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INTERVIEWEE Ralph Lowensteln


February 3, 1992


M [Today is] February 3, 1992, and we are in the office of Ralph Lowenstein, who is the dean of the

College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida The office overlooks the

main entrance to this wonderful building, and we are watching students come in It is about 8 30

For the record, would you tell us your complete name?

L Ralph Lynn Lowensteln My parents had had two boys two years apart, and I was supposed to be

a girl, so they had a girl's name all picked out--Rosa Louise I was supposed to be named for my

grandmother who had died the year before I was probably one of the few babies who had a

telegram, "Better luck next time [laughter] That started off life

M How many brothers and sisters do you have?

L I have two older brothers and no sisters I am the youngest [I have] a brother who is four years

older [WHAT IS HIS NAME ?] and a brother two years older [WHAT IS HIS NAME ?]

M Did anyone else in the family go into journalism or any aspect of communication?

L My brother writes all the time [WHICH ONE ?] He is chief of nuclear medicine at San Francisco

Presbyterian Hospital He was a nuclear physicist and worked on the atomic bomb, and he

worked at Los Alamos Then he went into nuclear medicine, he was one of the pioneers in

nuclear medicine That was my older brother The next brother was in the furniture business in

Richmond, Virginia, and retired a couple of years ago He is taking writing courses and writes

pretty well, actually

M You call Danville, Virginia, your home Is that where you were born?

L I was born in Danville, Virginia, on March 8, 1930 My mother was born in Danville, Virginia,

October 31, 1898 She died there at the age of eighty-eight

M Were you born at home?


L No, I was born in a hospital, but I was one of the first babies in Danville ever to be born with the

mother under anesthesia My mother had such difficult deliveries that she swore that she would

never have another baby that way, and the people in town swore that there was something wrong

with me because of the anesthesia because I had such dark, black eyes [laughter]

M What was your elementary schooling like?

L I started in sort of a private school my first year because of my birthday When I was four my

mother went to work with my father in my father's store, which was a jewelry store in Danville I

guess they figured I was ready for school, but I could not go into elementary school because I was

five, so I went to a private school for the first grade Then I went into public school in the second

grade when I was six years old I was always just about a year younger than most of the kids in

my class I did not think about it at the time, but I was sort of physically smaller, also I did not

really begin to grow tall until I was about fourteen or fifteen years old Now I am about six feet tall,

of course Almost everybody in my class was a year older

M Was there one school, or was there an elementary, junior, and high school?

L There were two elementary schools in town Well, I guess there were three elementary schools in

Danville I went to the oldest Most of the Jews lived down along a place called Wilson Street in

Danville There were only seventy-five Jewish families in this town Danville then was a city of

about 30,000 to 35,000 It never got much bigger The elementary school was Robert E Lee,

and I guess I was a teenager before I realized it was Robert E Lee, not Robert D Lee It was

only two blocks from my house, and we could hear the school bell ring in the morning The janitor

would pull this big bell cord, and sometimes we would have fun pulling it with him

I went there for second through the third grade, I went there only two years Then the family

moved up to West Main Street We had rented the house down on Wilson Street, and then they

bought a house on West Main Street That was not far by our standards--let us say it was a mile

and a half away Then I went to Forest Hills School, which was a newer elementary school

There was a junior high in north Danville called North Danville across the [Dan] River There was

a junior high, I think, but everybody went to the same high school So we entered high school in

the seventh grade and went all the way through the twelve grades It was unusual There was

only one high school

There was one white high school--I should put it that way In those days there was complete

segregation, so there was one white high school and one black high school When I say [there

were] three elementary [schools], it shows you that sort of segregationist thinking is still there

There were three white elementary schools and probably a couple of black elementary schools

It was a little unusual that from the age of about twelve or thirteen all the kids were in school

together, so actually there were many people I am going to my forty-fifth high school reunion in

June, and it is a little unusual that there are many people that you went through twelve years of

school with Of course, I went to that little kindergarten the first year, but there are a lot of people

who are lifelong friends that I really went to school with for eleven straight years

M You said that there were few Jewish families in Danville Did you feel isolated?

L Yes, I always felt different I guess that was the thing Danville was very unusual, it was an

anomaly, even among Jewish communities, because most Jewish communities in the South of

that size or even larger had one congregation, normally Conservative leaning toward the

Orthodox Danville had two wealthy men, both of whom owned small department stores One

was Orthodox and one was Reform, so there was a Reform congregation in Danville that had

been started probably in the 1870s The first German Jews, who were Reform Jews, probably

came into Danville in the 1850s or 1860s, when many German Jews came to this country

My grandfather came to Danville in 1894 His name was Jacob Berman That was my mother's

father In fact, my grandfather started a haberdashery, a clothing store, called J Berman in 1894

Two years from now my first cousin will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the store The store is

still there and is still run by the third generation of the family, still in Danville, Virginia It is the best

clothing store there Most of my clothes always used to come from there, of course

When my grandfather and his friends came into Danville they came from central Europe Poland,

Lithuania, Russia, wherever, and they were all Orthodox They were not at all comfortable in a

Reform congregation--the Reform congregation was called Beth Shalom--so they started an

Orthodox congregation called Aetz Chavim, which means tree of life, whereas Beth Shalom

means house of peace So they started that congregation in 1910, and there were always two

distinct groups There were the descendants of the German Jews who were very assimilated and

very Reform, and there were the Orthodox

By the time I came along during the Depression years, the Orthodox were unable to maintain that

synagogue You can imagine each congregation had about thirty or thirty-five families They had

to maintain a building, a rabbi, and so on So the Orthodox sort of had a hiatus [when they] had

no rabbi I guess they had some services, but not very many So my family and even most of the

others, the ones who were raised as Orthodox but they were really not Orthodox anymore, joined

the Reform temple So my earliest Hebrew training, starting at the age of five, was in the Reform

temple We belonged to the Reform temple probably until 1935 to 1938 or 1939

At that point this Orthodox man who owned the one department store helped get the Orthodox

congregation going again, so that was reconstituted Since it had been founded by my

grandfather, we have really leaned much more [toward that persuasion] I would say we were

always Conservative, but there was no Conservative [congregation] In fact, I would say nine-

tenths of the Jews in Danville were Conservative, but they had to choose either Reform or

Orthodox So we went back to the Orthodox, and the rest of my religious upbringing was in the

Orthodox congregation

M That would have been you were about nine or so?

L About nine But that was important, because the man who was brought in as rabbi was a refugee

from Nazi Germany His name was Max Kapustin, and this man was modern Orthodox, but

strictly Orthodox He did not ride on the Sabbath (Saturday), they maintained an absolutely

kosher home, as we always did In fact, my mother always maintained a kosher home, and my

wife and I maintained a kosher home all of our lives--up until about a month ago [laughter] But

this man had a Ph D from [the University of] Heidelberg in Semitic languages I mean, he was

absolutely brilliant He spoke Greek and Latin fluently and was really an intellectual who never

belonged in a place like Danville, Virginia, with thirty families But he was a very young man,


newly married, and he was lucky to get out of Germany alive, I guess He stayed in Danville from

about 1938 or 1939 to 1949 At that time he then went up to Wayne State University in Detroit as

a Hillel director, which is where a man like that really belongs He was not only the Hillel director,

he was also professor of Semitic languages at Wayne State

This man had a tremendous influence on many of the young men and women--but mostly men, I

would say--who came up through the religious education Because we went to synagogue all the

time he had a tremendous influence on us, and I thank him for a lot of that My older brother, for

example, who was near genius in I Q --I think he had the highest I Q that they had ever measured

in Danville (those were the days when they made those things public sometimes)--did some baby-

sitting for him, and he in return he taught my brother Greek My brother knew Greek as well as

Hebrew and Latin by the time he graduated from high school So I would say it was very unusual

to have an Orthodox and a Reform congregation

That put us on sort of a caldron that would not normally exist in a southern town For example,

the synagogue was strictly Orthodox Women sat upstairs in the balcony, and men sat

downstairs Almost no Conservative synagogue is like that except in the larger cities Maybe in

Atlanta or New Orleans you would find that, but you would not find a place like that anywhere else

in the South

M Did the rabbi that you are speaking of say anything about Nazi persecution? Did he tell you

anything about that?

