In the course of my work I’m fortunate to interact with some fabulous people. One such a person – Andrew Nagorski. One of the most fascinating people I’ve talked with. [You can read his more complete bio is HERE.]
Andrew Nagorski is an award-winning journalist and author who spent more than three decades as a foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek.
He has served as senior editor for Newsweek International, launched 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 Newsweek’s Berlin bureau chief from 1996 to 1999, Warsaw bureau chief from 1990 to 1994, and served two tours as Newsweek’s Moscow 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.
We talked about his exciting background as well as 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 part two on our interview journey. (Part 1 is HERE)
RB – In your years of writing overseas for Newsweek, did situations of intrigue, danger and history make you a better writer, allowing a better story when in such precarious situations than a guy that shows up, asks questions and goes home?
AN – I think it has to. Once you go through an experience like that, you want to be able to describe it in detail not just some humdrum story that limits itself to “ok, I interviewed this guy and this is what that person said.” How you got the story becomes part of the story. You have to become more adept at writing the description and narrative.
In my latest book, “The Nazi Hunters” when I would go to someone’s house and talk with them, I wanted to describe the scene and that person’s emotions, not just what he or she did. You want to put the reader in the situation, allowing the reader to feel what you felt.
RB – In that most recent book, you extensively researched the efforts of those seeking to find and bring to justice those who committed some of the most heinous atrocities in human history. Do you feel a personal attachment or commitment to documenting such stories?
AN – You can’t help but feel such a commitment when people confide such stories. When I was in Poland in 1995, for instance, we decided to do a Newsweek cover story about the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I tried to find every survivor I could to tell the story of the last 6 months of the camp. So I went all around Europe finding survivors. You don’t sit down with scripted questions in such situations since I found that the survivors usually poured out the stories of what happened. And there are always personal experiences and stories you’ve never heard. You can’t help but be affected by those stories.
One such untold story was about the Israeli Mossad’s effort to kidnap Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, and then fly him to Israel for trial. But El Al had no regular flights between Argentina and Israel. A special flight was planned but what if that didn’t work? Plan B was to bring him by ship to Israel and the only ships available were cargo ships that brought Argentine kosher beef there. In the end, they got Eichmann out on the special flight. But if that hadn’t worked, he could have been smuggled on an Israeli ship carrying kosher beef. Some irony.
RB – With your books’ more specific subjects, is your background Jewish?
AN – I was born into a Polish Catholic family and raised as a Catholic. I don’t think you need to be Jewish to have an interest in the Holocaust and World War II. What happened in that era has much broader ramifications about human behavior, demonstrating that people are capable of both good and evil. It is hard for anyone of us who did not live in such a dangerous period to imagine what people went through—much less to know how we would have behaved under similar circumstances. But we should try to understand those circumstances as much as possible, and I hope my books help readers do that.
RB – We’ve worked several times for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. In doing those projects, we see such an intense passion, a need to carry the torch of historical remembrance ingrained in that segment of society. It seems at times to be an overwhelming memory instilled in every man, woman and child. Does the history of that era ever diminish, or is it necessary to honor those who sacrificed so much and to prevent its re-occurrence? Is it tough to write about such human carnage?
AN – You owe it to the victims not to forget them and just write off their fate as a normal consequence of war. There also has to be some lesson learned from our recent history. The Nuremberg and other trials after the war offered one such clear lesson: it is never acceptable to excuse mass murder and atrocities by saying, as almost all the Nazis did, that they were just following orders. We are all responsible for our actions.
RB – And it’s not just the physical impact but the mental anguish for generations…
AN – …Yes, but there’s even more anguish if these stories are bottled up and forgotten. When I interviewed the Auschwitz survivors, I would tell them that if we touched on any part that was too, painful, we could stop the interview at any time. After telling me his life story in great detail, one survivor said: “I never told anyone any of this because no one in my family was interested.” I was stunned. Many people kept things bottled up for decades and the younger generation was so concerned with their own lives that they never asked about grandpa’s situation.
RB – Most people never find themselves on the world stage of events. In your time covering Europe and beyond, did you have the feeling of being a part of a greater involvement – an inside view of something important? Or is your thinking just directed to meeting the people, getting the story, finding the facts and presenting the events in order to engage others more than yourself?
AN – I don’t want to overstate my role as an observer but I do feel there were times I was very fortunate to have the chance to witness history in the making and to report on it. I was lucky to be in certain situations where I could relate a story with meaning and realism. I felt that with the Solidarity movement, for example, I was able to tell the story and thereby perhaps contribute a bit to their effort to gain their freedom.
RB – When you look at your experiences and travels with intrigue and danger etc., what was the most fun you ever had?
AN – That’s a good question. Maybe interviewing Boris Becker or traveling with Pope John Paul II, who of course was Polish. He did not give formal press conferences, but on trips on his chartered Alitalia plane where he and his entourage were in the front and the international press corps would be in the back. He’d wander down the aisle and everybody would get to ask one question and it was fascinating. He was so multilingual that the international reporters would ask a question and he would usually respond in the language of the reporter. It was amazing to watch. I could ask my questions in Polish, and I felt I was giving him a bit of a break when I did so.
In the 80’s during the Reagan years, during the arms buildup, I got to take a flight in an F-16 trainer after they crammed weeks of safety drills into 45 minutes. During the flight, I really came to understand the concept of g-forces in a very direct way. I managed to avoid getting sick—but just barely. I also got to drive an M-1 tank, that was really fun – sort of like driving a large motorcycle. Those were incredible experiences that allowed me to get some feel of what others do on a daily basis. You come away with real respect for the men and women in our armed forces.
RB – Seeing the leader of a worldwide church, which isn’t totally a political position, have you seen a shift with the current Pope – do you see a difference with his political involvements?
AN – Of course there are always personal agendas and backgrounds, Pope John Paul was the first non-Italian Pope elected in 453 years and some thought he was too focused on Poland. Pope Francis, who is from Argentina, has a different mindset. Some of the issues in Latin America, such as economic and social inequalities, loom larger in his thinking. While John Paul was often critical of capitalism as well as communism, Pope Francis often sounds more strident in his critiques of Western societies.
RB – As a conclusion, and based on your view of history and bringing your book, The Nazi Hunters into the discussion, are there any comparisons to be made between Nazism and modern day ISIS, their methods and execution of their long-term plan?
AN – I think the difference is that ISIS is not a state, not organized in the same way as Nazi Germany. But in terms of their ruthlessness and willingness to go to extremes, yes there are parallels. It is worth remembering that when Hitler was rising to power he was saying things that seemed so extreme that people would rationalize that he can’t really mean it. They assumed he was not going to try to eliminate all the Jews and eliminate political opposition, and that once in office he’d become more moderate. So there may be a lesson there. When ISIS says they are going to eliminate Israel then you need to take them seriously and not believe they don’t mean it. They think in totally different terms than most of us and for them there are no boundaries; they are operating outside anything we consider to be a normal mindset.
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 the 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)|