Friday, August 29, 2008

A Mighty Heart

It's probably just a coincidence, but then, some people say there ARE no coincidences in life.

A week ago, at a faculty retreat in Toronto, some long time journalists and I (Ted Barris, Ted Fairhurst, and other colleagues) were sitting at a picnic table discussing a famous book about war correspondents called The First Casualty, by Phillip Knightley. And we recalled several journalists we had known who had been killed covering wars or conflicts, including a CTV TV reporter and others. At the time, I couldn't remember his name. More about this later.

Earlier this week, I read an article in the Canadian Jewish News that it was coming up to the anniversary of the Daniel Pearl Music Day in October, which his family had created after his murder, to work towards understanding and peace around the world, through music.

Today, the name of the reporter killed in Lebanon in the 80s, came to me: Clark Todd. I remember hearing about him when I was in Journalism school at Carleton University, and the class discussing the concept of "bang bang" i.e. how it was a no no for foreign correspondents to fake or re-enact scenes where crowds would riot on cue, or shoot weapons into the air, in order to make their Tv story more action packed. Bang bang was what the visuals were called, for obvious reasons.

Tonight, without any planning, at home, we watched the movie A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie, about the murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. I hadn't actually picked that movie to watch tonight: months ago, someone in my family had checked off the box on ZIP's order forms, included in a bunch of other films we hoped they would send us over time. When it arrived in the mail last week, I was too busy getting my courses ready for journalism school next week, to spend the time watching it.

The movie was as powerful and depressing and shocking as the critics had said it was, at the time it came out. And although we all knew the ending before the movie even started playing, seeing the whole cruel end to an idealistic young western journalist has really made an impact on me tonight.

First of all, I have been a foreign correspondent too: I covered several wars in Africa in the 1990s -- Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique. While I was stationed overseas, I learned that a courageous British U.N. worker who I knew at the time, had been shot to death, for discussing with Reuters, the looting and corruption he had seen involving food distribution to the refugees and displaced persons. It's been too long, so I don't remember his name, but I do remember being horrified and shocked that someone who had dared to tell what he saw as the truth, was murdered for this by people who found his comments inconvenient, or possibly, threatening.

I walked through minefields in Mozambique, I met with rebel leaders, I saw starving children and displaced women, and amputees. Luckily, we were not attacked in the danger zone. After we had wrapped up our work, and were on the way back to Europe, I was mugged in Johannesburg after we left Mozambique for the flight out of Africa. The muggers grabbed by bag with notebooks, a week of photos, and precious tape recordings of my interviews, none of which I had had time to transcribe yet for the CBC. Needless to say, I was thinking at the time more about my work then about personal safety, but to make a long story short, the shopkeepers who pulled out their own guns and chased the muggers to a garage down the street where they held them until the police came, did manage to retrieve my journalist bag intact. I had cuts and bruises, and a swollen neck and tongue where they had choked me when they jumped on me and threw me to the street.

I called a colleague who had just moved to live and work in Johannesburg at the time, Joan Leishman of CBC, and she picked me up, cleaned my wounds, made me drink some strong red wine, and got me onto a plane to Italy. I remember her compound where she was living at the time, in 1992. It had a series of rape gates installed over most of the doors, and these were so that robbers could break in, but not attack her. The place had lots of German Shepherd dogs, and I thought at the time, how courageous she was to live and work under such dangerous conditions in such a dangerous place.

Then I flew home to Rome, where I was living, and the next day, Giovanni Falcone, a famous anti-Mafia magistrate was murdered by a car bomb, and so I went from one horror story in Africa, to cover another one in Italy. He had been getting too close to the powerful clans, arresting leaders and trying to break the Sicilian Mafia. The truth was threatening to the powerful, so it had to be attacked.

Tonight, as the Daniel Pearl story played on the screen, I remember all of this, and think about the coincidence of the timing: on Tuesday, I begin a new year of teaching students Journalism at Centennial College and the University of Toronto's joint program with Centennial. How many of these students will be courageous, and seek the truth, and try to find out what powerful forces wish to keep hidden? How many will toss out the safety and comfort of life in Toronto, and head to a foreign country as a freelancer, perhaps in harm's way, to report on things and places where no mainstream news media outlet can afford to post a full time correspondent?

