May 18

“Always be the hawk; never be the blackbird that sits on the wire” A.M. Rosenthal

Abe Rosenthal wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power–or to step on the toes of the powerful, whether it was politically correct or not. He grasped the human essence in politically controversial issues,  speaking truth to power by holding a mirror for all to see the consequences of bad policies in human terms.

As a reporter and later as a columnist Abe Rosenthal understood that not every issue has two sides–at least not two morally equal sides.

Below are two of his memorable writings in The Times. A riveting news report–"There Is No News From Auschwitz" (1958);  and a column–"Park Avenue Lady" (1990), followed by a tribute written by his son, Andrew Rosenthal, the current Deputy Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times.

When he retired from the New York Times, Abe Rosenthal became a columnist for Daily News where he often championed the cause of the oppressed, the downtrodden–the victims.

In a memorable column, he paid tribute to Maria Sliwa who indefatigably has been advocating for human rights of enslaved women in the Sudan–"No Silencing this Slavery Foe" (2002).
The problem is that most journalists are too timid to offend their powerful "sources" –so they opt for "balance" biased against the victims rather than report the truth as the facts demand.

When reporters become stenographers, transcribing what institutional "authorities" tell them, they are worse than blackbirds, they’re lap dogs.

Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav
Aug 31, 1958. pg. SM5.

THE most terrible thing of all, somehow, was that at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poplars were lovely to look upon and on the grass near the gates children played.

It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare, that at Brzezinka the sun should ever shine or that there should be light and greenness and the sound of young laughter. It would be fitting if at Brzezinka the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror.

And yet, every day, from all over the world, people come to Brzezinka, quite possibly the most grisly tourist center on earth. They come for a variety of reasons — to see if it could really have been true, to remind themselves not to forget, to pay homage to the dead by the simple act of looking upon their place of suffering.

Brzezinka is a couple of miles from the better-known southern Polish town of Oswiecim. Oswiecim has about 12,000 inhabitants, is situated about 171 miles from Warsaw and lies in a damp, marshy area at the eastern end of the pass called the Moravian Gate. Brzezinka and Oswiecim together formed part of that minutely organized factory of torture and death that the Nazis called Konzentrationslager Auschwitz.

By now, 14 years after the last batch of prisoners was herded naked into the gas chambers by dogs and guards, the story of Auschwitz has been told a great many times. Some of the inmates have written of those memories of which sane men cannot conceive. Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoss, the superintendent of the camp, before he was executed wrote his detailed memoirs of mass exterminations and the experiments on living bodies. Four million people died here, the Poles say.

And so there is no news to report about Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here.

Brzezinka and Oswiecim are very quiet places now; the screams can no longer be heard. The tourist walks silently, quickly at first to get it over with and then, as his mind peoples the barracks and the chambers and the dungeons and flogging posts, he walks draggingly. The guide does not say much either, because there is nothing much for him to say after he has pointed.

For every visitor, there is one particular bit of horror that he knows he will never forget. For some it is seeing the rebuilt gas chamber at Oswiecim and being told that this is the "small one." For others it is the fact that at Brzezinka, in the ruins of the gas chambers and the crematoria the Germans blew up when they retreated, there are daisies growing.

There are visitors who gaze blankly at the gas chambers and the furnaces because their minds simply cannot encompass them, but stand shivering before the great mounds of human hair behind the plate glass window or the piles of babies’ shoes or the brick cells where men sentenced to death by suffocation were walled up.

One visitor opened his mouth in a silent scream simply at the sight of boxes — great stretches of three-tiered wooden boxes in the women’s barracks. They were about six feet wide, about three feet high, and into them from 5 to 10 prisoners were shoved for the night. The guide walks quickly through the barracks. Nothing more to see here.

A brick building where sterilization experiments were carried out on women prisoners. The guide tries the door — it’s locked. The visitor is grateful that he does not have to go in, and then flushes with shame.

A long corridor where rows of faces stare from the walls. Thousands of pictures, the photographs of prisoners. They are all dead now, the men and women who stood before the cameras, and they all knew they were to die.

