The death on July 27 of Samuel Pisar, coming as the world maneuvers against the prospect of a nuclear Iran, is a moment to reflect on the resilience of the Jewish spirit. Pisar was born in Bialystok, Poland, and as a boy he was cast into the system of camps in which the Nazis concentrated and murdered the Jews of Europe. Young Pisar survived several of them, including Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau, and according to an obituary in the New York Times he emerged from them at 16 “hardened and wild, his family gone to ash.” Yet he rose to be a great lawyer, an adviser to presidents, an author and the head of a remarkable family.
I first met Sam Pisar in the 1980s, when I was based in Brussels for The Wall Street Journal. It was in the midst of the controversy over whether it was appropriate for President Ronald Reagan to visit Germany’s Bitburg cemetery, where, among others, a number of members of the Waffen SS were buried. The editor of the WSJ’s editorial page, Robert Bartley, had called from New York to suggest that I call Pisar, whom he had known for some years and who had by then written his famous memoir, “Of Blood and Hope.” Said Bartley: “Sam will know what to say.”
At the time, I was one of two Jews on the planet who were prepared to cut Reagan some slack for going to Bitburg. The other was Irving Kristol, often called the godfather of neoconservatism. Reagan was not visiting the cemetery to honor the 49 corpses of SS veterans who were buried there. Reagan’s aim was not to connect with Nazis but with a free Germany. Besides, I thought, then and now, Reagan was a hero of the struggle against the Soviet regime and was entitled to use his judgment. When I called Pisar at his home in Paris, however, I heard resolute advice against Reagan’s visit.
Yet he was so friendly and intelligent that a friendship began. When Pisar discovered that I harbored a dream of launching a company to bring out an English edition of the famed Yiddish-language newspaper known as the Jewish Daily Forward, he leapt to assist. Pisar loved Yiddish and became the shadchan for the agreement under which I left The Wall Street Journal and moved to the editorship of what became the English-language Forward.
I have always been grateful to Sam Pisar for the counsel that led to some of the happiest years in a joyous newspaper life. Yet Sam’s role in helping to bring out the Forward in English was but a modest part of his contribution to American Jewish life. He’d gone from post-war Europe to Australia to Harvard Law School to becoming an adviser to President John F. Kennedy. He helped U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson craft the law known as Jackson-Vanik, under which America entered the struggle to free Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel. He was counsel to the International Olympic Committee. He was made an American by an act of Congress.
Pisar thought about Israel all the time and spent a good deal of his life in support of the Jewish state. Yet for all the glamour that attended Pisar’s work as a lawyer, mixing as he did with presidents and prime ministers, it was no doubt his family that was the triumph of his life. He was married twice, the second time finding, in Judith, a glamorous entrepreneur of the arts who brought to their homes an astonishing array of artists, musicians and celebrities of substance. Theirs was a love match that inspired their many friends.
The mixture of such glamour in the life of a man who also struggled to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and its lessons before the public led a number of people to suggest that he was wracked by the demons he had encountered and outmaneuvered. Yet his youngest daughter, Leah, has written that he was “a remarkably untortured soul.” She recounted how the French author Romain Gary once asked him, “Samuel, how can you be such an optimist?” Gary took his own life, while Sam went on, as she put it, “to live life to the fullest,” his own triumph against our common enemies. No doubt I am but one of many who will miss his counsel.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of The Forward and a former foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.