious and
pragmatic leadership and produced a two-page edition of the Post that came out
just hours after the bombing.
In it, columnist David Courtney wrote: “The
truth is louder than TNT and burns brighter than the flames of arson. It will
win in the end.” It certainly won that night.
The bombing of the Post,
set up by Arab terrorists, was a turning point for the Yishuv. Jewish security
forces took up positions throughout the city, many streets were closed and thick
tension descended upon Jerusalem.
My personal life changed dramatically
as a result of the bombing, too. When Dana heard about the incident, she became
distraught. She did not know whether I was alive, and this uncertainty made her
sure about something else: She wanted to marry me.
Dana found me not long
after I escaped the blaze, and she took me to a clinic. As a doctor extracted
shards of glass from my left eye, my beloved girlfriend said “yes” and became my
fiancée. Two weeks later, she was my wife.
We got married on the roof of
Jerusalem’s Va’ad Hakehila (Community Council) and hosted a lunch for close
friends at the Eden Hotel. A few months before the blast I had rented a nice room at 9 King George Avenue, and my hosts, the Aharoni family of musicians, had
graciously welcomed the newlyweds.
There was no time for a honeymoon. We
went to work and guard duty the next day, and celebrated our marriage a year
But things were not simple. On February 22, 1948, I was walking
along Ben-Yehuda Street returning from a night-shift and had just reached my
house when a terrific bomb exploded in the middle of the street, killing more
than 50 people and wounding over 150.
Had it exploded a few minutes
earlier, I too would have been a victim. The blast was so strong that a side
wall of our rented room collapsed and we found ourselves facing the
We moved back to the hotel and stayed there until I found a
flat in a new building at 45a Avida Street. It had stood empty for a long time,
as people were afraid to live there since it was exposed to the Jordanian
sharpshooters from the Old City wall. There had already been a number of
casualties both on the street and in the building. But we jumped at this
opportunity, barricaded all the windows, and for the first time in our lives,
found ourselves in our own home.
MEANWHILE Zalman Schocken, owner of the
Jerusalem Press, encouraged Agron to move the Post to Tel Aviv, to be printed at
his Haaretz press. But Agron would never consider leaving Jerusalem. Finally,
The Palestine Post purchased what remained of the burned-out Jerusalem
Fortunately the heavy Duplex printing machine – which was below
street level, next to the paper store – needed few repairs. A new Linotype was
purchased, and with the assistance of the nearby Ahva press, the newspaper could
be set on time and printed daily.
The editorial rooms were in shambles.
Newly laid telephone and electricity wires hung loose from the ceiling. Shelves
containing reference books and all the boxed archives had been destroyed. But
the work proceeded. In the meantime both Dana and I did a lot of guard duty as I
worked mainly at night.
The next great event in the Post’s history was
Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, and the war that
Over the course of several months Jerusalem endured a terrible
siege and constant shelling from Jordan.
Under Agron’s leadership, the
Post deftly navigated supply shortages and direct hits from the enemy. It
was dangerous to go to work, it was dangerous to be at work, and it was
difficult to get work done, due to the frequent electrical shortages. The
newspaper appeared a number of times in stencil form, and a small issue was
printed in Tel Aviv.
There were days when circulation trickled to a mere
2,000 issues, but still, the Post came out every day.
The press was, as
always, crowded with local and foreign journalists fishing for the latest news.
Important personalities like Moshe Sharett used to drop in at midnight to get
the first edition and drink good whiskey in Agron’s office. Agron never called
for a taxi to take Sharett home. Sometimes Sharett walked with me to Rashba
When hostilities ended in July 1949, Agron and Lurie – who was in
charge of all technical matters – began a period of reconstruction that would
forever change the Post.
They brought all the printing operations
inhouse, expanded the publication from two to six pages, and on April 23, 1950,
Israel’s second Independence Day, changed the paper’s name to The Jerusalem
While the paper’s narrow mission of exposing British duplicity had
been achieved, the greater objective of exposing the truth would continue as a
standard newspaper policy.
The Jerusalem Post Press grew and welcomed
numerous new immigrants, while I was promoted to press foreman in charge of all
newspaper and press production.
In the meantime, Dana joined Hadassah,
where she became responsible for the Donor Recognition Department. We both met
many interesting people.
Once I was asked by Lord Edwin Samuel to visit
him, first in Rehavia, and later in the House of Lords in London. Edwin, Second
Viscount Samuel, headed the Israeli Institute of Public Administration and
edited its journal – which was printed at our press, hence our acquaintance.
Once he heard that I was due in London, he insisted that I pay him a visit at
the House of Lords, and I found the entire experience quite fascinating.
I also became friendly with Robert Sarner, who invited scores of Righteous
Gentiles to spend their vacations in Israel at his expense, while Dana assisted
him in taking care of them upon their arrival.
I was also a member of the
Jerusalem Rotary Club for 35 years, until Dana fell ill.
became the editor he sought to introduce a multicolored newspaper, produced by
journalists alone. They called it “no hands” in professional press. The new
inventions of cold print and dry offset made the earlier printing techniques
Computers replaced Linotypes, and proofreaders were hardly
needed as journalists typed and corrected their own stories and were in direct
contact with their editors.
