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 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Alexander Zvielli 521
(photo credit: 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.
“If 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 was.
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 laureate.
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.
While 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 Hungary.
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 life.
In this environment, the Post required a strong leader.
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. Agron.”
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 the halls.
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 Weinberg.
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.
In 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 later.
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 stairwell.
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 Press.
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 ensued.
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 Street.
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 Post.
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.
Once Lurie 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 obsolete.
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 inventions.
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 illustrated newspaper.
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.
Lurie, 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 staff.
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 and corrections.
Ben-Dor retired in August 1975, and Ari Rath and Erwin Frenkel were appointed co-editors: Rath also became managing director.
In 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 Report.”
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.
I 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 support.
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 interesting.
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 needs.
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 and publisher.
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 interest.
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 (2002-2004).
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.
Every new 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 large.
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 presence.
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.
My 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 forever.