L Oh, yes, we discussed that fully I grew up being very much aware of what was going on and very

conscious of being Jewish and being different from all of my friends I always had a lot of

Christian friends, obviously There were never more than one or two Jewish children your age in

your age group Never Sometimes there was only one person who was in let us say the ninth

grade There were two others my age One had a father who was Jewish but a mother who was

Christian, and he really was not raised as a Jew He was a star of the basketball team Mike

Greenberg, Milton Greenberg He is a practicing physician in Danville now, but he is not a

practicing Jew He and his wife are both members of the Baptist church, I think

The younger son of this department store owner was a good friend of mine, and we were in the

same class and the same homeroom, Marvin Schuster He is now an eminent physician in

Baltimore He is in stomach disorders He is a personal physician to the king of Morocco, for

example He flies him over there He has had a brilliant career in medicine I think he is the chief

of medicine at Francis Scott Key Hospital, which is owned by Johns Hopkins in Baltimore Marvin

and I have remained close friends over the years We always remained good friends while were

going to college and wrote to each other Even now we see each other and keep up with our

families So that friendship has been very close and fast over the years But I had a lot of

Christian friends that I was in organizations with We did a lot of things together

M Was it a predominantly Baptist community?

L Danville was predominantly Anglo--Scotch/Irish If you go down the phone book and saw

Lowensteln [you would be surprised] Even German names [were rare] There were very few

Catholics In those days there were no more Catholics than there were Jews Catholics were as

much of an oddity, let us say, as Jews in the South You knew you were different When I grew

up there were restrictive covenants Jews could not buy houses in certain places They were

restricted to blacks, Jews, Syrians, and a few other people probably My uncle who was born in

Danville got married and wanted to buy a house in a middle-class neighborhood, and he had to go

up and down the street getting neighbors to sign a petition allowing him to live there because he

was a Jew There were restrictive covenants in the area Later, I think in the 1950s, they were

declared unconstitutional

M So from an early age you had a sense that you were different

L Very much so We had to go to Hebrew school two days a week after school In the Orthodox

congregation I see mostly now throughout the South and anywhere else children go only to the

age of bar mitzvah, thirteen, but we actually went to Hebrew school after school until we

graduated from high school I actually went to Hebrew school after school for I would say one

hour, two afternoons a week, until I graduated from high school at the age of seventeen Then we

had Sabbath school, so after services on Saturday morning we would come back Let us say the

service started at 8 30 and was over at 10 00 or 10 30 The rabbi would go home and eat and

come back, and from 11 00 to 12 00 we would then have Sabbath school, in which we would

discuss the religious reading of the day Then on Sunday morning we had Sunday school all

Sunday morning On Sunday morning we normally took up history During the week we studied

Hebrew, on Saturday morning religion, and on Sunday morning normally we discussed the history

and customs of the religion I was not a great student of Hebrew, but I absorbed the history and

had lot of it So we were different in that we did not play [organized sports after school] Even if

we had wanted to be on football teams and baseball teams and the like, it was impossible to do


M Was the sense of being different a bad thing or a good thing, as you look back on it?

L I do not know I think whatever I am I am I am happy my children have had the same

experience, because I think you feel very isolated, I more so than many other Jews because of my

personality Everybody is different So I felt a little bit more alienated in a sense I always wanted

to be like everybody else, but I always recognized that I was recognized as being different And I

was It was sort of a cruel society to grow up in those days HI-Y, for example, would not take


M What is HI-Y?

L That is a YMCA [Young Men's Christian Association] organization Most of the young guys were

in that, and they were really friendly A lot of the people were friendly with you Naturally there

were some anti-Semitic incidents from time to time, but most people were friendly They just did

not take Jews

My father loved to play golf, he was a tremendous athlete He was born in Lithuania in 1898, but

he came to Wilmington, North Carolina, at the age of two, in 1900 My dad was raised in

Wilmington on the beach, where he jerked sodas He was a fantastic athlete Then in Roanoke,

Virginia [DID HE MOVE TO ROANOKE ?] Dad loved to play golf, and there was only one golf

club in Danville in those days, Danville Country Club They would not take Jews, so my dad had

to drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, about forty-five miles away, to play golf, every Sunday


I look back at that with some bitterness in a sense, but when you are growing up with it you really

are not bitter about it It is accepted Like blacks and segregation You do not sit around being

bitter That was the way of life It had never been any different and, as far as you knew, was

never going to be any different So most of the young Jewish people just wanted to get the hell

out of Danville No one really thought much about coming back unless they went into the

professions My cousin who had a very fine haberdashery store waiting for him maybe was one of

those, but those who went into the other professions never came back The community is very

small It has even gotten smaller When my mother died about six years ago I think there were

only about three or four members left in the Orthodox congregation Now it has closed down The

only thing left is a cemetery

M Your mother's name was Rachel?

L Rachel BERMAN Lowensteln

M And your father?

L Henry Lowensteln He had no middle initial

M Growing up the way you just described, who emerged as heroic characters to you? Outside of

Danville, who did you admire?

L When I was little I had a cousin, LeRoy Munsky, who was an all-American at Alabama That

goes back to the early years He was a great football player Many of my mother's relatives lived

in Montgomery, Alabama My grandmother's brother lived in Montgomery LeRoy had gone to

the University of Alabama and was there, I think, at the same time that Bear Bryant played

football He was an all-American and played in the Rose Bowl Alabama had a picture of him up

on the thing We played football and baseball We loved to play that I was never on the school

teams for the reason I told you

I would say the people who were really heroes and who influenced me in those days were Jews

who had really made it, even if in entertainment If somebody was a great entertainer, we always

knew whether he was Jewish or not Jack Benny, for example--whether they had changed their

names or not, and intellectuals, like [Alfred] Einstein We were very proud of the intellectual

accomplishments of Jews I think I felt a little different, but I never really felt that there were

barriers toward achieving I did not ever believe that because I was Jewish I was not going to be

whatever I wanted to be I never even thought about that very much

As a point of fact, the teachers, who were all Christian--there were no Jewish teachers in the

public school system--were not married Most of the teachers in those days were women who

were spinsters, and they never gave us any hope or did not recognize our talent and let us

achieve whatever we were going to achieve So I became editor of the school newspaper

I liked to write, I started writing and sending things off to the Saturday Evening Post, which were

never accepted I liked to write poems and things like that I always wanted to write for a

newspaper I always liked to write I never wrote novels or long stuff like that, but I just wanted to

write and see my by-line and stuff like that I took journalism in my junior year in high school

NORA PAINT HILL was the name of the high school journalism teacher, and she was a

character She was an impressive character She was a widow and a big woman, and she ruled

that newspaper, The Chatterbox, with an iron hand I mean, it won the great awards, Pacemaker

and Columbia Scholastic Press Association and all the other awards, every year It was famous

practically, like a few we have in Florida now At the end of my junior year, at the journalism

banquet, she told me that she wanted me to be the editor the next year, but I would have to learn

to type--she could not read my handwriting So I went to summer school and took a typing

course I was editor and also did poems for the yearbook

I thought I wanted to write, to be an editor, but my mother, who was a very dominant personality--

my mother was a very unusual person--wanted me to be a doctor She wanted all her sons to be

doctors In fact, my older brother became one, not because of her necessarily In fact, my mother

also wanted me to go to the University of Virginia, but my older brother was in the V-12 program--

he was brilliant--and [and he is the reason I went to Columbia University] When they gave him

the test when he graduated from high school during World War II, his test scores were so high that


they sent him off to the navy's V-12 program They sent him off to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of

Technology] Then they gave all the boys in the V-12 program a nationwide test to pick out those

who were strong in physics They did not know it, but they were already working on the atomic

bomb, and they wanted to start training people in the navy--they did not know how long the war

was going to last--to work with atomic weapons They picked fifteen from the entire country, and

my brother was one of those, to come to the Columbia University engineering school--this was still

maybe 1944 or something like that--as physics majors While he was there he also managed to

take some courses over at Columbia College When I was just about ready to graduate [from high

school] he said "Columbia is a great school You should apply here So I applied there and at

the University of Virginia Those were the only two schools I applied to, and I was accepted at


My mother wanted me to go to Virginia, because she assumed I was going to come back and live

in Virginia My mother was a fantastic person in many ways, but she was never able to think

beyond the confines of Virginia She said "You are going to make your living in Virginia It is

ridiculous to go up there You ought to get your education [right here in Virginia] My mother

always thought it was who you knew, not what you knew It was a great tenet of hers So I would

make all these friends at the University of Virginia, which would help me in the future--but not at

Columbia But I went to Columbia I was always very independent

M You were seventeen

L I was seventeen when I graduated from high school I was just barely seventeen This was 1947

I graduated, say, in June, and I had turned seventeen in March When I decided that I wanted to

go to Columbia they did not really fight it They said, "Well, if that is what you want to do, OK" So

I went to Columbia I never really regretted that

M Did you know anyone there?

L No, I did not know anybody there

[M What are some of the things you did when you were growing up?]