They all stare blank-faced, but one picture, in the middle of a row, seizes the eye and wrenches the mind. A girl, 22 years old, plumply pretty, blonde. She is smiling gently, as at a sweet, treasured thought. What was the thought that passed through her young mind and is now her memorial on the wall of the dead at Auschwitz?

Into the suffocation dungeons the visitor is taken for a moment and feels himself strangling. Another visitor goes in, stumbles out and crosses herself. There is no place to pray at Auschwitz.

The visitors look pleadingly at each other and say to the guide, "Enough."

There is nothing new to report about Auschwitz. It was a sunny day and the trees were green and at the gates the children played.

November 23, 1990

On a fine autumn morning in New York, just before Thanksgiving, when the streets were full of handsomely dressed people off to work, a gray-haired woman about 60 years old stepped off the curb at Park Avenue and 67th Street, raised her dress, bared herself, and defecated in the gutter.

I did what everybody else did. I turned my head in disgust and walked away toward the office. But that morning I found it a little harder to walk away from the mentally ill of the city.
A demented man was stretched on his back, near Madison Avenue, eight blocks south of the woman in the Park Avenue gutter, shouting out loud to the demons of his mind. A mile on, a few steps away from the office, a woman lay in a doorway as she does every day, in filth of body and pain of mind. She clutched the bottle of liquor almost never out of hand — the gift of death by poison that passers-by give to her with their coins. 

About 15,000 mentally ill people live on New York streets — almost one-third of the homeless. But this is not one more New York horror story. I have seen the Park Avenue lady and the raw faced woman in the doorway in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami. If you travel America, try getting away from the homeless mentally ill — try. 

How did we get to this point, where Americans calmly accept the fact that we cannot deal decently with scores of thousands of destitute Americans who suffer so desperately in their minds that they cry their pain in the streets, where we send them to live? When and why did this country accept madness in the streets as part of the city scenery, turn its back on the deeply disturbed, unless they happened to defecate in front of our delicate eyes? In the mid-50’s, there were more than 550,000 patients in American public mental health hospitals. Now there are about 100,000.

The public saw the mental hospitals as snake pits. Some were, and some were not, but closing them was supposed to save the states a nice pile of tax money. A little later, tranquilizer drugs speeded the emptying of the wards. But on the streets, without care or attention, the mentally disturbed did not take the drugs, and regressed rapidly.

The idea was to give the mentally ill post-hospital care in halfway houses or community centers. Officials and taxpayers never came up with enough money. When the hospitals closed, the mentally ill poor went into the street. That helped push at least a third of them into even more nightmare worlds — alcoholism and drug addiction.

They found friends — organizations and individuals who try to help them get off the streets. But God help them, they also found some "advocates" who insist that living on the sidewalk month in month out, freezing or baking, the prey of human street rats, eating garbage, and refusing treatment or even food and shelter is an acceptable alternative life style. As long as they do not commit a serious crime — not just the misdemeanor of befouling private or public property — they have the right to live in the streets and the right to die there.

Some advocates argue that there is no such thing as mental illness, just another way of looking at reality. Maybe they are right. Is what we have come to accept really sanity — that mental illness is a right to be exercised to the point of suicide rather than a disease demanding medical care for the victim?

Is it sanity to say that if you are bleeding from a car accident an ambulance will take you away, but if you are bleeding from the mind you can lie there until you rot?
Is caring for people too sick to know they need care truly a violation of their freedom?

It is a disservice to all the homeless to lump their problems together. That makes homelessness seem unsolvable, when it is not.
The economically destitute homeless need economic help — and can respond to it as full members of society, not some murky, psychically troubled mysterious underclass.

The addicts or mentally disturbed — estimated at 70 percent of the homeless — need a range of treatments if they are to escape the streets into decent housing. Is it beyond the American legal and medical mind to provide that help, even to those who do not grasp that they need it?

If we won’t put enough taxes — yes, taxes — or attention into doing the job, let’s have the honesty not to blame the Governor or Mayor. Let’s just shut up, keep on walking away from the lady on Park Avenue, and enjoy our next Thanksgiving.

