65 years at the ‘Post’

This December 1, the 78th anniversary of ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ marked the writer’s 65th year at the newspaper.

December 3, 2010 14:33
 Zvielli has worked at the 'Post' since 1945.

alexander zvielli. (photo credit: (David Brauner))

I consider myself a lucky man. Having reached nearly 90 and having worked at The Jerusalem Post and its predecessor, The Palestine Post, for the past 65 years, I still continue to look to the future. Will I ever take a ride on the Jerusalem light rail, which has caused so much trouble? Will I ever travel in Syria as a welcome tourist? Well, miracles have happened before. I hope to carry on as long as I am useful, which means working and sharing with my huge family. Idleness is a poison that kills slowly.

My entire life has demanded swift adjustments to ever-changing conditions. I started my Palestine Post career as a linotypist, a profession that I learned in my father’s printing shop in Warsaw, following my high school graduation. Today, I am the Post’s archivist, historian, author of the “From our Archives” column, a regular contributor to its Christian Edition, as well as other occasional articles. Who could ask for more?

I owe my printing skills to my father, who insisted that I master a profession for, as a prospective student, I would be able to earn my living anywhere. That wasn’t simple, since linotypists belonged to a jealously guarded closed shop. Eventually, however, I succeeded in mastering this once highly respected profession.

Among the many clients at my father’s press were great Zionists, Jewish scholars and writers. I remember luminaries like Menachem Begin, Moshe Kleinbaum (Sneh) and Avraham Stern (Yair), the publisher of the Polish weekly Jerozolima Wyzwolona and a Yiddish daily Die Tat (The Deal). Ze’ev Jabotinsky was reading the proofs of his novel Samson in the Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew editions, while the future Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer was the proofreader of the Literarische Bletter (Literary News) before he left for the US.

I was doing my homework while listening to their heated discussions. They all waited for the proofs, searching for their bylines and misprints.

Polish Jews had fewer and fewer civil rights, anti-Semitism was rife, the international borders were closing and Britain had betrayed us. In the bitter battle for survival, the printed word was our sole weapon. When World War II broke out, the Nazis entered Poland and helped themselves to our machinery.

I started to work at the Jerusalem Press, the printer of The Palestine Post, on December 1, 1945, ending six years of refugee existence. I soon realized that the Post was a one-man show. That man was Gershon Agron, the founder and the first editor, whom we all loved and respected. Agron’s office was on the first floor, but he came to the press frequently, often at midnight, when he closed the next day’s issue. He addressed all workers by their first names.

Once Chaim Weizmann came to see the text, printed in large letters, of the address that he was expected to deliver to the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry. It had been specially enlarged for him due to his failing eyesight. Agron came down to greet him. I watched with great interest as these two giants of the Zionist cause engaged in a heated dispute. There were many other important visitors and numerous local and foreign journalists eager for the latest reliable news. It was just like in my father’s office in Warsaw.

Once, when I wrote my first short story, Agron cut short the first few paragraphs and sent me a note, adding: “Always come straight to the point.” Often he came to the press late in the evening and wrote the lead article on the spot.

He convened frequent meetings and wanted everybody to attend. Once, when he lectured on the importance of punctuation, it didn’t bother him that some workers hardly knew English. The main thing was that we were all like a kibbutz, together. He was a tough boss, but his door was always open. Once, when a junior editor rejected my article for Purim, in which I dared to question the veracity of the Esther story, I went to Agron to argue my case, and my article was published in full.

Rehov Hasolel, today Rehov Havatzelet, was the Fleet Street of Jerusalem in those days. Most of the Yishuv’s newspaper offices were housed there, and our press room was a meeting point for many journalists eager for the latest news.

I worked mostly at night and slept in the nearby Himmelfarb Hotel, today Gefen, in a small room, shared with three newcomers. The Yishuv was already at war with the British, and Agron was the leading captain of our team. I wondered whether he slept at all; he was at the Post at all hours. It became more and more difficult not only to communicate and print, but also to deliver the daily paper. There were frequent curfews, Arab sabotage, electricity outages and a shortage of printing paper. We had curfew passes, but following the Irgun and Lehi attacks in 1946-47, the British soldiers became very angry and vindictive.

Once two drunk British soldiers attacked Lea Ben-Dor, later the Post’s third editor, late in the evening. Ted Lurie, later the second editor, came to her rescue. He cursed them and fought one, while I attacked the second, enabling Lea to run away. Later, I found my coat all stained with blood. Such incidents happened often. Our driver, Ya’acov Rabia, faced real danger, transporting the Post to Tel Aviv for distribution.

Eventually I rented a room at 9 King George Avenue. Since my girlfriend Dana (nicknamed Danka) lived with her mother, Anna, and her sister Eve in Talpiot, I visited them frequently. It was quite dangerous, especially on Friday evening when there were no Jewish buses. I had to pass Abu Tor and the Allenby Barracks, facing the frequently drunk soldiers.