L I was busy with a lot of things I wanted to play a musical instrument, but my parents could not

have cared less My older brother played the piano The older one you always [pay special

attention to] I have always remembered that Even with my own children, the older one you give

a lot of attention to, and the others you just sort of let grow up They never encouraged my to play

a musical instrument, but I decided I wanted to play the clarinet, so they let me take the clarinet

We did not have a high school band in those days, but we had a dance orchestra, and I was in

that, and we had a forty-and-eight band, taken from the railroad cars that held forty men and eight

horses in World War I, that was sponsored by the American Legion That was a wonderful


And I was in the Boy Scouts from the age of eleven or twelve I became an Eagle Scout, I went to

Boy Scout camp, and I was a scout leader in the Methodist church (we did not have anything in

the synagogue), I was junior assistant scoutmaster in Troop 54 in the Baptist church My first

troop was Troop 55 I just had a lot of wonderful scouting experiences I went to Boy Scout camp

in Maryland one entire summer and lived in a tent So I would say, though I mentioned the Jewish

part of it, my experiences were typically American growing up, along with being Jewish It did not

stop me from achieving or doing almost whatever I wanted to do

For example (you are going to find this rather odd), I never dated non-Jewish girls You were not

supposed to do that, although my brothers did occasionally date non-Jewish girls But I never did

I had lots of friends in my class, but I never took a non-Jewish girl out on a date Since there

were no Jewish girls my age, I really did not ever date I think I grew up deprived in that respect I

really did not start going out on dates until I was in college I was glad my children did not have

that kind of experience But in those days there was a whole gang of guys that would all hang out

When we went to the senior prom we danced with everybody A lot of the girls did not have

dates, either It did not seem to be that big a deal in those days

When I went to college, you make sure your kid goes up and you go with them and all that Heck,

when I went up for my interview at Columbia, I got a suitcase and took the night train, the

Streamliner that stopped in Danville at 4 a m in the morning I stayed at the YMCA in New York

City and went up for my interviews You talk about discrimination that is not allowed these days

A friend of my brother's who was going to graduate school at Columbia--he had been a physics

major with my brother--went by the admissions office to put in a word for me He spoke to the

admissions officer after I had been interviewed He told my brother that what the admissions

officer had written down on my application was something like, "A soft-spoken, Southern Jewish

boy" That you would actually put something like that on an application [is unheard of today]

Then when I was accepted at Columbia there was a trunk or something that we sent up by train,

my parents said goodbye, and I headed up and went to the dormitories Nobody went up with me

at all

M Let me ask you a few more things about Danville before we go on with Columbia When we were

talking about heroes earlier, [it reminded me of] one thing I have read about, [and that] is the

groundbreaking appointment [by President Franklin D Roosevelt] of Felix Frankfurter to the [US ]

Supreme Court in 1939 I am assuming [that you knew something about that], because your

house sounds like a house where any issue of the day was discussed Was that a big moment?

L I do not remember the controversy, if there were one, because I was somewhat younger

M He was the first Jewish justice, and a lot of Jewish leaders feared this would increase [anti-Semitic


L Well, I think [Benjamin N ] Cardoza was before Frankfurter [Cardoza was appointed in 1932 by

President Herbert C Hoover The first Jew to sit on the U S Supreme Court was Louis D

Brandeis, who was appointed in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson Ed ] Then [FIRST NAME

?] ROSENMAN was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's sort of confidant and speech writer We listened

to Walter Winchell [on the radio], and there was MARK MCGRONSKY, whom we also knew was

Jewish, who we listened to in the morning There were people who we knew who had made it in

news and other areas

M Hank [Henry Benjamin] Greenberg was another big hero

L Yes Jewish issues were discussed We knew what was going on in Nazi Germany I am not

sure we knew much about the Holocaust any earlier than anybody else My mother had relatives

in Poland, and she was the type, unlike anybody else, [that would write] She was one of nine

children, incidentally, and my father was one of seven, so I had cousins all over the place in

Danville Everybody was in everybody else's house Many of my cousins lived in Danville or right

around there, in North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia My mother would correspond with these

relatives in Poland and send them money They would write in Yiddish, and Mother would get

somebody there to translate it, she really did not read Yiddish The last letter (and I still have the

envelope) came written in German with a Nazi swastika on it They were in a concentration camp,

and obviously the Germans were writing these letters or getting the letters written with their names

just to get money Then we did not send money at that time We realized [what was going on]

That was the last we ever heard, those relatives were never heard from again In fact, of all of my

mother's and father's relatives in Europe, wherever they were, none survived that we know of

That is why this Holocaust revisionist crap is sort of a joke Even when I went to Israel later I do

not have any relatives in Israel that I know of All of our families, whatever they were in Europe,

perished totally on both sides of the family

So we were very much aware, and this affected [our lives] I would not say there was any one

incident, but I was more sensitive I was a very sensitive person, I think I think I still am I do not

think the faculty would agree with that too much I always recognized that these things made a

deeper impression on me than they did on people around me, on my parents, my brothers, for


Segregation was always revolting to me, even though I grew up in a segregated society I could

never get on a bus [without seeing evidence of segregation] In those days, from the time you

were little until the time you graduated from high school--in fact, when I got out of college, my first

job was in Danville, Virginia, with a newspaper there--you get on a bus, and it said "The law

Colored people must sit in the back of the bus, and white people must sit in the front of the bus"

Even that was more restrictive than say Richmond, where colored filled up from the back of the

bus, and whites filled up from the front Richmond was considered liberal In Danville there were

black seats in the back of the bus, and if there were no whites on the bus and fifteen blacks, they


had to stand in the aisle They were not allowed to move beyond those black seats That always

really tore at my heart in some way Even from the time I was a kid I could never really stand it

I used to go to New York with my father and mother--Dad would go on buying trips usually in

August, and when I got into my teens I would go up with them to New York for a week--and there

would be segregated dining cars up until the time you got to Washington Then as you entered

Maryland--on the same train--new people would come in The Southern Railroad engineers would

get off, because it was a joint train, and Pennsylvania conductors would get on, and then there

was no segregation That looked strange to me It looked odd to me Segregation was just

something [that offended me], especially where it was obvious, like on the buses and drinking

fountains I always considered myself quite sensitive, so I was very sensitive about what was

happening to the Jews, I was very, very sensitive, and I think that this is one thing that impelled

me more into the Israeli army than the average person

M There is one more thing I want to ask you about before we get you to Columbia, and that concerns

a comment you made a while back that intrigued me You said you always lived in a kosher

home until about a month ago What happened a month ago?

L Well, it got to be that we just thought this does not make any sense anymore We always did it

because it was easy to do, it was not that difficult, and we wanted our children to grow up in a

religious home Then Bronia's parents maintained a kosher home, and my mother did, also, and

we wanted them to feel comfortable when they came to visit us It got to the point over the last six

months or year that we eat out 50 percent of the time, and we do not eat kosher food when we eat

out None of our friends--not one of our friends--maintains a kosher home We eat at their

homes, and they eat at ours Now Bronia's mother moved here She gave up her home and is

living at the Atrium She does not eat in a kosher home anymore I mean, when Bronia's mother

finally stopped keeping kosher (that is what you call it keeping kosher) and my mother died, I said

to Bronia, "This is really absurd We still have two sets of dishes for milk and meat, and two sets

of pots and pans and everything We will not bring in ham and things like that This is just absurd

Our children do not keep kosher, our brothers and sisters do not keep kosher We are the only

ones left, and it just is not meaningful anymore since we are not really maintaining ourselves"

We could have done it for some purpose until we died, I guess, but it seemed to be sort of


M I was just curious I had the feeling that when you went off to Columbia that was your first

experience in New York, but you just said that you went on buying trips with your father

L We just stayed in hotels there Again, it was sort of a culture shock for me, coming from a small

town to live in a big city, seeing Jews everywhere I was not used to having many Jews around,

and Columbia University was probably fifty percent Jewish There were Jewish girls to date

[laughter] It was a smorgasbord, so to speak, but it was quite different

M Why did you have that requirement and your brothers did not? What do you think made you [do


L Well, I was just more sensitive about it It was something that my parents did not approve of and

the community generally did not approve of I consider myself very independent, I am very

conformist, also, so I really did not want to hurt other people I think a sensitive person not only

recognizes a certain thing but does not want to hurt his or her parents I thought that that would

hurt them to do it My older brothers did not care that much, and they fought them on it There

were big arguments about it

M Ever since then you have gone to New York frequently What was it like in 1947 when you


L Well, it really was quite different If you take a look at Columbia, to one side Amsterdam Avenue

was all Irish, and then Broadway was mostly Jewish There were no problems We could go

wherever we wanted to, even very late at night There was no crime problem I never knew of

anybody that got mugged That is the truth I went there from 1947 to 1952, because I did my

graduate year there too, and I never knew of anybody getting mugged, truthfully So it was just a

lot different

Then when my son went there in 1976--he went there from 1976 to 1980--by that time it had

changed tremendously People were getting mugged, and the whole character sort of [went

downhill] I put it on mugging, but that is sort of symptomatic of other things The city had

become more dangerous and different, certainly, and the neighborhood around Columbia was not

as nice, I would say

M Did you live in a dormitory?

