A life in print

Marlin Levin looks back on a thrilling, at times life-threatening 65-year career at the ‘Post’ and ‘Time.’

Marlin Levin reads 'The Jerusalem Post' 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Marlin Levin reads 'The Jerusalem Post' 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Marlin Levin can’t believe he’s 90 years old, but then, neither do most people who meet him.
The trim, alert former journalist for The Jerusalem Post and Time magazine may have slowed down a bit since he was traipsing the country sending dispatches via the postal system back in the pre-email days, but he can still recall in minute detail events that took place decades earlier, when he was part of the story of Israel’s founding.
That doesn’t mean that Levin is spending his time living in the past. Along with his wife, Betty, with whom he shares a comfortable apartment in a leafy complex in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, he still takes advantage of the many diverse options that Jerusalem – his hometown of 65 years – has to offer. Welcoming visitors one recent morning, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native relaxes in his favorite living-room recliner and recalls an eventful lifetime guided by a belief in the just cause of Zionism and the overriding journalistic doctrine of fairness, two signposts that have affected everything that he’s done.
“The short story of why I came to Israel is that I was a Zionist, and I thought I should be here,” says Levin in a clear, engaged manner. That thought was fortified by his experiences in World War II, where after three years into a journalism degree at Temple University, he was drafted into the US army and served on General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff at the advance communications headquarters in Versailles as a cryptographer.
“I spent time in Germany, France and Japan, and after the war, and after I had seen what had happened to the Jews, I knew that they had to have their own state, and that I should be there too,” he says.
But first, Levin completed his degree at Temple and began working in journalism.
He found a kindred soul in Betty Schoffman, and six weeks after their wedding in August 1947, Levin realized his ambition by moving to Palestine.
Claiming that he’s been a journalist ever since the age of 12 when he wrote his cousin’s bar-mitzva speech, Levin was planning to break into the field in Palestine, being one of the few people around with a journalism degree. But he was taken aback by how fast things happened.
“That very first Saturday night in Jerusalem, my wife and I took a walk downtown on Jaffa Road to what was going on, and we ran into Mordechai Chertoff, a colleague of her time she spent studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York,” he says.
“After they talked for a while, he looked at me and asked me what I did. And I told him I was a journalist. He grabbed me by the shoulder and said, ‘come with me.’” Chertoff, a young American journalist who had also recently immigrated to Palestine, dragged Levin to the offices of The Palestine Post where he worked, and introduced him to the paper’s founding editor, Gershon Agron.
“Agron was editing copy, and smoking a long cigarette,” recalls Levin. “He looked up at me, asked me what I did, and told me to get in the newsroom. “I had only been in the country for three days, so I told him that I needed a little time to see the country. He asked me how long, I said three weeks, and he said, ‘OK, come back in three weeks.’” Both Levin and Agron kept their side of the bargain, and Levin’s new position at the Post as a copy editor “rewriting the bad English of some of the German refugees who wrote for them” sparked a 13-year tenure at the paper.
But it wasn’t without almost immediate, life-threatening obstacles. February 1, 1948 started as a typical night at the paper’s offices off of Zion Square, with the copy editing staff putting together the next morning’s edition chronicling the ongoing struggles between the ruling British, and the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the land.
Agron was in Tel Aviv for the evening, and it being Sunday, a traditionally slow news day, the level of commotion in the newsroom was on a low burner. Levin described what happened next.
“I generally sat opposite the window, but that night I decided to sit over in the corner in someone else’s seat who had also gone to Tel Aviv that night. Just before 11 p.m., there was a tremendous blast – I thought somebody had thrown a hand grenade.” Levin was mistaken, however.
The noise was from a stolen British police car loaded with half a ton of TNT which exploded outside, destroying the two adjacent buildings and setting fire to the Post’s press and offices.
According to Jerusalem Post historian Alexander Zvielli, the building survived the blast, perhaps because it was built in 1933 following an earthquake, and the owner had invested in an especially reinforced steel construction. But the flying pieces of lead, shattered glass and ensuing fire killed and maimed many of the editorial staff and press workers. According to Levin, his inexplicable decision to change seats may have saved his life.
“A huge chunk of iron blasted through the window and lodged in the wall right behind my desk. If I had been sitting there, I would have been decapitated.”
