In the course of my work I’m fortunate to meet, and work with, some fabulous people. Interesting people with diverse backgrounds, lives of accomplishment, even intrigue. Over the last couple of years I’ve had the chance to interact with such a person – Andrew Nagorski. One of the most fascinating people I’ve ever talked with. [You can read his more complete bio is HERE.]
In light of today’s ongoing journalistic fiasco with the media, I present this interview, as it shows what takes place in the process of reporting world events, and the lengths that a good reporter will go to in order to get a true, in-depth and honest story for his readers.
Andrew Nagorski is an award-winning journalist and author who spent more than three decades as a foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek.
From January 2000 to July 2008, Nagorski served as senior editor for Newsweek International, handling the editorial cooperation between the parent magazine and its expanding network of foreign language editions, launched during his tenure. Newsweek Arabic in 2000; Newsweek Polska, in 2001; Newsweek Russia in 2004; and Newsweek Argentina in 2006. Nagorski has been honored three times by the Overseas Press Club for his reporting.
He was Berlin bureau chief from 1996 to 1999, providing in-depth reporting about Germany. From Berlin, Nagorski also covered Central Europe, taking advantage of his long experience in the region and his knowledge of Polish, Russian, and German.
From 1990 to 1994, he served as Newsweek’s Warsaw bureau chief, and he served two tours as Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief. In 1982, he gained international notoriety when the Soviet government, angry about his enterprising reporting, expelled him from the country. After spending the next two and a half years as Rome bureau chief, he became Bonn bureau chief.
From 1978 to 1980, Nagorski was the Hong Kong-based Asian regional editor for Newsweek International and then as Hong Kong Bureau Chief.
In 2009, Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski presented Nagorski with the newly created Bene Merito award for his reporting from Poland about the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. In 2011, Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski awarded him the Cavalry Cross for the same reason. In 2014, Poland’s former President and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa presented the “Lech Walesa Media Award” to Nagorski “for dedication to the cause of freedom and writing about Poland’s history and culture.”
In our discussions, I had an opportunity to delve into some background as well as talk about his most recent book, “The Nazi Hunters,” a detailed account of the worldwide search for those who tortured, maimed and massacred in the name of the German Fatherland. You’ll find his book here on Amazon.
This is the first of two parts on our interview journey.
RB – So many of us go to school, learn a trade or follow in family footsteps, finding a comfortable path of interest, but rarely do people venture out, following another route to more exciting careers. What motivated you to step out and take the course you did?
AN – First, for me it was part of what my father did. He was a risk taker, brought up in Poland, studied law and then Germany attacked Poland in ’39. As a soldier, he and other Polish soldiers were ordered to report to POW camps. He escaped instead, traveling by foot with others and eventually winding up in Paris then Britain. After the war when I was born, my parents came to the United States as political refugees. He started a small news service focusing on life behind the Iron Curtain, and then joined the U.S. foreign service. When I was growing up we lived in Cairo, Seoul and Paris. So I was exposed to many places and cultures, and hearing a lot about the war and history. I also grew up bilingual, since my parents made sure that we spoke Polish at home.
It was probably only natural that I majored in history in college and then was attracted to journalism as a profession. Right after college I spent three years teaching high school social studies. But I then jumped at the opportunity to do a “try out” at Newsweek that developed into a full time job.
RB – And did writing books then naturally follow as an extension of your reporting?
AN – In my case, it did. Writing for a magazine or a newspaper, you’re forced to compress your stories and leave out some of things you find really interesting. You leave out the back story and wish you had more space to develop it. In the back of my mind I always wanted to write a book. In ’82 I was expelled from the Soviet Union because the Kremlin didn’t like my reporting; as a result I became the story as sometimes happens with reporters. I was disappointed not to stay but saw an opportunity to write a first-person account of my impressions of the Soviet Union and that became my first book.
My next book focused on the transformation of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary after the collapse of communism, something I also witnessed firsthand as a reporter.
But living in places like Moscow, Berlin, Bonn and Warsaw, I was also constantly confronted with the legacy of the war and the Holocaust and the question of how Germany could ever have been taken over by Hitler and his Nazi movement. I still had the opportunity to interview many people who had lived through that era, and I began writing books on those subjects.
RB – In your positions you’ve seen many events that shaped the world, met many people that participated in, watched the growth or destruction of societies. From Steven Spielberg to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, tennis legend Boris Becker to Kurt Waldheim. In their presence, did you get a true look into their political and societal soul, or were they so influenced by their positions, politics and affiliations that the true person wasn’t doing the interview?
AN – It’s always a challenge to interview major figures, since they are usually careful about how they answer your questions. They can appear very scripted. But if you got to know someone before they rose to a top position, you have a better chance of breaking through the talking points. For instance, I interviewed Lech Walesa, when the Solidarity movement he led was still struggling against repression. When it triumphed in 1989 and he became Poland’s first freely elected president, I could still talk to him more informally than others could who were interviewing him for the first time. The same was true of Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia
It’s also interesting to do interviews with rising starts in other fields.
In Monte Carlo I interviewed Boris Becker when he was 19; he was already the number 2 ranked tennis player in the world and it was easy to forget how young he still was. When I completed our interview, he stretched his arms and I could see that he had been sweating. I realized that he had been more nervous about the interview than I was, although he was the star and I just the journalist. He could go out and beat the best tennis players in the world, but he was still a kid and nervous about talking to a representative of a major news organization.
RB – During your time in the field for Newsweek and others, you certainly had your time behind a desk, researching and writing. But when those assignments demanded the more involved, clandestine, even dangerous times; being followed by the KGB, or shedding the watchful eye of the government police intent on denying you a secret interview with Bujak, the leader of the Polish underground; did you feel the intrigue, the threats, the dangers, or were you so focused on the story as the centerpiece of your thinking?
AN – You always want to get the story but part of the story is getting the interview, and you can’t help but be affected by the tension surrounding it. Ron, you mentioned the meeting with the leader of the underground Solidarity movement, Zbigniew Bujak, who was the most wanted man in Poland at the time. They had imposed martial law and he was on the run.
I was approached by Solidarity activists and asked if I wanted an interview with Bujak; I said sure but I don’t want to bring the secret police to his door and have him arrested. They said don’t worry about that – be at this corner at 6 pm and someone will come by and give you a signal and you follow them. We went through a courtyard and out a door, jumped in a car that pulled up, drove around the city, got out again and went through another courtyard and into another car, and so forth until they were sure no one could be tailing us. We wound up at an apartment building on the outskirts of Warsaw and I was brought to an upper floor apartment and had a 3 hour interview with Bujak. I was excited and a bit nervous, but mainly because I did not want to endanger Bujak.
In part 2 we’ll hunt Adolf Eichmann in South America, travel with Pope John Paul II and touch on the ISIS/Nazi connection.
My thanks to Andrew for his friendship and taking an extra amount of time to talk about an extraordinary life filled with adventure, history and intrigue.
In pursuit of good reading from quality research, I’m confident you would enjoy a view of history from Andrew Nagorski. A real-life review from the ground where it all happened.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
|George Santayana, 1863-1952 / The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress (Cir. 1905)|