"I was born in 1937. During the Shoah, I lived in Budapest under another name. I hid in a place maintained by a Lutheran pastor, a friend of one of my uncles. He set up these houses for Jewish children and their mothers or other relatives. He maintained 34. My parents survived but most of my extended family did not.
"I came to the United States in 1956 after the October revolution in Hungary. I got my BA from Harvard in Social Relations.
"Since the age of six, I'd wanted to become a journalist. Before I learned to read and write, or so my mother told me. After college I never had any other regular job (aside from one year on a Fulbright fellowship, teaching philosophy in an Indian university and half a year in Israel as a social worker). I've been a journalist since 1963. I started out at Foreign News Service in New York (it no longer exists). I came to Washington in 1966 and joined Near East Report, a newsletter on the Middle East (and unofficial outlet for AIPAC). I became associate editor and worked there for five years. Then, for thirteen years, I served as the editor of National Jewish Monthly, now called International Jewish Monthly of B'nai B'rith.
"I did freelance work for The Washington Post, The New Republic and The New York Times and for several years I was the Washington correspondent of The Jerusalem Post and then Ha'aretz, as well as the Jerusalem radio station Kol Yisrael. I went to the Washington Post full-time in 1980 for two-and-a-half years. I wrote a gardening column for them for 19 years. They retired me. The Post does not like people to stick around if you get to be 65.
"The Washington Jewish Week was acquired by its printer Dr. Leonard Kapiloff. He was looking for an [editor]. He made me an offer that was difficult to refuse. It was much more than I was making at the Post. I told him right away that I didn't want the job. He made it a paying proposition. He also said he would not interfere with editorial content. He was strictly a publisher. He loved Jewish journalism. He loved Judaism. This would be his contribution to the Jewish culture of the United States. Eventually, I fell for his argument [1983-85]. It was a mistake."
"What was your part in the Operation Moses story?"
"The story was brought in by Michael Berenbaum, who was then the book editor. I thought it was a good story. I discussed it with a number of people, including some Israeli officials who didn't think it was a good idea to publish it, but they never used the argument of pikuah nefesh. We ran it. It was cited by The New York Times. The story blew open.
"Having been a refugee myself, and knowing how insensitive governments are about refugees, how governments feel they own the refugees they help, that refugees can be shoved aside, put in a box, and nobody needs to hear about them, I thought that sooner or later, this story has got to come out. In retrospect, I don't think it was all that wise, but somebody else would've printedthe story. It was a matter of days, not weeks, before it would blow open. That's the nature of a large-scale immigration. You just can't hide it.
"UJA was campaigning, raising money. They had ads in the paper showing Ethiopian Jews. They didn't identify where the immigration came from in the paper, but they did reveal it in public. I had nothing to do with the machinations within the Israeli government. Since then I've heard that they weren't all that displeased with the story coming out, because eventually the government thought there were too many Ethiopians coming to Israel. That they wanted to put a stop to it, or at least slow it down, which they did. After the story came out, the exodus continued [for two months, then stopped for two years]."
"Do you regret running the story?"
Charles sighs. "Do I regret it? Yeah, I guess I do, in retrospect."
"Do you think that Jews in Ethiopia died as a result of that story?"
"I don't think so. There was no mention of lives being lost."
"No mention by who?"
"By, say, Israeli officials."
"The Israeli official [Yehuda Dominitz] in charge of it didn't want Ethiopian Jews in the first place."
"I think that was part of it. There were accusation after the article appeared..."
"It brought Operation Moses to a halt for two years. So surely there were a lot of Ethiopian Jews who did die. I'm not saying it was because of the article in the Washington Jewish Week, but by halting immigration..."
"The Falasha exodus continued for 6 or 8 weeks after we published the story, and it was stopped only after the Israeli government issued a statement acknowledging its existence. In my analysis, what that meant was that Sudan and Ethiopia did not care what appeared in the press they considered and consider lying all the time. They got upset after a government [Isarel] issued a statement. I am not totally convinced that it [the end of the Falashan exodus] was because of an article that appeared in Washington Jewish Week two months earlier."
"Neither am I, but it is not something that can be ignored either."
Edward Alexander wrote in Commentary Magazine July 1985:
"Was it your decision [as the editor-in-chief] to run that story?"
"It was a collegiate decision, but I guess if I had said no, we wouldn't have run it, since I was the editor."
"Did you get fired because of it?"