How many will be still as full of idealism, and yes, naivete, and hope, as Daniel Pearl was in 2002, and in my own way, that I still am today, after 27 years as a journalist? Let's see what the new semester brings.

Something else that's a coincidence? Daniel Pearl's birthday is October 10, 1963, one day before mine, although he was just two years younger then me.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Schwarma leads to scoop for a multi platform journalist

Picking up dinner at Joe's Restaurant in Richmond Hill has always been a success: the falafel, lentil soup and chicken brochettes in pita are family favourites, and they save me from cooking once a month! Plus the owners, Joe and his wife, are so friendly, and they are always in the know about what's going on in the news. But last week, I got something extra with my order of three schwarmas and a falafel.

Another customer was paying for her meal at the cash and I was waiting to order, and, as usual, evesdropping on other people's conversations. That's just a professional deformation, I guess. She was telling Joe's wife (Sorry, I never did know your name!) about the fact she was back to school already (Aug.5) when most schools don't open until after Labour Day. She started telling the owner's wife (let's call her O.W.) about Bill Crothers Secondary School, a new high school that's opened in Markham that she is administrator at, where it's for athletes only, it's public, so it's open to any students who are either elite athletes, or just like house league and healthy living, and that they are opening a new facility with 3 double gyms, weight rooms, and amazing facilities.

Sounded like a great story. Plus, she said it was the only one of its kind in Canada. My nose started twitching, O.W. lent me some scraps of order paper to write on, and I dug a pen out of my purse to take down her name, and some notes.

The next day, when I went in to work, we had a story meeting at CBC Radio News, as usual, and it was all "PROPANE" "PROPANE", referring to how the newsroom was continuing to dig up stuff on the Aug 10th propane explosion. But folks were getting sick of this story, and the editor agreed to let me cover the sports school story.

I called the principal, researched the story on the 'Net, to see if indeed it WAS the only public all sports high school in Canada, and then we agreed I could come out to Markham and do some interviewing and see it for myself. Trouble was, we had only one CBC Van, and Markham is some 40 k away from the CBC offices on Front Street across from the Rogers Centre.
With the propane story requiring a van, we were stuck!

Then the assignment editor decided to reveal details of my "scoop" to the CBC TV news crew at the CBC News at 6, in exchange for them lending me a camera and driver to take me to do the radio story. The deal was: I do stories for radio and for tv, and it would be shared between the news services. I think:"Cripes, I'm not wearing any makeup today!" and "Thank God I wore a nice suit to work!" and we proceeded to get on the road.

Now I have worked for TV for many years as a reporter and anchor, so I wasn't worried about doing TV. I prepared my radio recorder and mics and earphones to be all set for my radio stories which I had to file. As we got into the van, I chit chatted with Neith MacDonald, the veteran cameraman, as we drove out to Markham on a beautiful sunny Friday.

Once we arrived, it was like riding a bicycle. You never forget how to work with a cameraman, and how to carry gear, how to ask where to stand during interviews for TV, and how to suggest shots (gently), how to make sure the sound check was done before asking important questions for TV, and also how to introduce the cameraman as an integral part of the story. And to let your camera operator get the shots he or she needs, once you've discussed the all important "Focus" of the story.

Remarkable how much longer it takes for a TV story to be gathered, then a story for radio. I did my radio interviews quietly, unobtrusively, and quickly, and folks didn't clown around, or jump up and down behind the interviewee screaming "Hi Mom!. And with radio, the students weren't mugging for the camera which required Neith to make folks re-do the shot, to make sure it looked natural. We got there about 11 30 a.m. I was done by 1 :15, for radio.

it took us until 2:30 to finish working for TV. Neith shot the hallways, the cafeteria, the lunchroom, the classes, teachers, playing field, gym, basketball games, and about 10 interviews with kids, faculty and school board staff. And my bridge. And it only took me 4 takes to get the on-camera bridge down right, which isn't bad, considering I hadn't done one since 2007, when I went back to work in radio. And he carried gear from downstairs to upstairs. And changed tapes once. And didn't take a break for bathroom, or food, or anything.