L Yes, I lived in a dormitory for five years I lived in the undergraduate dorm, HARTLEY Hall, for my

four years of undergraduate work, and then FERNALL Hall, the graduate dorm, the year I went to

the graduate school of journalism

M Did you have any steady roommates, or was it revolving?

L I had several roommates in the undergraduate years, but there were people living around me that

I was very friendly with My roommates were always Christians, incidentally The graduate year a

good friend who lived across the hall, WILLARD BLOCK, who later became a vice-president of

CBS, he and I roomed together He and I have been close friends over the years He and I

roomed together in FERNALL Hall He was going to law school--he went only one year--and I

went to the graduate school of journalism, which is only a one-year program Then we both went

into the army

M There was no undergraduate program in journalism?

L No, none at all

M So what did you study when you started?

L I started off as a pre-med, but at the end of my first year I knew that that was ridiculous I knew I

was doing very well in the English and humanities courses, but in chemistry I was struggling First

of all, I had an inferior background I had an awful chemistry teacher in high school, just horrible

You could have gotten a good chemistry education My brother had a very good chemistry

teacher But this was during the war years, and this guy was dragged out from somewhere So

the boys in the Northeast, and that is what most of Columbia was, had really good science

backgrounds, and I had an inferior science background My language background was better

than that I looked back at the South and [realized] the teachers that we had were really very,

very good in the things that did not require equipment All the other stuff that Southern schools

could not afford I did not do very well at I did not like it, I did not like chemistry I did not really

understand it, so I decided I was not interested in medicine

I was interested in writing "I want to be a writer" Not necessarily a newspaper writer I wanted

to start in newspapers, but I always wanted to write novels or nonfiction I always wanted to do

longer works, so I thought in those days But the newspaper was really a good place to start

I went out for the Columbia Daily Spectator immediately My freshman year I was on the track

team and in the band, the Columbia marching band and the symphony band

M You played clarinet?

L Clarinet In fact, I was in the band when we beat West Point, which was the first time West Point

had been beaten in four or five years During the war years they had all these great players

Then, of course, my life changed radically I did not come back after the first half of my

sophomore year, and I ended up in Israel

M Let me ask you a few more questions before we talk about that That is one of the things I thought

we would spend the most time on What were some of the events you ran in track?

L We had no track team in high school, but I thought it would be fun to run I had no real skills in

basketball or football or those team sports I told you we played in the backyard and on sandlots,

but I could never be on a team Running was something I thought I could do, so I went out They

encourage you at Columbia to go out for intercollegiate sports of all kinds, so I went out for the

track team The track coach was very supportive and suggested that I try running distances I

started on cross country and really liked it I was never really very good I ran cross country,

which for freshmen was three miles Then when it got cold we went indoors, but we really did not-

-it was an outdoor track right in front of the dormitory, a wooden-bank track about an eighth of a

mile Then I did the two-mile indoor I was in freshman track meets I was never really very

good, but I practiced every day and enjoyed it I was pretty strong physically

M Where do you run cross country in an urban environment? Did you run through the streets?

L No Believe it or not, there are places in New York like VAN COURTLAND Park, which was right

near Baker Field In fact, where we practiced, Baker Field was up at 135th Street or something

like that We had to take the subway and go up to the football field That was an open-space

area, and we practiced there Then for our track meets we would to go VAN COURTLAND Park

I was in a track meet at Princeton once We went to the other Ivy League schools, and they had

places to run

M There is another question I wanted to ask related to the feeling you had in Danville of being

different When you arrived at Columbia there were more Jewish students, of course, but did you

feel different because of your Southerness?

L Yes, that partly, too I spoke differently than they In fact, that was amusing and unusual to

Northern Jews who had really seen very Southern Jews Many had never seen a Southerner, and

they would mimic the accents I had a heavy Southern accent, growing up in the South, and they

thought that was very amusing I remember I checked in once, and she asked, "How do you spell

your name?" I said, "Arra, A, L, P, H She said "Stop Arra? What is Arra?" [laughter] I will

never forget that

M It was more in the nature of good-natured ribbing

L Right But I had a lot of Christian friends, also In fact, we used to go out on dates I did not

make too much of the Jewish thing at Columbia because there many of my close friends were

also Christians We double-dated together, and it did not seem to make a lot of difference

M I was going to tell you whenever you speak to my class one of the comments the students often

would make afterward is "Where is he from? He has such a nice voice "

L Right The accent has changed over the years I taught ten years at Texas Western College, now

called UTEP [University of Texas at El Paso], and the accent is more Western, like California and

Arizona Truthfully, there were words that I was pronouncing that I could see [why people had

difficulty understanding me] When I would say haawrse they did not know what I was talking

about You drop those Rs So I began pronouncing Rs I have sort of a mixture of an accent I

realize there are still inflections of the South, but I do not say mouse and house [with a distinct

Virginia accent] and things like that I have tried to pronounce things a little bit differently than I



M I would like to get started talking about what took you to Israel in 1948 Was that the beginning or

the second semester, when you were a sophomore?

L I had finished my freshman year There were opportunities There were things posted around

Columbia that the British Union of Students was recruiting American college students to come

over and work on farm camps in England in the summer of 1948 They still had a shortage of

farm labor there They were demobilizing the British soldiers A lot had been killed, and some

were still in the army, so there was a shortage of farm labor for one reason or another The British

Union of Students came up with an idea of getting Americans to come over, and they convinced

the U S government to make a ship available It was interesting It is not done anymore, but it is

too bad it is not

Again, we had troop transports out the ears that we were decommissioning, so they took a troop

transport that was already chartered to an American line (I have forgotten what the American line

was then), and the government subsidized it But it was an old, fairly small troop transport, the

kind like Henry Kaiser churned out one every day or something like that For a very inexpensive

amount of money--I think the round trip cost $140 or some ridiculous amount of money, even for

those days--you could go on this troop transport over to England to work on this farm camp Of

course, they took youth hostelers, to get on this ship you had to be a bona fide student or faculty

member, so there was some exchange faculty as it turned out later, youth hostelers, cyclists,

whatever, and a number of us going to work on farm camps in England

I was a Zionist I ought to say that I was always a Zionist, if you consider that a Zionist is

someone who strongly believes that there should be a Jewish state in Palestine This rabbi

influenced us in that direction

M That was the consensus in your family?

L My mother joined Hadassah, which is really the Women's Zionist Organization [of America] A lot

of people do not realize that Hadassah is a women's Zionist organization My mother joined

Hadassah four years after Henrietta Szold founded the organization in 1912 My mother joined

Hadassah when she was a teenager in Danville, Virginia My mother was an officer in the


Danville chapter of the Hadassah, either president, vice-president, or secretary/treasurer, for fifty

years My mother was very active My father was also an active Zionist in Danville [He worked

on such projects as] the United Jewish Appeal My dad was considered a community leader

People respected him tremendously

Again, I knew what was going on in Europe, and the Holocaust was very vivid to me, especially

after the war You have to consider my age I was too young for World War II--I was fifteen when

the war was over Basically in the back of my mind I thought it would be a nice experience to do

this, but if I had a chance to join the Israeli Army I would do it I did not tell anybody about that

M That was in your mind?

L That was in my mind from the beginning, but I never told anybody about it, because I knew that if

my parents knew that there was no way they would ever let me go

M But if it was consistent with their beliefs

L No way You can have all kinds of beliefs, but you do not want your child to put his life on the line

It is different if you are an American and your country is at war You do not want your kid to go

and get killed, but you know it is his duty to do it Everybody else is serving, so you are not going

to try to keep your son out of harm's way You would like to do that, but you are not [going to stop

him] But when it is going on somewhere else, you are not going to take an eighteen-year-old kid

[and let him fight someone else's battle] [Very seldom] did it happen in my experience that there

were any parents that would agree to that

But in any case, I went over, and they had one international camp It was a really unusual

experience It was near Norwich, and a guy from Harvard, two Vassar girls, and I were assigned

to that one camp We were there for about a month, I guess, in June It was really a great

experience It was a cherry farm called Westwick Fruit Farm We lived in a barn There were

students from all over the world there There was not a huge bunch of us, maybe altogether

twenty-five or thirty students from Sweden, France, Wales, Ireland It was a great experience I

got to meet kids from all over Europe and all parts of England


The plan was that I was supposed to go to Europe after this, I was supposed to tour Europe by

myself and then come back and meet this boat that was returning back to the States in August

M I want to ask you about that voyage It does not sound very appetizing traveling to Europe on a

troop transport

L It was greatly It was fantastic

M Was it rougher than it would be on an ocean liner?

