"World War II had ended, and our war for independence had begun. You could feel it in the press... from London, New York... there was a very different spirit in those days," says Alexander Zvielli, chief of The Jerusalem Post's archives and the newspaper’s longest-standing employee. Now, a sharp-minded 93-year-old, whose memory could put to shame that of someone a third his age, Zvielli compiles daily historical articles from the Post's archives.
Zvielli, who this month marks 69 years at the Post; explains that at the sprightly age of 24, having served three years in the British army in Mandatory Palestine, he was faced with two options: to be an Egged bus driver, or to work at the Post. "I chose the Post,” he states, and his utter disregard for retirement indicates that he made the right choice. "Why should I retire? For me, retirement means death," he declares, adding that his job allows him to review at least one book a month, an occupation which clearly brings him joy.
On December 1, 1945, the Post's new Polish-born employee began working as a linotypist, operating a typesetting machine which was in those days used in print journalism to cast lines on a metal slug. He brought with him experience from his parents' printing plant in Warsaw. As Zvielli began his journey at the paper, he lived through and documented the battle for Israeli independence - and has the scars to prove it.
"There was always a danger, because of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi's (Etzel)’s actions - attacks on British soldiers, frequent curfews, it was a struggle from the moment you left your house to come to press," he recalls. "If there was a curfew, you could be beaten by drunk British soldiers, police could arrest you. There were all kinds of recriminations."
Zvielli says his linotype saved his life on February 1, 1948, when the Post came under attack. A car filled with TNT exploded outside the Post, then situated in Hasolel Street, which is now Havatzelet Street, located in the heart of Jerusalem. Pieces of led flew into Zvielli's eye causing an injury which stays with him to this day, impairing his sight out of that eye. "We were lucky, because the house we were in was built after an earthquake and the owner decided to make it extra strong - it still stands today." Zvielli, however, lost a fellow linotypist who used to sit next to him, and many of his friends were hurt. "My linotype screened me from the explosion."
"They targeted The Jerusalem Post, because it is the best source of information on Zionism, the state, everything, so they wanted to close it down. But they didn't succeed," he says, pointing out that even that night a paper was still produced.
The attack, however, caused a lot of damage to much of the equipment, aside from the big printing machine which was unscathed since it was kept under the building. The archives were burned and a lot of material was lost entirely.
With the help of the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency, and the close-by Achva press, the paper slowly rebuilt itself. Zvielli notes that there was a lot of immigration at the time and the entire staff of a foreign paper -- from Iraq, if his memory serves him correctly -- started working for the Post. "They came from the immigrant camps, they had no place to sleep, so they slept on the floor of our paper store."
Even the mere distribution of the Post to Tel Aviv and Haifa was, back then -- due to the blockade on Jerusalem -- a risky endeavor for the driver, who had to make his way to the cities along dangerous roads.
After the War of Independence, the Post created its own information bureau, and put Zvielli at its helm.
Journalists from all over would pay for access to information from the bureau - "we had information that no-one else had - we had visitors from all over the world.”
This sought-after information turned the archives gatekeeper into somewhat of a celebrity in the journalism world. "Once I was in Pearl Harbor. There was a press conference there with President Bush, but I had gone to visit the synagogue," he relates. His visit took on a different nature when he discovered that the synagogue was closed, and was directed to the office, where two marines photographed him and issued him a special pass to attend the press conference. "There were some 40-50 journalists there, who came over to me to ask what I was doing there." They all knew him from the archives.
While Zvielli enthuses about the difference that modern technology has made to his work, and has adapted smoothly with the times to the wonder of his colleagues, he regrets that the archives are barely used anymore. “A computer cannot give you the story in the same way,” he says. Today he works alongside two other colleagues in the archives and remarks that he receives many letters about his historical column. “People like it because history repeats itself, and there is a chain,” he says sorrowfully. “Our hope after the Six Day War was that there would be peace, and it was a pleasure to work here because there were great expectations.” Today, he opines, that spirit has evaporated. “You open the paper and find pages full of parties - who is who and who wants what. It looks like one big chaos.”
While he decries the content of present-day news, he opines that the paper itself has held onto it's values. He acknowledges that it shifted to the Right since the days under its founder, Mapai member Gershon Agron, but says that today it offers stories from both the Right and Left. He overflows with admiration for Agron, emphasizing that he poured his heart and soul into building the paper, and practically lived in the office. "I think the Post continues Agron's tradition - devoted to Zionism, Judaism, Israel's place in the world, and to a new good healthy Israel," he asserts. "That is what the newspaper is fighting for and what is was fighting for all these years."