* Copyright 2006  The New York Times Company <


 No Silencing This Slavery Foe
 By: A.M. Rosenthal
 New York Daily News
 Thursday, July 18th, 2002
Maria Sliwa was a New York City cop, and now she is a graduate student at New York University. She has a scholarship but cannot attend more than one course a semester. She spends the rest of her time – all of it, in fact – working to free slaves.
She works for the human rights organization known as Freedom Now. Her faxes and E-mails reach more than 100,000 people in America and abroad, detailing the atrocities that torture the enslaved, particularly in Sudan, which is Africa’s largest country and has its largest slave population.
She gathers the information from Sudanese abroad, from her dangerous trips to Africa and from foreign specialists who are aware of the reach, diversity and energy of the audience she has attracted.
Several other organizations, like Christian International Solidarity, work to lift the unspeakable curse of slave life in Sudan and other countries in Africa and Asia.

But there is something special about Freedom Now: Maria Sliwa is all of it, a stunning example of what one person can do for a cause. No paid researchers, no staff or special equipment, just Sliwa in her office-apartment in New York, shaking people all over the world into consciousness of slavery with all the knowledge she has packed into her 42-year-old brain, and all the energy in her body.

She speaks the word to all who are willing to hear of the life of the slave – not just today, but all the harrowing tomorrows that lie ahead if the free do not care to help them.

Slave life is endless labor, food almost fit for animals, brandings, floggings, rape and amputation for offenses that particularly annoy the masters or local officials.
Sometimes, Sliwa makes her way to Sudan along with human rights fighters from one or two other organizations to see if they can buy slaves from their masters.

  The price is about $14 a head.
Sliwa and her brave colleagues try to find relatives from whom the slaves were abducted or former neighbors who will take care of them so the slaves are not left to wander and suffer until they are kidnapped again.

Two hundred thousand persons alive in Sudan were born into slavery or abducted into the life of the slave. Over the decades, the number who were born and died in Sudanese slavery has reached many millions.

The slaves are almost all Christians or followers of native African religions who live in southern Sudan. The country is controlled by Muslims living mostly in the north who abduct the southern Christians and animists into slavery.

Some months ago, Sudan – a member of the United Nations and a signer of its human rights declarations – became president of the UN Security Council under the automatic monthly rotation system. Incredible. Appalling.

Foreign oil companies are struggling for control of Sudan’s oil. Human rights people are struggling to give significant control of the revenues to the Sudanese public so that someday even the enslaved might possibly get more food from the country’s riches.

Despite or because of international talks among foreign countries that own Sudan oil wells, plus countries that have no right to a gallon of the oil themselves, the contest for control of oil and the end of the civil war creep on.

   A new shock
Maria Sliwa is the sister of Curtis Sliwa, who founded the Guardian Angels in 1979. The idea was to patrol the subways of New York to help people in need or in danger of violence.

For Maria, there is no cause except freeing the slaves. She is a highly knowledgeable, sophisticated person, but early this month something in particular about Sudan shook her.

She knew that female slaves are regularly raped by their masters. But she was startled to listen to the testimony of boy slaves. Almost all had been repeatedly raped by their owners. Forever, she said, the boys will not only be despised by their communities, but carry the pain of misplaced self-hatred.

She sent out an E-mail about that almost immediately.

Maria Sliwa shows every day what a person can do all by herself. But if you want to help, the combination telephone and fax number is (212) 202-4453.    Her E-mail is
  Contacting her is my suggestion, not Sliwa’s.

Someday, I hope to meet her. But meantime, phone calls, faxes and E-mails work for Maria Sliwa. And for all who get and pass on the message that the evil of slavery is alive and flourishing in the world today.
 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  May 17, 2006
Editorial Observer
I Never Wrote for My Father

Funerals have a way of reframing memories. After the burial of my father, A. M. Rosenthal, who ran The Times for nearly 20 years and wrote a column for 13 more, I recalled the day I met President George H. W. Bush, not long after I became a White House correspondent.