Luckily I didn't have to file on air for radio that afternoon, as the stories were for Monday or Tuesday. And the TV story would be rolled out that next week too, once I cut it. So I sat in the passenger seat of the CBC TV Van, apologized in advance for ignoring him on the ride back to the station, and shotlisted my interviews and sound for my radio stories. We returned to the station at 3:30 and I was finished writing, editing, and recording the 2 radio stories by 8 p.m. Here is one of those stories which aired on CBC on Wednesday Morning August 20, 2008.

That Friday night, I wrote my rough TV story script as well, while I was on the GO bus from Union Station to Richmond Hill. I wrote it out longhand, in my notebook.

On the Wednesday, I rewrote the TV script at home, sent it to the editor by e-mail, and then went in at 12:45 to screen the tapes (which I hadn't seen yet.) It would have been great to learn the CBC TV digital editing software DTV, which is an AVID application, I think. But the material had been erased from the system, so it was back to old fashioned time coding of the Beta SX tapes on their viewing station in the TV newsroom.

It took me about 40 minutes to shotlist the 2 tapes (we shot about 25 minutes of stuff I think) and then I was ready to go to the editor at 3 p.m. We did tape to tape editing, which is old school. Tony Martino and I had worked together when i was a reporter for CBLT's supper hour news show in the late 1990s ( I went to CTV after my first child was born in 1997).

We were organized, and we cut the piece in just over 1 hour, for a minute 39. It was actually going to be 1:45 but the lineup editor had stipulated 1:30 and so we cut out one final interview with the school board official, to get it as close to 1:30 as we could.

I am waiting to see the piece air sometime soon, but even if not, it was great to be a multiplatform journalist.

It's so important to be "talking the talk" as well as "walking the walk" when you are teaching journalism to students.

I think it's vital that teachers keep current, not only so they can have fresh current experiences to share with their classes, but also because they see what the industry is requiring journalists to do.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Visit to Nazi death camp in Italy, in Trieste

On the left: 17 prison cells for detainees. On the right: a German document showing calculation of Revenues and Expenses of a prisoner (Photos by John Friedlan) 

The Risiera di San Saba death camp in Italy.

The Italian city of Trieste is known for its important coffee importing port, its Austrian style palaces and piazzas, and the beautiful Adriatic Sea beaches. It is also known in Italian history as the site of the only Second World War Nazi extermination camp in that country, where an estimated 20, 000 people passed through, and 5,000 people were murdered, including Italian Jews.

I had planned to take the family to see the camp, called the Risiera di San Saba, because I had heard about it from an American Jewish journalist friend Ruth Ellen Gruber who lives in Italy. Today, is it a national monument set up by the Italian government in 1965. 

Here’s how we prepared for the trip: the Friday before, we spent Shabbat in Venice. We toured the synagogues, ate Kosher food at the local bakery, attended Friday night services at the Sephardic synagogue, and later, ate dinner along the canal together with some new friends from Australia, including a Rabbi and his wife, and sang with the Chabadniks who put on the spread.

On the Monday, we visited Trieste, just an hour’s drive away.

In all my years of learning about the Holocaust, I had visited Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and Dachau, and I have seen plenty of documentaries, and I even worked as a video assistant on the Stephen Spielberg Shoah Foundation interviews in Toronto in the late 1990s. But the Risiera di San Saba was the most shocking place connected with the Holocaust that I have ever seen. Perhaps it was because of how my children reacted to it. But mainly, it was because of one haunting document. But first, some background.

The Risiera was actually built in 1898 as a rice-husking factory (riso means rice in Italian) and it’s located just east of the city centre, across the street from the soccer stadium. It began its life as a temporary prison camp for Italian captured soldiers in September 1943, called Stalag 339. But one month after it opened, in October 1943, it was converted to a combination transit camp, prison camp and death camp.

The Nazis picked highly experienced officers to run the place, including soldiers who had previously cut their teeth working in camps with Himmler to murder 2 million Jews in Poland. One man was especially well known for using large trucks to poison Jews.

You enter the Risiera from the street through a long stark cement tunnel. On the left is the main office (visits are free). Next door down is the “death cell”, which according to the brochure, was where prisoners who were going to be executed within a few hours were held, and also bodies to be cremated were stored there.