In 1968, I accompanied Lurie on a visit to
the Chicago Printing Exhibition, where we walked miles and miles, noting new
During that visit the Post bought the Goss Offset Printing
Press, the first such press in Israel – a giant step toward a larger and better
The Post had also purchased a large building in
Romema to accommodate the Goss. It was one of my tasks to arrange for an orderly
transfer of all the Post’s equipment from Hasolel Street to the new building,
taking care of the daily production of the newspaper and other press clients. I
completed the transfer on schedule and without any problems.
Agron’s loyal colleague since the Post’s first day, died on July 8, 1974, before
he could complete his dream. It was a heavy loss for me and for all the
The Post eventually completed its conversion from hot metal
setting (Linotypes were moved out) to electronic and computerized setting, as
Lurie had envisaged, but not until January 1, 1989.
Lurie was replaced by
Lea Ben-Dor, who served as editor-in-chief for about a year. She was a
perfectionist who took great care of almost every story before publication, but
rarely interfered in the printing press affairs. Frequently her late corrections
and changes caused havoc with deadlines, but she didn’t mind. Her motto
was: “You do your work, and I will do mine.” I learned a lot from her changes
Ben-Dor retired in August 1975, and Ari Rath and Erwin
Frenkel were appointed co-editors: Rath also became managing director.
April 1978, the Post sent me to Poland to report on the opening of the Jewish
Pavilion at Auschwitz. This was my first visit to Poland since 1939, and
a very moving experience for myself and Dana. The Post published my
reports daily, and both the Post and Hadassah Magazine published my “Final
AFTER 30 years, the hard work and heavy responsibility of daily
newspaper production began to wear on me. The new world of computers was
different from the one I knew before, and I was a youngster no more.
was therefore relieved when, in 1975, Rath and Frenkel, the new editors,
suggested I reorganize the newspaper archives and create what was now needed – a
real information center. I always enjoyed their full confidence and
In January 1989, the fully computerized Jerusalem Post Archives
became the Jerusalem Post Information Center and Service, providing electronic
information in addition to the old clipping service.
Thus I became the
director of the Jerusalem Post Information Center. I found my new job most
The center was (as in my father’s day in Warsaw) an anchor;
it was a meeting place for numerous journalists, students, professors and
politicians researching Middle Eastern history.
Our files covered
personalities, subjects, organizations and places in a manner which no
directory, guide or encyclopedia could. I was lucky to have this new position,
because on February 24, 2005, the new newspaper owners closed down the entire
printing press and made different arrangements for their printing
In February 1988, the Jewish Agency sold its Post shares, and in
April 1989, Hollinger Inc. of Canada bought shares from Koor and appointed David
Radler chairman of the Post’s board of directors. Yehuda Levy was made president
Certain changes were introduced into the Post’s policy and
Rath resigned in November 1989, with Frenkel following suit shortly after. N.
David Gross was appointed editor. Nine senior Post staffers and some 20 of the
junior staff had also resigned. But the daily production in the editorial and
archives continued as always.
I wrote biographies and obituaries of
prominent Israelis in addition to frequent book reviews and articles of general
Soon the center became one of the most advanced information
facilities in the Middle East.
Though I officially retired in 1985, I
continued working part-time to take care of the old clippings archive, answering
correspondence and writing my daily column, “From Our Archives,” on events that
occurred 65, 50 and 25 years ago.
I also prepared the Post’s Front Page
Israel volume, containing all its important front pages from December 1, 1932,
up to December 1984.
In 2005, the Post changed hands again and Eli Azur
and his Mirkaei Tikshoret Group became the new owners.
I was very
friendly with David Gross and his successor, David Bar-Illan (editor, 1993-
1996), but had little contact with succeeding editors: Jeff Barak (1996-1999 and
2000-2002), David Makovsky (1999-2000), Carl Schrag (2000) and Bret Stephens
David Horowitz (editor, 2004-2011) and Steve Linde, who on
June 13, 2011, replaced him as editor-in-chief, leading the Post towards its
80th birthday, demonstrated greater interest in the archives.
editor introduced his own ideas, but the newspaper remained essentially the
same. It continues to fight for a better Israel and economic prosperity, and
produces reliable information on Israel, the Diaspora and the world at
It has endured wars and welcomes peace, always assessing the world
around it to understand the truth.
Also like Israel, the Post has
evolved. It has gone from a fledgling publication to a fully fledged
international newspaper. It rang in the age of computers by eliminating the
manual press, and it embraced the Internet by constructing a great online
I, too, followed this path. I fought in early wars, and my
progeny fought in later ones. I studied the world around me diligently and
brought my lessons to bear on my work. Today, I have a large family.
daughter, Daphna, is a businesswoman and my son, David, is a retired naval
commander in the IDF. My five grandchildren are in various stages of life, from
high school to graduate and post-graduate studies.
All these people can
tell you – and my late wife Dana would have told you – that even since retiring
in 1985, I have lived and breathed The Jerusalem Post.
At the age of 91,
67 years after I started serving the Post, I continue to do my best and I enjoy
it. Like the paper itself, I will not stop as long as I can help it. Post