"No. I got fired because Kapiloff hated the Washington Post, and even though it was in my contract, which he paid for, he paid for my lawyer, part of his generosity, it was in my contract that I could continue with my garden column in the Washington Post. He said I shouldn't and I mustn't. If I do that, he would fire me. I said it was in my contract. I sent him a copy. He was that type of a person. He saw what he saw and he refused to see what he didn't want to see. Eventually, he fired me.
"Within a week, I went to U.S. News under the new editor Shelby Coffey, who I worked under at the Washington Post. He was the most talented editor I've ever met. He was the creator of the section called Style. It was new to journalism. He was groomed to succeed Ben Bradlee [as editor of the Post]. Mort Zuckerman had just bought U.S. News. He wanted the best editor with the best manners. He wanted to take away somebody who was groomed to become the Washington Post editor.
"Shelby thought of me. He wanted to redo the magazine as I had wanted to redo the Washington Jewish Week.
"I was at U.S. News for 12 years. Within a year, I became editor of a very important page called Washington Whispers. It was almost the front page of the magazine, which was not very good. It offered inside information. I think I did well with it. I had a lot of contacts in Washington and elsewhere. Periscope (Newsweek) was never as good as Whispers.
"I had a few good scoops. I enjoyed the chase. People who had something to say, whistleblowers and otherwise, got in the habit of calling me because they knew I do not distort what's given to me. I am a plain old-fashioned reporter.
"We had advance on the Romanian revolution of 1989. That was a real coup. In the beginning of November, I had somebody tell me that the revolution would happen before the end of the year. Then I got another source. We had a strict two-source rule.
"We had things like Lawrence Eagleburger becoming Secretary of State. We had Ken March, the outstanding U.S. News correspondent at the White House. He had a number of scoops.
"In the grand perspective, these things are small. But we got them first. After we got them first, you can forget about them. The finest hour of journalism is an hour, and after that, it's gone."
"Who were the biggest Jewish bullies you had to deal with?"
"Arthur Goldberg, the former US Supreme Court justice and UN ambassador. He had a most distinguished career (in WWII, Secretary of Labor, shaped the UN resolution after the Six Day War) and was an absolute sonofabitch. When I was editor of Washington Jewish Week, he said he'd run me out of the community. My name will be mud. Nobody will hire me. He didn't threaten my family. He didn't say he would kill me.
"One of the things about American Jewish papers, is that people like Arthur Goldberg think it really doesn't matter. He can say whatever he likes. He can threaten me and I have to go along or I'll be fired. But he couldn't have me fired.
"Arthur was the worst example, not Malcolm. Hoenlein has an abrasive aggressive manner. His threats were more subtle. I never felt like I was being targeted or that I should be worried about it.
"My Washington Post affiliation helped me. These guys were never sure that I would stay in Jewish journalism. Many of these guys would say, 'How come you are in Jewish journalism? How come you're not at the Post? Aren't you happy that you left [Jewish journalism]?
"Some Jewish leaders said to me pointblank [when Charles edited the Washington Jewish Week] -- how long are you there for? When are you going back to regular journalism? Or mainstream journalism was a more polite way of putting it. What they usually said was regular journalism."
"They meant real journalism."
"Yes, real journalism was what they meant. I said, I'm doing a story. We can discuss my career, the two of us, one of these days, but I'm interested in what you have to say about this... I'm a polite person. I seldom strike back."
"You're saying that the Jewish elite view Jewish journalism as the retarded stephchild of real journalism."
"Yeah. They believe that you are in their pocket. Many Israeli politicians feel the same way. That you [should] do as told. They are surprised when these things don't work out that way."
"They have abundant reason to feel that way."
"Yes. I fear that is still the case. When I was in Jewish journalism, you were essentially the messenger. You were at best a chronicler. 'I tell you what you write.' The word maskir in the Bible means chronicler. In today's Hebrew, the word means secretary. It's a subordinate position to the leadership and Jewish interests as defined by the leadership. You have to do their bidding.
"I always felt they were somewhat hesitant with me, maybe because of my Washington Post background. Arthur Goldberg was the only one who really let loose."
"Were you happier working for Jewish publications or secular publications?"
"I had a tough job at Washington Jewish Week because my publisher turned out to be an unbalanced person. On Mondays and Wednesdays, he was left-wing in Israeli politics. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he was right-wing. Especially the extreme. One day he'd think the settlers were the heroes of our day. Another day, he thought they should be run out of Israel. Running a story for or against the settlers would normally only agree with him once a week. Otherwise, it would be, 'How could you run that story?'