In December 1947, after the UN vote for partition, I was already very close to Danka. We shared the same background and wartime experiences. Gradually my feelings for her became very intense. After I proposed at the 1947-48 New Year’s party, she didn’t turn me down but said that she needed time. She suggested that we be apart for a while to test our feelings. Her father lived in London, and she was still undecided about her future.

THE JOINT British-Arab bomb that was thrown at the Post’s press and offices on February 1, 1948, changed my life. On the night of the explosion, I had to remain for another shift. I called Danka to aske her out for a sandwich, but she said that an agreement was an agreement and hung up on me.

Shortly before midnight, a sudden explosion shook us all. The building opposite us crumbled, but ours had been built after an earthquake with especially reinforced iron construction. All the lights went out and my eyes became full of dust and shattered glass, but I was saved by the frame of my linotype machine.

My colleague next to me, Shimshon Lipshitz, fell to the floor and was wounded. I lifted him and pushed our way out, while heavy smoke and fire were spreading all around. Outside, we reached the nearby Hadassah clinic.

I could hardly see, but still I was fortunate. One linotypist, Chaim Farber, died of his wounds. Many workers suffered heavy cuts and bruises, lost their eyes and ears from flying glass and spent a long time in hospitals. I still cherish the memory of those innocent victims of a brutal attack. My left eye is sore until today, and I still own a burned-out watch and some matrix welded by the fire. It took Dana some time to pass through the Hagana cordon that was set around the burning building and to announce her decision.

We got married on the roof of the nearby Va’ad Kehila on February 12, 1948. We invited 24 guests for a lunch at the now defunct Eden Hotel, and then Dana moved into my room. The next morning we both left for work and our defense duties. This was no time to celebrate. We had our honeymoon a year later.

I had a good life with Danka, and I still mourn our loss after she passed away on July 12, 2009. She had a long and fruitful life and a highly successful professional career as director of the Donor Recognition Department at Hadassah University Medical Center. She was a great wife and protector of our, by now, huge Zvielli family.

THE DAILY appearance of the Post greatly disturbed the British Mandatory administration, army and police and, of course, our Arab enemies. It was important to show that nothing would break our spirit. Indeed, a reduced-size issue of The Palestine Post, printed at different presses in town, appeared on the night of the bombing.

It wasn’t a miracle but rather Agron’s iron will that the Post continued to appear regularly, with no advertising and a reduced number of subscribers. The printing press belonging to the Schocken family was destroyed, except for the Duplex printing machine, which was safe in the basement. The owner, Zalman Schocken, advised Agron strongly to move the Post to Tel Aviv and offered him full Haaretz press services, but Agron would never leave Jerusalem. Finally, the Post purchased the press, and a new linotype was brought in from Tel Aviv. The nearby Ahva press rented three linotypes to the Post for the night shift. The slow work of reconstruction began. For the next few years, I worked at night and attended to various defense duties in the daytime.

We all lived in an atmosphere of furious activity quite difficult to describe today. Our enemies wanted to destroy us. The Jordanian guns on Mount Scopus shelled us. Many shells fell on Rehov Hasolel, but the stone buildings saved us. Many technical arrangements were “temporary.” The electric and telephone wires hung over our heads, and there was a constant smell of burnt powder. The feeling and the danger of a siege pervaded the air.

I was coming back tired from my night shift on February 22, 1948, when another bomb exploded, this time on Rehov Ben-Yehuda, not far away. The blast was so strong that an entire wall of our room collapsed, and we found ourselves facing the staircase. I was lucky again, for I had passed that spot a few minutes earlier. We had no choice but to return to the Himmelfarb Hotel.

There were shortages of everything, mainly water and fuel, but we were lucky again, for we succeeded in renting a nice flat in a brand new building at 45B King George Avenue. We got it at a reduced price, as it faced the Old City wall where the well-placed Jordanian sharpshooters often opened fire at the King George pedestrians. Later a wall was built to protect the street. It is a pity that this wall was completely removed. It would remind the world what we faced in those days after a number of tenants and pedestrians were hit. We covered all windows with rugs to be able to turn on lights after dark and promised ourselves to be careful.

The Post was a fighting newspaper, and it appeared daily during the entire War of Independence. A small edition was produced in Tel Aviv. We had priority for electricity, but the frequent outages played havoc with production. A stenciled copy was produced a number of times. Few newspapers passed a similar test and experience.

But there were compensations. I entered the Generali building just after the British left and brought Agron some documents marked “Top Secret” by Mandatory police officials. I was stationed for a while at the Notre Dame compound, guarding the entrance to Jewish Jerusalem. Our hope was that our enemies never knew how poorly armed we were. The War of Independence was a cruel experience, but once additional weapons were brought through the Burma Road to Jerusalem, our feat of survival was absolute.