L Oh, yes In fact, what we had to sleep in were these bunks that folded down that were made out

of canvas We had just the barest [amenities] I am not even sure they had mattresses, but we

had sheets There were guys all over There was a head--no bathroom It was just like the

troops [experienced] There was a big toilet for everybody to use The food was very good We

sat at long tables, and the food was great I learned to play bridge There was nothing to do It

was nice weather We sang and we played bridge and we read It was a five-day voyage I

always had an idyllic image of this It was so much fun, and I enjoyed it so much I always

thought, When I can afford it I am going to take a boat over to England or back from England

This is really funny About six years ago for our thirtieth wedding anniversary, without Bronia

knowing about it, I got tickets to fly over to England but to come [back on a ship] We came back

on the QE II, and we hated it It was awful Even though it was luxurious, it was boring Not that

we do not enjoy being together, but the ship had problems It was not good weather, so we could

not be outside like we did on this boat going over, when we were out on the deck all the time

M Claustrophobia?

L Yes, very much so And it never docked anywhere, of course It went over much faster, it made

the trip at least one full day faster I think it may have taken us seven or eight days I forget how

long it took, but the ship [the troop transport] was pretty slow [Aboard the QE II] we got back in

four and a half days

M Nobody got seasick on the transport on the way over?

L No The weather was good It was going like this [up and down], it was a small ship I do not

remember people getting seasick They probably did, but I did not


When we got there we were met by kids from the British Union of Students We docked in

Plymouth, and they actually met us and took us into their homes We spent the first night in their

homes It was a very nice experience altogether

M I interrupted when you were about to say that the plan was to tour the Continent by yourself and

then return

L Which I did

M And that is what your parents expected

L Right I went to Paris and I went to Brussels and Amsterdam I guess Paris was my last stop I

came back to Paris, and then I was seeing the things around Paris By this time it was July, and

the war had started in May I mean, this was not the beginning of the war The war had already

been going on [On May 14, 1948, the League of Nations mandate effective in 1923 that gave

control of Palestine to Great Britain ended, and they withdrew The Jewish National Council

proclaimed the State of Israel The next day Jordanian and Egyptian forces invaded the new

nation ] There were truces and it would stop, and then they would start fighting I was reading

everything I could in the British papers about it, and the editorials were very hostile to Israel, very

hostile The British press was very hostile They had 600,000 troops there up until May 15 The

Irgun Szai Leuml [a dissident armed Palestinian organization] especially was killing British troops

to try to get rid of them That is one reason the British finally left, because they--they were called

terrorists--were making war on the British as well, and public opinion demanded they get the hell

out I hated the British press and the way they were criticizing Israel, and I felt very strongly that

now they had been wiped out in Europe and they had their backs to the wall and so on, and I

simply wanted to help I felt strongly about it that I was willing to risk my life for it I really was I

was smart enough to know that you could get killed there, too, but I felt strongly enough about it

that it did not make any difference to me

I went to the Israeli Embassy [in Paris] which had just recently opened In fact, when I walked into

it they were still patching up things and nailing things around and everything I went to the

secretary In fact, I had a hard time finding the embassy because I did not know French The only


French word I knew was the word for Jew, Juif. I looked in the phone book for something starting

with Juif The first place I went to was a kosher butcher shop, and either he directed me there or

something The second place I went to was the Israeli Embassy I went up to the receptionist and

said, "I want to join the Israeli army," or something like that She looked at me and pulled out a

little piece of white paper and wrote an address That is all she did It was a little bitty piece of

paper, and she wrote an address on it This address was near the Arc de Trlomphe

I went to the address In fact, I wrote a novel [Bnng My Sons from Afar A Novel of the Israeli

War], and this is sort of described in this novel It was like an business apartment, a store front--I

have forgotten exactly what I went in, and there were just two bare rooms and a couple of

spartan desks and wooden chairs That was everything Around the walls were sort of

HAGGANAH posters, some guy with his hand up on a rifle or something like that These people

were very suspicious, because they were worried about British spies The boats were still being

stopped by the British, they never knew when the British were going to try to stop boats, what the

U N [United Nations] was going to do, and things like that They looked at my passport and

asked if I was Jewish I said "Here is my passport That is a Jewish name They said 'Well,

that could be anything Can you prove that you are Jewish? Can you recite the alef beit--the

Hebrew alphabet?" I did the Hebrew alphabet for them, and that convinced them apparently, that

along with the name They gave me papers and said, "First you will have to have physical"

They then gave me [the names of] three or four doctors located in different parts of Paris who had

agreed to do physical on people who had volunteered to go over, and I went around and got this

physical Of course, I was in perfect physical shape

I brought the papers back, and they said (I have forgotten a lot of the details), "We need to take

your passport now We are going to give you a train ticket to go to Marsellle Someone will meet

you," and they showed me how they would meet me at the train There were two other guys, two

other Americans, there who had met at the same time, and we were introduced to each other

They said, "We do not want you to talk to anybody You now have another name They gave me

papers for a displaced person who had either died or whatever His name was ZERTCH


ITZKOVITZ, and the papers were made out to look like I was a bona fide DP, displaced person,

from Poland or someplace like that It was all in French, so I am not sure what it all said And I

gave them my passport That was the most valuable thing you had in those days, and I gave

them my passport, and the other two guys did

Of the other two people, one was named Frank Pearlman, and the other one was named Jack

Shulman Frank was from Pittsburgh, and Jack was from the Bronx As I will explain, I never

used my pseudonym The bottom line, I will tell you, is that two of us, Frank (who was ten years

older) and I [became good friends] They were both veterans of the U S Army In fact, everybody

was but me, practically I almost never met anybody who was as young as I When I got there I

was the youngest American in the Israeli Army In fact, I was younger than almost any Israeli I

looked even younger That was the thing that threw people When I was eighteen I looked like I

was maybe fifteen Now people tell me I look a little younger I am sixty-two years old, and I look

a little younger I have always looked a little younger than I am So I really looked like a kid, and

this older guy, Frank Pearlman, took me under his wing, really He was an experienced person I

think Frank was about twenty-eight, and he had served in the Pacific as a Japanese interpreter,

but in combat and so on He was really a nice guy and became sort of like a big brother to me

Jack was killed in the Negev [Desert in southern Israel], so of the three of us, only two came back

Jack was one of the I think seventeen or eighteen Americans killed during the war

M What was the trip like from Marsellle?

L We were sent on the train to Marsellle--third-class or something like that These guys were eating

some stinking cheese next to us and stuff like that We got there, and Israelis met us at the

station They were like camp counselors, you might say, although it was totally different We

went into this one displaced persons camp in Marsellle, which was like an old villa with

surrounding grounds that was in complete disrepair That was sort of a holding place There the

three of us were the only Americans at that time--the rest were DPs, displaced persons

You might almost say [they were] the dregs of humanity, because these people had survived the

Holocaust, and probably many of them had survived by dog-eat-dog They had more powers of


survival than anybody else It did not mean they were too damn nice about it There were none of

the social graces in that place Fights would break out in the mess line The food was decent I

cannot remember what we got--vegetables, salad, some kind of bread Almost always some fight

would break out in the food line Even though there was adequate enough food, many of these

people were just right above an animal in existence Most were male There were very few

woman who survived the Holocaust, very, very few women A lot of people do not realize that

The people who survived were mostly male because they could work Women and children who

could not work were exterminated There were some women, and there were some people who

had gotten married, and there were some babies by that time After all, this was 1948, and the

war [World War II] had ended in late 1945

M Had you been able to talk to many Holocaust survivors before that time?

L No, not really I had come in contact with none

M Did that intensify feelings that you had?

