February 20, 2020

Daniel Schorr on Acting Against One’s Principles.

The following email was sent to Judea and Ruth Pearl in 2003 by ledendary journalist Daniel Schorr, who died last week, on July 23, at 93. It was written in response to a request for an essay for the Pearl’s book, “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl,” edited by Judea & Ruth Pearl (Jewish Lights Publishing). The piece was later included in that collection.

To: Professor Judea Pearl and Ruth Pearl
From: Daniel Schorr

I am glad to respond to your invitation.

I have been first a Jewish journalist, and then a Jew in journalism.

For seven years, until inducted into the Army in 1942, I worked for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in New York.  That involved everything from interviewing Bruno Walter, a Jewish conductor, to editing dispatches from Europe that told of the dark night descending over the Jews.

Released from the Army in 1945, I decided that journalism would be my lifelong vocation.  But not Jewish journalism, which I found too limiting.  The hunt for the Jewish Angle was frustrating.

So I became a Jew in journalism.  I went to the Netherlands, first as a “stringer” (freelance) for, of all things, the Christian Science Monitor, later the New York Times.  In 1952 I applied for a staff position with the Times and was tentatively accepted.  Then the appointment was mysteriously cancelled.  Two years later a shame-faced foreign editor, Emanuel Friedman, and assistant managing editor, Ted Bernstein, invited me to dinner to confess to me that the appointment had been cancelled because I was Jewish.  Executive editor Turner Catledge had decided to freeze the hiring of Jews as correspondents because of a need to maintain flexibility in covering the Middle East.

And so, in 1953, on the invitation of Edward R. Murrow, I joined the staff of CBS News, first as State Department correspondent, later at the United Nations, in Moscow, where I opened the CBS bureau, and Germany.  My CBS bosses asked me whether, as a Jew, I anticipated any personal conflicts in working in Germany.  I said I thought not.  And indeed, I had no great problem.  In fact I came to admire the way the new generation of Germans sought to win their way back into civilized society.

The matter of being Jewish arose only once in my six years in
Germany.  As the time neared to leave, I was invited to lunch by an official of the Government Information Office, who said he had to ask me a delicate question.  The President of the Federal Republic was prepared to confer on me a decoration, the Grand Cross of Merit, but needed my assurance that I would not reject it.  I was amused and touched.  The mighty German Government stood in fear of a Jewish journalist.

(My wife, a refugee from Germany, had some reservations about my accepting a German award, but that is another story.)

Oddly enough, it was in the United States, to which I returned in 1966, that I was made aware of anti-Semitism in high places.  Assigned by CBS to cover Watergate, I learned of Oval Office conversations in which President Nixon, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and adviser John Ehrlichman indulged in anti-Semitic invective, sometimes singling out “that son-of-a-bitch Dan Schorr.”

I was a pretty good Watergate reporter, winning three “Emmy” awards. Did being Jewish have anything to do with is?  We Jews are searchers for truth, sometimes called investigative reporting.  Also, having grown up poor in the Bronx, a need to prove myself to the goyim.  There!  I’ve said it.

But would a Jewish ethic ever cause me to kill a story that I had unearthed?  It happened once, and I tell about it in my memoir, Staying Tuned, from which I quote:

Excerpt from Staying Tuned (Pocket Books, 2001):

My last major assignment in Poland was to produce, in 1959, an hour-long documentary, “Poland-Country on a Tightrope,” for Ed Murrow’s CBS Reports series.  This gave me a production team and the time and resources for a deeper look at Poland-its people, its schools, its fast-decollectivizing farms.

And Oswiecim. Auschwitz.

In 1959 not many from the West had visited Auschwitz, and I was not prepared for what I would see and try to capture on film.  I have always tried to separate my Jewish heritage from my reporting, but keeping emotion under control in Auschwitz, where members of my family may have died, was not easy.