The next stop takes you out into the courtyard of the factory where you see on your left, a large three storey building. It housed dressmaking and shoemaking shops where prisoners worked for the SS, and also the quarters for the soldiers. These floors are not open to the public today. The main floor, however, has 17 tiny prison cells, with wooden doors, and two bunks each. According to the tour book, the Nazis forced up to 6 prisoners to be held in each one. The prisoners included Italian anti-Fascist partisans, political prisoners, and Jews who were set to be executed.

A survivor of these cells was interviewed for a film that is shown later in the Risiera’s museum theatre. He was Italian. He recalls being locked in the cell for 5 months, with no daylight, no change of clothes, and having so many lice he felt as though he was wearing a coat.

Two of the cells were used for prisoners who were being tortured for information. The museum guide details how the torture was carried out. It was usually at night, to hide the crimes from the surrounding neighbourhood buildings. Loud music was played to drown out the screams, and dogs were made to bark in order to cover up the cries.

Witnesses recount how the guards did the executions: some victims were placed in special vehicles that had gas exhausts connected to the inside, others were hit with a club at the base of their skulls, and there were also shootings.

Today, relatives and other organizations have placed flowers and memorial candles at each cell door and in the room.

Leaving the cell room, you walk back into the courtyard into the next building, this one four storeys high. It was where Jews, and other prisoners were kept until they were deported to Germany. Trieste during the Second World War has 5,000 Jewish residents. About 700 were rounded up and died either at San Saba or deported to other death camps. Only 8 returned after the war.

Outside, back in the courtyard, if you face west, you see a metal floor, and the markings on the complex’s outer back wall that are shaped like a small building. This is where the underground crematorium was located. The architects who designed the museum in the late 60s recreated the shape of the building’s floor only, using metal plates, to trace the outline, as well as the line where the smokestack shadow would have been. The rest of the courtyard is now an open-air non-denominational place for prayer, except for the metal plaques showing where the crematorium was.

Originally, there was no crematorium at the Risiera, but in March 1944, the Germans had one ordered from a local supplier in Italy (under false pretenses, according to later testimony from the builder) and had it installed. It operated for a year until April 29, 1945, when the Germans dynamited it to hide evidence before fleeing the Yugoslav troops who were the first to enter the site. The explosion damaged half the Risiera complex, but human ashes and bones were found and so was the infamous “club” used to kill prisoners.

Moving to the west, past memorial plaques placed by relatives and Jewish and other Italian official organizations, you enter the Risiera’s historic archive collection and museum. It has about 50 panels under glass, with photos of wartime news items, letters from prisoners, identity cards, and the usual examples of uniforms and even ashes of Jews murdered in Auschwitz. Most is in Italian, Slovenian, and English so it was easy to understand and learn about the importance the Nazis gave to the Trieste area as a strategic place between Europe and the Balkans.

But one panel was so chilling, so perverse, so mind boggling, that even today, it is hard to comprehend. 

My husband is an accountant and professor of accounting. So on this trip to Italy, we had earlier made a “pilgrimage” to see the hometown of Luca Pacioli, who is considered the founder of modern accounting. We saw Pacioli’s marble life sized statue, his street, and the palazzo where he lived. 

Here in the Risiera di San Saba, we encountered another kind of accounting: a document in German showed the expenses and revenue entries of a German official calculating how much money (in Reich marks) it cost the regime to house a prisoner in a concentration camp for nine months, including cost for the uniform, food etc. A lower entry showed it cost the camp 2 Reich marks for the gas to kill the prisoner. And underneath, it showed the calculation of revenues from the victim’s gold teeth, personal property etc. 

My children joined us after words in the small theatre to watch the half hour documentary about the Risiera. It showed the survivors, the guards, the officers, and old wartime footage. Both kids were very quiet absorbing their first experience up close and personal with the Holocaust (aside from meeting survivors in Toronto including their long standing babysitter). 

On the walk back to the car, my youngest said to me “Mummy, if I was alive then, I would try to kill Hitler.” They were full of questions such as why none of the Allies tried to bomb the tracks to the death camps, or why none of the Trieste citizens tried to help. We did explain how some of the Catholics in Italy did hide Jews and Italian partisans, but it was a bitter lesson for them in long ago racism and hatred.

By the way, the Nazis who ran this camp were eventually caught, tried, and punished by the Allied War Crimes courts. Most were sentenced to death. The senior commander committed suicide before his trial.