L Very much so, and I was sympathetic We had these makeshift bunks--wire beds and cots and

mattresses full of straw and God knows what (I do not remember that clearly), and if these people

had bread left over they would take it back and put it under their pillows They were never sure

even then if they were going to get the next meal

So we were there about two weeks, and then we got moved to another camp There were always

rumors that they were going to fly these people over and so on Then we were joined by about

twenty Americans who had been brought directly over Some of these people were pilots, a few

were non-Jewish Every American except me had some specific skill There were very few

people who joined in Paris Jack and Frank had been going to school in Paris under the GI Bill or

something But all those they brought directly from America really had some highly specialized

skill, whether is was machine guns, antitank, pilots, whatever, whereas I had fired a 22 rifle in

high school The guy across the street, my friend, had a rifle, and I got an old 22 rifle, and his

father would take us out and we would shoot at tin cans But that is as close as I came to training

on any kind of weapon I had been in the military corps in the high school Every high school in


the war had this military drill corps, and I knew how to drill out the ears In fact, I had been a

captain, I rose to be a captain in the high school military corps

Anyway, these guys were there, and we sort of got friendly with them There were actually a few

women among the group--nurses I think there were there were three women, of the twenty or

twenty-five people who came directly from America, there were three women there who were

nurses The rest were all army veterans But everybody, even the women, had been army

veterans of World War II

To make a long story short, after two weeks there, they said "We are taking you down to the port

The boat is leaving That was really the experience It was a ship called the Pan York It had

been built as a Panamanian fruit ship to carry bananas--that was it It was only built to carry a

crew of thirteen, there were only quarters for a crew of about thirteen, and concomitant running

water and stuff like that What they had done was taken the holds of the ship and had built levels

out of wood so you could just go down these steep ladders They were not stairs and they were

not ladders, they were like this [nearly perpendicular to the level] They were three holds deep,

and they had taken each hold that was maybe eight feet high and built shelves all around each

hold, so there were three tiers of shelves You were assigned a place in the shelf So like here is

a shelf, and that is your place The shelf was say six feet deep, and then there was somebody

else next to you and somebody else next to you They packed I think 2,800 people aboard this


They allowed the women and children [to stay topside] As I said, there were very few of those

First of all, they wanted to get as many men as possible, because they needed soldiers very

badly Second, there were not that many women and children, anyway So women and children

were allowed to stay up on the top deck They put up blankets and canvas to protect them from

the sun but so they could get air

You have to know there was no air conditioning or anything Those old fruit ships had like

periscopes like you see in those old cartoons, and they were all over the deck Fresh air would

blow in and then down into the holds That was the only way [we got fresh air] Obviously the


ship had been used to being other displaced persons before, and they stank When you would go

down the steps they were greasy, and you would practically kill yourself You had to hold on

because the stairs themselves were made of wood and were slippery

It was a damn miserable trip I think we had three cups of water a day See, there was no water

If you wanted to wash up on the main deck [there was only sea water to use] You could go up on

the main deck as long as you wanted, but there were hordes of people I have pictures at home, I

had a camera, and I took pictures It was always crowded But if you washed at all in those five

days it was with salt water They had running salt water that you could wash in

They had built toilets out over the water In other words, on the top deck they had built these

wooden ten-holers that literally were just wood, and if you crapped or peed or whatever it would

go right down into the ocean These things quickly became stinking messes The DPs would not

do anything These people needed to be completely retrained, and they were A lot of people do

not realize that they were human beings, but many of them had become very much less then

human beings in that experience of ten years or so of trying to survive the Holocaust in the DP

camps We [the Americans] would go in once a day and hose down the inside of those things

This is going to sound very unusual I do not think I even put this in the novel I was a very

sensitive person I think I urinated once in five days Of course, you were not getting that much

[food and water] We were getting three cups of water and hardtack and one can of sardines

That was it for the day Food was rationed and water was rationed because they were not

equipped to take care of human needs I did not have a bowel movement in the entire five days

that ship took One time I went into the tollet--I remember this clearly--and pulled my pants down,

and there was just crap on the wood because people were missing the holes Just as I got ready

to do something this old woman came in and pulled her pants down next to me I pulled my pants

up and left and never went in again It was sort of a stinking mess, and at the same time we were

very much concerned that we would be stopped by British ships or the U N

Supposedly when we got to Israel a truce was won This was around July 14, 1948 I can

remember going into Halfa harbor It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my


life It was a beautiful summer day, and those white buildings up around Mount Carmel were just

gorgeous The feeling of knowing that you were coming into Palestine--Israel, as we called it--was

a great feeling The U N was actually waiting to check to see that everybody on this ship was a

bona fide displaced person According to the truce you could not bring in anybody in but a bona

fide DP, so we had been practicing to say a few Yiddish words I did not know Yiddish I had

German for one year, so I thought maybe I could fake it or something But they did not want to

take that risk, so the Pan York pulled into the dock, and the DPs began getting off Of course,

they had regular papers I had papers, too, for ZERTCH ITZKOVITZ If they did not ask me any

questions I probably could get by with it

But a tug boat pulled up on the other side of the ship--I describe this in the novel that I wrote--and

the twenty-five or so Americans were told, "You guys come over to the other side of the ship"

They put down rubber mats on the deck of this tugboat, and we jumped down about eight or ten

feet, and people were waiting to help catch us We jumped down to this tugboat, and then they

stuffed us into the little hold of the tugboat Then the tugboat pulled away and went to another

dock Then we got off

Without going into great detail, we were taken to a kibbutz at first, where I had my first bowel

movement in about six days [laughter] We showered and washed and got some of the stench off

of us Then we were taken to an induction camp called TELEFINSKI near Tel Aviv Then they

had a procedure where every day officers from different units around the country--it was like a

shaping-up for the dock workers or something--would come and ask who had arrived that day,

what were their skills, what did they need, and then you were taken off This captain of the Pall

Mach came Now, the Pall Mach was an elite fighting unit, but very young people who were like

commandos, and this Israeli officer wanted to take me into the Pall Mach Frank Pearlman came

to me and said "Listen, Ralph That is insanity You are going to get your head blown off with

those guys I am being assigned to an armored unit in the northern part of the country, and I

believe that I could get you [assigned to that unit] You know how to drive, so I think I could get

you in there too I have spoken to the captain who came along, and he said he is willing to take


you So why not come along with me We know each other and so on I said OK [laughter] It

probably is a good thing I probably would not be alive today

Anyhow, I was in the induction camp for five days We went to the unit, and since I knew how to

drive [I became a driver in the unit] Very few Israelis knew how to drive Almost no one had

private cars The only people who knew how to drive were people who had been in the British

army and had driven trucks There were very few cars [in Israel], only trucks It is hard to

describe those days, but very few of the Israelis knew how to drive In Danville you could get your

driver's license at the age of thirteen In fact, I got my learner's permit at twelve I had been

driving since I was thirteen years old I had a permit since the age of twelve In fact, my brother

taught me to drive when he was only thirteen years old That has changed now Anyway, they

made a halftrack driver out of me They began training me to drive a halftrack, which had about

eight forward speeds and two reverses It was a very heavy vehicle that was used to carry

[soldiers and heavy equipment]

M Was it on treads?

L It had treads in the back and wheels in the front It mounted two light machine guns They used

them sort of like tanks, but they also carried a squad of men Five days after I was in that unit--I

had been in the country ten days--I went into combat for the first time

M What was that like?

L Scary, very, very scary I was not driving I went along sort of as a learner I was not driving that

first time, but I was just in the back with the troops My unit was the 79th Armored Regiment of

the Seventh Brigade, and we were the only armored unit--laughingly called an armored unit, there

were no tanks--in the Galilee We were stationed near Acre--in Hebrew it is pronounced ahko--

right above Halfa, at a former British army camp Whenever a firefight broke out, even during the

truce [we were called on to assist] In fact, this was during the truce when I went into combat the

first time [Fireflghts broke out] anywhere along the lines of the Lebanese Up there we were

fighting Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis, and what is called the Palestine Liberation Army FAUSI

COWOOCHIS was the predecessor to Yassir Arafat, and he headed the Palestine Liberation


Army There were infantry troops that were in fixed positions on both sides of the line, and for

some reason or another a firefight would break out, and the truce would be broken Because we

were the only armored unit in the north and could travel from coast to coast--the country was not

that big--we would go there to support the infantry, to give them armored support We had two

companies of armored cars, two companies of half-tracks, and one heavy machine gun company

The armored cars were made in Israel They were awful things They were made on a truck

chassis Frank was made a sergeant of an armored car, so he was in an armored car unit, and I

was in the mobile infantry We carried a squad of eight men, and we had the better vehicle in a

sense, but we were open on top That was the scary part People were shooting down from the

hills, and we were completely open on top Now the personnel carriers are completely closed

M Had you had much time for practice with your weapon?

L Nonel They gave me a German rifle that had a swastika on it They had bought all these used

German rifles from Czechoslovakia, and they gave me a rifle When I went into combat the first

time I had never fired one bullet in that rifle

M Did you try to scratch the symbol off?