WITHIN A few years, The Jerusalem Post press became an important printing establishment. Gradually, the press had purchased new equipment, and the newspaper increased in number of the daily pages and supplements. The Post practically housed, trained and employed numerous new immigrants.

On April 23, 1950, Agron had a sudden inspiration, and The Palestine Post became The Jerusalem Post. We were all proud when he became mayor of Jerusalem and Ted Lurie was appointed editor. Lurie was a master in taking great care of good layouts and efficient printing, particularly of illustrations, and he worked closely with Lea Ben-Dor, the Post’s third editor, who had to approve every page. Lea was the Post’s political guide, and from her corrections one could learn how a little change could enhance the importance of an entire story. Once she told us that even if many tragic things happen in Israel, our writers should always take great care to avoid any possible harm in their presentation. She had no patience with deadlines. When warned that we must start printing to meet the delivery, she would respond: “You do your job. and I will do mine.” She guarded Israel, the Labor Party and David Ben-Gurion with all her heart.

Lurie avidly studied all the progress in the printing industry and hoped that a day would come when journalists would write and correct their own stories directly to the newspaper’s pages. He also wanted the Post to appear in color and be well illustrated.

In 1968, Lurie arranged for me a visit to a press in Vineland, New Jersey, where for the first time I saw a newspaper set by the cold metal photographic method and printed in full color. We met again at the printing exhibition in Chicago, where he purchased a Goss offset multicolor printing machine, the latest hit in newspaper printing. His plan was to install it in the newly purchased building in the Romema section of Jerusalem. Upon my return, I told press workers that a revolution was on its way and that typesetting would never be the same. The change came fast and was quite radical.

In Chicago I “saved” Lurie’s life. I was accompanying him, step by step, from one exhibit to another, carrying more and more of the heavy advertising pamphlets. By noon, I was already totally exhausted, but Lurie, despite his failing health, was inexhaustible.

At closing time, we found ourselves among a huge crowd of visitors, awaiting transport, when it began to pour. I was the only one with a strong umbrella. All day I had cursed this heavy umbrella, but now I could offer Lurie shelter. He later telephoned Danka in Jerusalem to tell her that I saved his life. He was already not feeling well but still carried on as a good soldier.

Upon my return, I became the press foreman. I was in charge of more than 100 workers, including proofreaders. This was a very difficult job to meet all the deadlines and carried a heavy responsibility for timely production. We printed everything from visiting cards to newspapers. I worked from early morning until late at night and was on call all the time. The job included moving the entire press to Romema, where the new multicolor offset machine demanded constant attention.

I had an opportunity to start a new career as head of the printing department of the Rafa Pharmaceutical factory’s printing department. The conditions were excellent – quiet work in the daytime, no deadlines – a most tempting proposal. But I decided that the Post would remain my home. However, I became Rafa’s adviser, and a large part of their printing was done at the Post’s press. This gave Rafa access to the printing press under good supervision and the Post a good client. Alex Berlyne was our graphic designer. This arrangement lasted for more than 20 years, until I was transferred to a completely new assignment.

THIS BIG change came after the Yom Kippur War. I wasn’t young anymore, and the introduction of computers demanded new knowledge and different expertise. I was happy when the new editors, Ari Rath and Erwin Frenkel, who were always friendly and understanding and, knowing that I liked to write, offered me the position of director of the The Jerusalem Post archives and information department. There was a need, they explained, to modernize the clipping and photographic archive and to assist visitors eager for information about Israel’s past that no other sources could provide. I thank Post literary pages editors Dr. Eugen Meyer, Moshe Kohn, Alex Berlyne and Alec Israel for their patience with my frequent book reviews on the Holocaust and Eastern Europe.

I attended a short course on the modern newspaper archive in New York and found my new job fascinating, including the writing of up-to-date biographies of important Israeli personalities. The new, well-organized archives started to provide services to the public for payment. I also gathered special front pages for the Post’s Front Page publications.

Our job in the archives was frequently difficult when we found many foreign journalists prejudiced and not very sympathetic. But there were others who were willing to listen and were grateful for our service. President Chaim Herzog and veteran cabinet minister Yosef Burg were among our most prominent visitors. Newsweek was our permanent client, but we served other newspapers and TV stations as well.

I retired in 1986 and spent half a year traveling abroad. On my return, I was offered a parttime job in the archives, which included writing the daily “From our Archives” column and attending to other archival tasks.

Throughout the years at the Post, I have met hundreds of fine men and women, editors, journalists, workers – the salt of Israel, many of them from abroad. It has been an altogether rewarding and thrilling experience to live with the news – embracing the past for the sake of a better future.

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