I was allowed to sit in on an interview that two of my colleagues, Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman, were doing for a magazine article. The White House told me not to ask questions, but after a while, Mr. Bush said to me, "You’ve been quiet." I said the interview was supposed to be strictly about the magazine article, but as long as he’d asked, what did he think about the latest development on Lithuania?

He was angry and would not answer. He said he was "not gonna be sandbagged in the Oval Office."

On the way out, Marlin Fitzwater, Mr. Bush’s spokesman, helpfully noted that my introduction to Mr. Bush had gone badly. He explained that Mr. Bush was unhappy with my father for writing in his column that Mr. Bush had appeased the Communists on China and (oh, great!) on Lithuania. "The president doesn’t differentiate between you and your father," he said.

I sputtered that the White House owed me for five years’ psychotherapy. I’d only just begun convincing myself I was my own man in my father’s field, and now I learned that The Leader of the Free World could not tell us apart?

It was naïve, of course, to think I could hide that little coincidence of a last name. Dad was not just seen as the embodiment of The Times; he saw himself that way. During the tumultuous year 1968, my father said I could not wear an Army fatigue jacket because anti-Vietnam protesters wore them. "When you go out," he said, not for the first or last time, "you’re representing The Times." I was 12 years old at the time.

Still, I tried to walk around as if I were not really Abe’s son, first at The Associated Press, where I was a national and foreign correspondent for nine years, and then at The Times. (I even left the middle initial, M., out of my byline because my father’s initials were so famous.)

I started to get the point that hiding in plain sight was not working when I noticed that I hadn’t received any checks from WQXR, the Times radio station, for a weekly radio spot. It turns out that WQXR was sending the $70 checks to A. M. Rosenthal, instead of Andrew Rosenthal.

I called my father, outraged. He had been happily cashing the checks. He said he hadn’t known why WQXR was paying him, but "when someone gives me a check, baby, I cash it."

I should have found the whole thing funny, but I didn’t. Then about a year later, I got a check for a reprint of my father’s classic 1958 essay, "There Is No News From Auschwitz." I sent him a copy of the check stub with a note: "When someone gives me a check, baby, I cash it."

Dad thought it was hilarious. And I’ve long since realized that I overreacted on the "Abe’s kid" front. But since my father died, I’ve realized something else.

When I read his obituary to my children, their amazement at his accomplishments was matched by my amazement at how much I had forgotten, even discounted. Then colleagues began sharing their experiences of my father.

They said what I knew, that he could be stubborn, unreasonable and prone to anger. But what they held onto was how sure he was in his vision for the paper, how filled with exuberance and a certainty about journalism that he freely bestowed. I received dozens of stories about how he’d shaped a reporter’s career, how he’d traveled around the world to get a correspondent out of trouble, how he’d stood up equally to K.G.B. generals and to U.S. officials, how he’d helped young people become better journalists, how he’d changed The Times and the newspaper business.

Jose Lopez, a photographer and photo editor, said the first time they met, Abe Rosenthal told him, "Always be the hawk; never be the blackbird that sits on the wire."

David Sanger said when he’d been a news clerk laboring to become a reporter, he’d come to his desk one day to find Champagne and a note: "For an explanation, see the executive editor." Abe had promoted David, and wanted to celebrate with him.

"I wouldn’t argue that he was always the easiest boss," David wrote. But, he said, my father "knew how to infuse you with his sheer joy of reporting and experiencing the world."

Alan Cowell recalled how Abe Rosenthal flew to South Africa in 1986 to argue the authorities out of expelling him. John Burns, whose courage is endless, said Abe "set the trajectory of my life." Maureen Dowd reminded me that her mother had kept letters from my father framed in her home until the day she died.

In an era when journalism is commoditized, digitized and endlessly televised, I feel the loss of that passion, drive, emotion and energy. I also feel regret — not for sometimes pushing my father away as I tried to be independent. I know I was right to wait until he’d retired as executive editor before joining The Times.

But I missed something big.  I never got to work for Abe.

Copyright 2006   The New York Times Company 

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