L No Nobody did All of our weapons--our light machine guns, our heavy machine guns--were all

German They all had swastikas on them, or the German eagle The other weapon that most of

the drivers had that I later got--I gave up the rifle and got one--was a Sten gun They were made

in Israel, but they were a British weapon It was a very inferior submachine gun It had a barrel

this long and a clip of about twenty nine-millimeter bullets, and they shoot at a very low rate If

you put it on automatic it goes about bang, bang, bang--that is as fast as it goes Since it was

more compact it was easier for a driver to have one of those than to have a rifle But I later did

shoot that

M How were your enemies armed?

L Lousy

M Just as bad?


L Oh, awful If anything they were worse than we were They had a few tanks We did not have

any artillery, and they had a few artillery pieces But we were against the absolute dregs of the

Arab [countries], we were against the absolute worst that the Arabs could put up Thus the good

units, the best armor that they had, was on the central front against the Jordanians and against

the Egyptians, who were very well armed The Jordanians were British led, they had British

officers who were SECONDED from the British army to the Jordanian army We were a good unit,

but we were a very small unit We handled the entire Galilee Then my unit actually led the attack

at the end of October that captured the entire northern Galilee for Israel I am very proud of that

M By that point you were the driver

L After that first time I had been there only five days After that I was assigned a half-track I was

given a half-track and a squad of men I was not the commander, by any means I was a half-

track driver, and that was my squad of men, and we were a team I had that same half-track and

team for the rest of the time I was there

M How would you describe this squad? Where did they come from?

L We called Jews who were born in Israeli Palestinians

M I wanted to ask something more about timing and your family I assume that you left for Europe in

June of 1948, and the war began in May

L Right

M Do you think that they suspected, knowing your beliefs, that this was what you wanted to do?

L Never They had no idea In fact, this is a pertinent part of that When I walked aboard the Pan

York and knew we were leaving that day or that night (I have forgotten exactly when it was) I

posted a letter that I had written to them, saying "By the time you get this I will be in Israel I am

told that you can write me to this address" It was a post office box in Tel Aviv I tried to explain to

them [what was going on] I still have the letter, my mother preserved it I said, "I know this will

come as a shock to you, but this is why I am doing this" My parents went into deep shock My

brother was working for the Bureau of Atomic Scientists in Washington at that time, just before he

went to medical school, and the first thing my parents did was insist that he make an effort to get


an appointment with the Israeli ambassador, who was ELEU EPSTEIN, who later became ELEU

ALLOT, the president of the Hebrew University Either my brother did it or they had other

contacts, and within days they were on their way to Washington to see that I got sent back [They

felt that] they had no right to take a kid eighteen years old My brother described that they went in

to see the ambassador They got in to see the ambassador, although he was busy You can

imagine He was in the middle of a war and negotiations with the United States and God knows

what else, and he had to see my parents I guess they realized that is was an unusual thing

[because] I was so young [and] I was not taken from the United States but had joined over in

Europe and so on They insisted that he contact the authorities in Israel and send me back--that

is what my brother said He looked at them and said "We will contact your son, and if he wants to

come back we will let him out of the army That is not a problem But if he wants to stay that is

his option I can understand how you feel, but I have to tell you that when I was your son's age I

was living in Turkey I grew up in Turkey, and I did exactly what your son did So I can

sympathize with him They never even contacted me I would not have come back, anyway

They later got in touch with a man named Rabbi Israel Goldstein, who was a very famous rabbi

and a leading American Zionist in New York He had officiated in a wedding of one of my aunts,

and the family had some contact with him He came over once in October or November (I have

forgotten when it was), and he sent a note to me that he was at the Dan Hotel in Halfa and that he

had a message from my parents and would like to see me I got a pass one afternoon (I have

forgotten exactly how that happened) and went into Halfa He said 'Your parents really want you

to come back I am just putting it to you I wanted to see how you felt" I said, "I want to stay"

He said "I admire what you are doing That is all I was going to do, give you the message My

mother would me write these tormenting letters that she was unable to sleep and that she was

about to crack up and everything else and how could I do this to them and all this other stuff I

finally wrote back and said "Look, Mother I will write you I think wrote every week that I was

there "I will write you, but just do not write me anymore, because these letters are more than I

can take I did not hear for about a month, and then she wrote normal letters and never


mentioned anything about coming back again She would tell me that she would lie awake at

night and see me, my bones bleaching under the [desert sun] My mother was She

said that she never smiled the whole time I was gone It was pretty heart-rending in a way Yet

when I came back she was very proud of me and so on

M And as a parent later you figured out how she felt

L Exactly When my son was eighteen I really could understand how she felt

M You were talking about some of the victories that your unit fought in

L Well, we did a number of things like these firefights, but the big action was when we attacked in

the Galilee in late October I have forgotten the name of the operation--Samson or something like

that We spearheaded all the units that went in and attacked these various armies If I can sort of

draw a rough picture of what Israel looked like, this is the Lebanese border and this is the Sea of

Galilee and so on Halfa is right here Well, the Arabs held this whole central portion like that

Mount Canaan is about right here, and my unit went over to a place called ZEFAT near Mount

Canaan, and we stayed out in the woods there Then we attacked up, we spearheaded [the

attack], and then we captured the entire [portion of] northern Galilee, which is part of Israel today

It was my unit that spearheaded that whole action

Anyhow, by the end of December the war really was not over, but it was sort of winding down In

fact, the armistice talks were in March There were some battles after that, but they came to all

the Americans who were college students--there were not an awful lot of us--and gave us the

option of getting out and coming back so we would not miss another term of school

In a way I think about whether I really should have done that or not, because I think if I had stayed

there and worked a semester, what difference would it have made? But in those days, when you

are young, you are thinking "Gee, I have missed one semester Maybe I should not miss another

one So I was discharged from the Israeli Army on December 25, 1948 Then they gave me my

passport back I had an entry visa to France, but I never had an exit visa from France I left

France under a different name than I came, so they gave me a detachable visa from Israel that

would be stamped when I left but would then be detached from it, so my passport never showed


that I had been in Israel I think they were concerned that you could lose your citizenship over

this See, passports in those days were all stamped deliberately in that year, "Not valid for travel

to a foreign country for purposes of serving in a foreign army" It actually was not illegal to do it It

became illegal in 1952 to do what I had done, but it was not really illegal [then] The passport was

not valid to do that

We got on board a ship called the Manne Carp, which was very much like the ship that I went over

to England on, an old troop transport that was done by an American line, but this was carrying

passengers They later picked up Greek passengers, too They stopped, and we got aboard the

ship It took either ten days or two weeks, it was a two-week trip in those days--nobody went by

plane in those days--back to the United States It stopped at Piraeus and Sicily and Gibraltar

When we got to the United States the Americans who were on knew that there could be trouble

with passports because they were not in good shape If they had looked at them carefully they

would have seen that there was an entry stamp to France but not one to show that we had left

France--that I had, anyway I do not know where the other passports had come from You knew

that these immigration officials knew that we were there They came out on a pilot ship, and

everybody was going through When they got to my passport they opened the first page and

immediately turned to the back page They did not look at anything in that passport They went to

the last page and stamped it "ENTRY" I never heard anymore about it They did not give us a

hard time They could have, but they had apparently had been given instructions or something--

"Let's not make an issue out of this"

M Do you still have that passport?

L Yes, I still have the passport

M How much thought did you give to staying in Israel?

L None

M None?

L And I wonder why I never gave it any thought When I went over there it was never my intention,

for some reason, to do any more than just serve in the army and then come back I never really


gave any thought to it I never really gave thought to it until twenty years later when they asked

me to come over as head of the Department of Journalism at Tel Aviv University I just never

really considered it seriously I wish I had stayed longer, in retrospect

M Well, I do not want to sound like your mother, but you were risking your life in this [struggle] to

establish Israel, and you were not thinking, In five years when I am married this is where I want to

raise a family

L No, but I should have I wonder why I did not You look back at it and wonder why you did not,

but I really did not I think the reason was that Israel was, and by American standards still is, a

fairly primitive country where the opportunities [were very limited] By that time I knew I wanted to

be a writer, a journalist, or whatever, and I recognized that the opportunities for any kind of growth

in that area were very, very limited One would have to ask himself, "Do I want to work as a

farmer on a kibbutz for the rest of my life?" Not that the money part would have bothered me at

all But that just was not anything I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing You also got the

feeling in those days that Israel was established You did not think that there were going to be five

more wars An armistice was getting ready to be signed, and there were sort of secure borders It

is hard to describe, but I have to admit that it never really even crossed my mind I never really

thought about it I thought about, When this is over I am going to go home and get my education

and go to work as a journalist, and so on

M Did you wish sometimes that you had stayed to be the first historian?