I had to read parts of my script several times, trying to control a catch in my throat and sound detached as I reported, “Here was the greatest death factory ever devised, where a million died, pushed through these gas chambers at a rate of 60,000 a day, their bodies efficiently moved out and lifted mechanically into brick ovens after their clothes and hair and gold teeth had been removed. For many, there was no room in the ovens, and they were buried in open pits, now these stagnant ponds.  If you run your hand along the bottom, you will pick up human ashes and fragments of bone.”

I interviewed a guide, Tadeusz Szymanski, who had Auschwitz number 200,314 tattooed on his forearm, asking whether he found it painful to be working there.  He said, “When some of my friends were carried off to be executed, they shouted, ‘Remember us and avenge us!’  So I am here to see that they are remembered.”

As we talked, a group of young Poles passed, ushered along by a woman who also had an Auschwitz tattoo.  She sounded so remarkably matter-of-fact: “Here stood a crematorium. Here was where people were pushed into a room, and then the doors were sealed, and the gas-so-called Cyclon B-was released.  In most cases they died in 10 minutes.”

A young Polish girl gulped.  Mostly they just stood and stared, and no one asked any questions.

While working on this Polish documentary, I ran into what may have been the greatest ethical dilemma of my career.  Our little CBS cavalcade of three rented cars, carrying the camera crew, the producer, and a Polish interpreter, was driving through a small town in eastern Poland, not far from the Soviet border, when we espied a strange sight.  It was a caravan of about ten horse-drawn wagons, carrying a few dozen people and piled high with their possessions.  Stopping to talk to them, I discovered that they were Polish Jews and that I could converse with them in the Yiddish that I had hardly used since childhood.

They had come across the border in the Soviet Union and were on their way to a railway station, bound for Vienna and from there to Israel.

Our camera was soon set up in the muddy road, and I interviewed them in Yiddish.  They could not tell me, however, how it was that they were permitted to travel to Israel.  Out of consideration for Arab opinion, Russia and its satellites officially banned emigration to Israel.

Back in Warsaw the next day I consulted the Israeli minister, Shimon Amir, a chess-playing friend of mine.

“They told you they were on their way to Israel, and you have that on film?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But how is it possible?”

“All right, since you know this much, I will tell you the rest, and then you will decide what to do.”

He explained that the Jews came from a part of Poland that had been annexed by the Soviet Union, that there were several thousand more caught on the Soviet side who had survived the war and the Holocaust and were desperately anxious to leave.  Israel had negotiated a delicate secret arrangement with the Soviet and Polish governments.  The Jews would be “repatriated” to Poland with the understanding that they would almost immediately leave the country-bound for Israel.

“But there was one condition attached to the agreement,” said Amir.

“The arrangement must remain a secret.  If any word becomes public, the Soviets will immediately cancel the arrangement.”

“So,” my friend concluded, “you can decide, Mr. Schorr.  Put this on television, and you condemn thousands of Jews to remaining in the Soviet Union.”

Each evening, my cameraman would pack up the cans of film we had shot that day and ship them by air to New York, later to be assembled with narration for our documentary.  But I held back the reel with the Jewish interviews.  It stayed on my desk in the hotel next day, and the next day and the next.  I would have liked to have consulted Murrow, but could not do so over an open telephone.  I never decided, exactly, that for humanitarian reasons I would practice self-censorship.  I simply kept postponing the decision until it was too late.  After a while, my camera crew stopped asking about it. 

This was a profound violation of my journalistic ethic that a reporter has no right to interpose himself between information legitimately acquired and the public he serves.  Once before I had done so-in the case of a Dutch queen.

This seemed even tougher.

My CBS Reports program, “Poland-Country on a Tightrope,” went on the air, documenting the political chill settling over Poland as Gomulka came to terms with his Soviet bosses.  Auschwitz was in my film.  But not the caravan of Jews making their way to Israel.

When next I was in New York, I brought the reel of film with me and went to see Murrow.  He had strong pro-Israel sympathies himself.  When he was sick, my Zionist mother had a tree planted in Israel in his name as a prayer for his recovery.  His first question to me was, “How is my tree doing?”

I then produced the can of film and explained how, against all my principles,I had withheld it.  All he said was, “I understand.”