"He was a personality on the edge. I couldn't completely ignore him. He never apologized. He was good at praising certain articles. One week, he'd say a certain article was good. The next week he'd say it was terrible. The same article. He had friends who supported him and watched what you were doing. He had a nasty way of doing business. My nose was so much on the grindstone that I ignored it for a while.
"For the 12 years I was at National Jewish Monthly, they (Bnai Brith) gave me freedom. I enjoyed it. They complained a lot. Some of them wanted more of a house organ than a general interest Jewish magazine. They wanted their pictures bigger.
"I enjoyed the company of writers for whom Judaism was important."
"Other Jewish journalists told me that the things that would get people's noses out of joint the most often were trivial things. Not over big ideas, but over the size of a picture."
"When I was with the Post and U.S. News, there were other pressures. It was difficult to get story ideas past management. You had to fight through a phalanx of editors to get your ideas approved. When you work for a magazine, you have 25 competing reporters coming up with stories. You really have to hustle, which I do not like."
We talk about Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II and then either died in Soviet captivity in 1947 or languished for decades in Soviet prisons.
"People accused me of besmirching Wallenberg's name because I called him an American spy. The word 'spy' for a CIA asset was irresistible and my idiotic editor insisted on it. It was WW II. The guy was helping the Allies achieve victory over the Nazis. That would never occur to me that that was besmirching someone's name.
"I didn't go into the [American government] archives with the notion that I was going to prove he was an American spy. I found the material.
"What do you think happened to Raoul Wallenberg?"
"That's a terrible story. I think Wallenberg survived until the 1990s."
"In Soviet prisons?"
"Even after the fall of the Soviet empire?"
"He died of old age?"
"We don't know. He would be 92. Yesterday was his birthday.
"In 1995, he no longer knew who he was because of all the drugs and all the treatments given to him by the KGB.
"The man who was convinced that Wallenberg was alive [in 1995] was his best friend from Budapest Per Anger (a modest, self-effacing man who never claimed anything for himself). Per started out giving passes to Jews, a piece of paper that said this person was connected with the kingdom of Sweden. He gave about 100 or so to people who had something to do with Sweden, business connections.
"Then, when Wallenberg came in, he said, that's terrific. Let's make something that looks like a passport. It was in color with the Swedish crown colors.
"Per Anger became Swedish ambassador to all sorts of places including Canada and Berlin. I interviewed him in 1995. He was the same age as Wallenberg. He was still in good shape. He told me that he was convinced that Wallenberg was still alive but that he no longer knew who he was."
"Why would the Soviet Union hold on to him?"
"Because it would enormously embarrassing for them to release him. It would be much easier for them to say, we can't find him. Or, we killed him, which is what they eventually said, then to release a broken man whose mind was no longer there."
"Did the US try hard to get him out?"
"No, because the damn Swedes said they would do it. President Truman offered. He was told no, we will handle it."
"Why didn't we, the US, apply more pressure to get him out?"
"According to my best source in the State Department, we never made it clear to the Russians that it would be in their best interest to release him. There was no US intelligence on where he was. The Swedes knew where he was."
"The Swedes found him an embarrassment?"
"Yes. It was their fault that the Swedish government did not press rigorously enough for Raoul's return. If he returned a broken man, can you imagine what would the reaction have been? Why didn't you do this sooner? Why didn't you get him out? It's a very nasty ugly story. The Swedish government behaved abominably."
Fenyvesi belongs to a Traditional shul (mixed seating, but with the Orthodox prayer book]. He keeps Shabbos and kashrut and studies the Torah. "I have a daughter. She could only read the Haftorah for her bat mitzvah [not from the Torah]."
"How do you reconcile Judaism's laws about lashon hara vs the need to do journalism?"
"I formulate the question differently. It's the truth that we're interested in. There is a great deal of value with the Talmudic rabbis attached to the truth. The Prophets showed how important it is to find the truth, tell the truth. I don't consider the kind of journalism I've been doing lashon hara. I don't malign people. I'm a kind and gentle journalist. I'm careful in print. I don't have that problem. If somebody is a no-goodnik, let's find out. Remember Natan telling King David, thou art the man!"
"Has God ever spoken to you?"
"No. My mother used to be in conversations with God. She came from a Hasidic background. During the war, she tried to make a deal with God. If her family survived, she would keep Jewish Law. If not, that was it. My grandmother was killed. My mother no longer kept kosher."
Fenyvesi writes a biweekly newsletter about human rights for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. "I don't spend much time reading journalism. I spend time with Buber, Rozensweig... I'm working on a book about World War II."