Already possessed with a seasoned journalist’s instincts, despite the chaos, flames and darkness engulfing the newsroom, the first thing an unhurt Levin did before helping the wounded was to rip the copy he was working on out of his typewriter.
According to Zvielli, it was also a stroke of luck that that the main rotary press, situated below street level, needed little attention and could be repaired quickly. In his account of the act of terror, he wrote, “Acting editor Ted Lurie swiftly arranged for the lead story to be set at two other presses in town, and for the set-up pages to be brought to the rotary press by hand.
Thus the Post appeared as usual in the morning. The edition was smaller, only two pages. But it was an important victory in the newspaper’s main objective – not to be silenced – even for a single day.”
Nobody ever took responsibility for the bombing (Arab leader Abd al-Kadir al- Husseini claimed responsibility for the bombing, but some claim that two British army deserters were also involved).
However, years later, Levin had an uncomfortable close encounter.
“I was attending a Time conference in Beirut for Middle East correspondents,” he said. “As we were sitting around the table just talking, one of the Lebanese participants mentioned that he had been involved in the bombing of the Post building.
I just kept quiet – I knew I was in enemy territory.”
But back in Israel, it was familiar territory, a country he grew intimately familiar with and became an expert in. Promoted at the renamed Jerusalem Post to news editor and then diplomatic editor, Levin flourished in the tumultuous early years of the state, developing a reputation for excellence in journalism, while he and Betty raised three Sabra children.
Then in 1958, a serendipitous opportunity materialized that altered Levin’s future course. Time magazine’s Israel correspondent Roy Ellison (a former Post staffer) called Levin to ask him as favor.
“He said he was going to London for a few months and asked if I could fill in for him,” says Levin. “I was too busy and said no, but he insisted saying I just had to take their cable address in the US and if they had any questions about events here, to answer them.
Well, the next morning, I did get a cable from them, asking me if I’d travel to Beersheba to write an archeological story. As it happened, I didn’t have anything to do that day, so I took a taxi down, wrote the story and sent if off at the post office. And that was it.
“Two weeks later, I got a copy of the magazine from Time, a letter thanking me for the story, and check. The check was as much as my whole month’s salary at the Post.”
Levin began suggesting more stories to his US editors, and because Israel had been an undercovered area until then, they accepted every idea.
Overwhelmed with work, Levin set up a stringers’ bureau of other freelancers and spread the work around.
It proved to be the seed that sprouted into Time’s first Israel bureau, established in 1960 with Levin, having left the Post, at the helm.
Time was crazy for Israel stories in those days, and we did the most fantastic pieces,” he says, recalling his first big piece, the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
He covered such history-making events as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, five Israel-Arab wars, the Eichmann trial and Anwar Sadat’s 1977 peace mission.
“One day, there was a witness giving testimony at the trial, speaking in Yiddish. She was telling the most horrendous stories, how bodies had fallen on top of her, and I looked around and saw that the other correspondents covering it were crying. And naturally, I was among them.”
In addition to other landmark events like Israel’s momentous wars, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the 1977 Sadat-Begin meetings, Levin says that he especially remembers his encounters with founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion.
“One day in 1956, I saw that strange things were happening – things were quiet but there were all kinds of infiltrations from Jordan and we were expecting a war,” says Levin. “Men were leaving their jobs to go to reserve duty and other moves were at play, so I decided to go see Ben-Gurion. I waited for hours on the steps of the Jewish Agency building for him to come out.
“At around 2 a.m., he finally emerges and he sees me – he knew me by then – and I asked him, ‘Mr. Ben-Gurion, what’s happening?’ He smiled and said, ‘You let me worry about that – go home and go to sleep.’ The next day, the Sinai campaign of 1956 started.”
Aside from a four-year stint as a staffer at the Time Boston bureau between 1976 and 1980, Levin remained at the Time helm in Jerusalem until his retirement in 1990. Having experienced Israel’s entire existence – as a citizen and as a journalist – Levin looks back on his lifetime here with a mixture of amazement, pride and resignation.
“Of course, I feel disappointed that we’re still not at peace with our neighbors.We haven’t had a day of peace since we arrived in the country in 1947,” he says.
“On the other hand, we’ve taken in millions of people and absorbed them. Ben- Gurion once told me that Israel won’t be a real state until we have eight million Jews living in it. We’re almost there.”
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