Book Review: Vignettes of a journalist

The book contains many aspects of Oestermann’s life as a journalist in the Middle East, and it took him quite a while to decide what to include.

Adolf Eichmann sits during his trial in Jerusalem, 1961. (photo credit: REUTERS,REBECCA FRIEDMAN,REPUBBLICA CONFERENCE/PR)
Adolf Eichmann sits during his trial in Jerusalem, 1961.
Veteran Danish-born journalist Richard Oestermann, who has been living in Israel for more than half a century, where he has served as the Middle East correspondent for Scandinavian newspapers, has written a book in the nature of an autobiography – Me and the Middle East.
The title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that with the exception of the mention of a beloved half-brother who settled on a kibbutz well before World War II and was killed by Arab marauders, Oestermann’s adventures in the Middle East don’t really get under way until page 41 – when he came in 1958 to report on Israel’s 10th anniversary celebrations.
Up to that point, the reader is introduced to Oestermann’s family; his Danish boyhood and education; his family’s rescue from the Nazis by heroic Danes who under cover of darkness, took most of the country’s Jews on fishing boats to Sweden; his separation from his family in Sweden; and his return to his home country as a soldier.
Written in a series of short vignettes, the book is an easy read, and though Oestermann has presented it in chronological order, each chapter is a brief episode in itself – which means readers don’t necessarily have to start at the beginning, but can begin reading at random.
Journalism was not Oestermann’s first career choice. He wanted to be an actor, and though he was talented, he lacked sufficient self-confidence to become a star. Several of his classmates had gone into journalism, so Oestermann decided to see whether he was suited for it, and it appears that he was – because at 88, despite ill health, he is still producing two or three stories daily for Scandinavian media. “This is what keeps me going,” he writes. Moreover, at a time when print newspapers are either folding or shrinking in size, and salaries are being frozen or reduced, Oestermann received a raise from his Norway paper.
He has been a journalist since age 21, and in that period has witnessed many changes in the profession. Early in his career he lived in the US, from where he sent material to Scandinavian outlets in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland, sometimes giving different versions of the same story to suit specific publications.
Initially, he sent the stories by regular mail, then by ticker tape, phone and fax, until eventually his Swedish editor insisted the stories be sent via email.
Oestermann moved into the electronic era with reluctance, but now he’s very happy with it.
In one chapter, he describes how he used to take his typewriter with him on out-of-town assignments, setting up a makeshift table and producing copy on the spot. He would park his car in reverse so he could be the first journalist to file the story.
Of course today, the competition is much fiercer and many journalists write their stories on the spot on tablets or cellphone keypads, filing them immediately in hopes of being first online; they also tweet as they’re going along.
Not all of Oestermann’s employers have been as generous as the Norwegian one.
Oestermann was furious when his Swedish editor fired him on the grounds that he was too old. His Norwegian and Danish editors, on the other hand, preferred to have someone who was experienced and had good connections.
Every journalist has his or her own style – not just of writing, but of covering a story and interviewing. Journalists are often frustrated when interviewing leading public figures, in the limited time they are given and the attempts made by the interviewee to steer the conversation away from certain topics.
Oestermann perfected a technique to overcome this: He prepared 25 questions, and if the interviewee started chatting with him, Oestermann firmly replied that he would be happy to talk about anything at all – after the interview. He had a job to do, and wanted to get it done in the time allocated.
The first time he used this technique was with US president Harry S Truman, and they did indeed have a brief discussion after the interview. He used it again with founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and though the latter was somewhat taken aback, he agreed, and afterwards he too chatted with Oestermann.
In fact, Ben-Gurion discovered that his original surname and the maiden name of Oestermann’s mother were the same – at which point Oestermann quipped that perhaps Ben-Gurion was his long-lost uncle David.
Oestermann had visited Israel several times before coming to cover the Eichmann trial in 1961. As someone who had escaped the Nazi’s clutches, he had a special interest. Like several other foreign journalists who came to Israel for the same purpose, Oestermann opted to stay.
Over the years, Oestermann met and interviewed a variety of public figures – politicians, diplomats, writers, film stars, et al. That is the true reward of the profession – access to people who are making history and leaving their mark on the world. Other than Truman and Ben-Gurion, some of the interviewees about whom insights appear in the book are Father Daniel, the Polish priest who converted from Judaism to Catholicism but wanted to obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return; actress Sophia Loren, who spoke to him on the set of Judith without a PR rep being present; Israel’s first Nobel Prize laureate S.Y. Agnon, a neighbor in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot as well as a friend; Yitzhak Rabin; and the charismatic Teddy Kollek.
Oestermann paints succinct but informative pictures of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. In December 1977, he was one of the first foreign correspondents to travel from Israel to Egypt, just a little over a month after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem. For safety’s sake, Oestermann secured a new Danish passport without any Israeli stamps. While in Egypt, he took several risks, and aside from being temporarily detained by two guards at Cairo University – where he interviewed two sisters studying Hebrew – he emerged unscathed. In the process, he discovered Egyptians were mostly friendly people.
Oestermann visited Egypt several times after that, and on one of his visits interviewed diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali, shortly before his appointment as UN secretary-general.
The book contains many other aspects of Oestermann’s life as a journalist in the Middle East, and it took him quite a while to decide what to include. Over the years, he had accumulated the clippings of all his stories; he painstakingly went through them in order to present the most comprehensive, yet condensed overview.
For the most part, he succeeded very well.