L Do you know what I thought about? I had been a Zionist all my life and had been very active not

in Jewish religious affairs but in community [affairs], and it is too bad I did not think that way,

because I think I really could have served Israel as a diplomat I really think that I could have,

because I am good at public relations and I have a sensitivity to know and I speak like an


I have always been different from most other Americans as a result of that experience, and most

Israelis When we would go back the Israelis would always treat me differently than any other

American There are so few Americans that served in the Israeli Army in 1948, and they always


considered me as different It is hard to describe, but if you ask an American Jew--this sounds

egotistical, but it really is not, I am just facing it--if they have ever known any American who

served in the Israeli Army, almost none will ever have met anybody who ever served There were

probably at most--I am just guessing--1,000 or 2,000 When I got there in July there were only

200 Americans in the Israeli Army If you think there are 5 million American Jews, you will never

meet anybody who ever knew anybody who ever served And most Israelis, either So Bronia

and I and even our children were always considered different than the average American

At the same time, had I utilized that experience [my life would have been very different] The

chances are I never would have gotten up into high diplomacy Who knows? But had I gotten a

good education, and my education was in international relations, incidentally--it was not in

journalism--as an undergraduate Had I pursued that and gone back, and speaking with a slightly

southern accent, I probably could have done Israel a lot of good If you look at YTAN YAHOO,

who was raised as an American, you can see how much more effective a person is who speaks

English than somebody like [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir, let us say, and others who do not I

would say if I had any regrets, and they are not deep regrets, it is probably that I really did not

fulfill that That was a potential that I did not really recognize at the time

M Did you meet or were you friends with anyone during your time in Israel who later rose to some


L I was a private, of course, and all of my friends were really nice people They were corporals and

sergeants, if that My best friend, and I hope to see him when I go over there, became [David]

Ben-Gurion's driver [Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister of Israel Ed ] He sent me a book

autographed by Ben-Gurion These guys became truck drivers and mechanics I mean, that is

what we were I was not an officer or anything like that When I went over to teach, however, two

doors down the street was ASER WEISMAN, who was then the head of the air force and later

became, I think, an associate defense minister He was always considered a little bit too wild to

be chief of staff He was associate chief of staff by then He was the guy who built the air force

for the Six-Day War We lived in a neighborhood with a lot of young officers BARLEV lived four


doors away from us So I met people then I think they were anxious at that time for me to stay

Again, maybe that would have been an opportunity

M That was during a sabbatical?

L I finished my Ph D at Missouri in 1967, and I went over as visiting professor and head of

journalistic studies at Tel Aviv University for a year

M Your pick interesting years to go

L Right It was immediately after the Six-Day War

M As we conclude this interview, let us talk about getting back to America Much to your surprise,

there were no problems returning to America I assume that you went home before you went back

to school

L I went right back to school School was just starting I missed one term of school I caught up in

two summers and graduated with my class I really did not miss a beat I ended up graduating

with the same class I entered with

M So on your return to America you had to go to Columbia right away

L Let me see I am not sure that I did go home I think I may have entered school right away If I

went home it was only for a day or two My mother was there and a couple of aunts

M They were there to meet you?

L At the ship Right

M And that was in New York

L Yes

M So you went back to school That must have been odd, being in a class again after being in a


L Right A lot of people did not even know I had been gone and never realized that I had been in

the army Some did Your friends always knew It always made me a little interesting "Ralph's a

little different" [laughter]

M Did you talk about it very much? Because it sounds like there was some concern about your

leaving the country in order to engage in the war Were you hesitant about it?

L No, I was never hesitant to speak abut it There was always a strange mixture The Christian

friends thought that it was admirable and unusual, and some of my Jewish friends [had the

attitude] "Why didn't we do it?" In other words, there were people who had been much more

active as college Zionists than I, and the attitude was what right did I have to do that when they

did not do it? That kind of thing

M They were jealous

L That was not a big issue We were involved in so many other things I do not think that the fact

that I had been in the Israeli Army stood out It stood out a lot more later in life than it did then

M Do you think, then, that people did not appreciate the magnitude of it?

L Possibly It had happened right then, and it probably was not that big a deal then, looking back on


M I think over the years it probably would impress [someone] more "I was there at this critical

moment in history"

L Yes Well, it was a war of independence, too It was not just a war If you think about the people

who served as foreign volunteers in America's war of independence [you have to pay special

homage] When you serve in an army that really makes a country independent, it just is a lot

different Over the years it has become magnified, I would say, in importance It is sort of funny

to me that when I am introduced now anywhere, that is in my biography, including all the other

things that I have done and where I have taught I served in the U S Army after that, but when I

am introduced as having served in the Israeli Army in 1948, you see people who are ready to go

to sleep sort of wake up They have never seen anybody [who had done that] This guy has three

years or something like that, and it is not the same thing

M Why do you think that is?

L Well, it is sort of interesting The husband of Betsy Wade--Betsy was a classmate of mine at

graduate school in journalism who writes the travel column in the Sunday travel section--is Jim

Boylon, who is the editor of the Columbia Journal and Review for years They were at the AEJMC

[WHAT IS THAT AN ACRONYM FOR ?] convention, and I never really had anybody say this to


me We were sitting at a table talking about I do not know what--not about Israel or anything like

that--and she said to me out of the blue, "Ralph, when I speak to people and we talk about people

who are committed, I always say, 'I knew one person in my life who was really committed, who

was willing to give up his life for something he believed in,' and that was you I said, "Gee, I did

not even think about that myself" I do not really think about myself that way, especially, but it was

surprising to me that somebody like Betsy Wade would think of me in those terms I know when a

lot of Christian friends I have had over the years hear the word Israel they associate it in a positive

sense with me because of what I did So I am really happy about that

M Well, it is in a different sense, but in the Spanish Civil War, too, there were some Americans who

volunteered to fight for a cause rather than a country There is something that is just so

admirable about that

L I had a friend--in fact, the guy that is one of the main characters in my novel who was a corporal in

charge of the half-track drivers (I call him Abba in the book) that I am still close to and keep up

with--had served in the Spanish Civil War and had also served in the British Army during World

War II I am very proud of it, it is a very proud chapter in my life It is something that identified

me, that stamped me as being different than most other people I have found, in terms of drawing

this tape to a close, in terms of being an administrator or a teacher or whatever, I came back with

a tremendous feeling of self-confidence--of self-worth--that there was nothing that I could not do if

I really wanted to do it I had the courage and, I think, the intelligence, to do almost anything that I

wanted to do That is really important, I think, in leadership, that you feel that you are tough

enough or strong enough or willful enough to do what you want, as long as you are still sensitive

about it, and that other people understand that you are a person of principle and that they cannot

push you around If they try to push you, there are things you can do about it

For example, ever since I have been dean I have always known, having the broadcasting stations

especially, that if anybody ever asked me to compromise my principles on freedom of information

that I just was not going to put up with it and that I would resign before I would put up with it I

have always known [there was a danger of losing my position ] I have always wondered, How

long would I be dean, because there is some president or vice-president who said, 'You will run

this," or, "You are not going to run this story [I have always felt] that I am not able to do it in the

face of that, but I do not have to stay as dean Fortunately, that has never happened But at the

same time, [thinking of] somebody like me, you know that I know, and they probably know, that if

they ever tried it somebody like me is just not going to put up with it I cannot stop it from

happening, but I am not going to stay here and take it, either I think that that is important in terms

of being a leader, that the people know that he has a certain amount of courage and strength

M Another thing about your professional career is that there are lot of people who do eventually

come to that sort of resolution or conclusion, but you had it when you were eighteen

L Right In other words, there are lots of people like that If you had to serve in the Israeli Army to

do it there would be no leaders around But it was good that it happened to me at an early age It

is sort of funny When we lived in Israel I insisted--most Americans who go there would put their

children into the American school, where everything is in English and there are mostly

Americans--that our children go into Israeli public schools In fact, school started the day after we

got there They were the only two kids in the elementary school who did not speak Hebrew, who

were English-speaking They had to learn Hebrew We got tutors every day for the first month,

then three times a week the second month, once a week for the third month My daughter came

home crying every day for two weeks At the end of three months they spoke Hebrew fluently,

they could do all of their homework in Hebrew, which is right to left In fact, I was never fluent in

Hebrew, and the kids were They have said later, "Dad, when we came back from Israel we had a

great feeling of confidence that we could do anything If we could learn Hebrew and do our

homework in Hebrew and speak Hebrew, then there was nothing that we could not do In a way,

it is good to put kids into a certain kind of fire and demand certain things I guess I demanded that

of them When I was eighteen I demanded that of myself

M Well, that sounds like a good place to conclude today Next time we will start talking about

Columbia Thank you very much


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