Chapter excerpt from Memorie d’un cronista d’assalto (“Memories of a Crusading Journalist”) Milan, Italy: l’Ornitorinco Editori, (2016) by John Cappelli (Translation by Vanni Cappelli)
At the UN I worked for forty years from 1960 in Room 373, sharing it with David Horowitz, which was the sole element of continuity in that long period of time. David was old enough to be my father; he passed away at the age of 99 and a half years in October of 2002. It was a great pity that he didn’t last a bit more: everyone at the UN was ready, from Secretary General Kofi Annan down, to celebrate the only 100th birthday the world organization had ever known. As it turned out, the only commemoration was a toast raised with Italian wine in our room on that day, April 9, 2003, by David’s assistant Greg Sitrin and my son Vanni, who looked on David as his grandfather.
David was always in the office before me; he came on foot from his apartment at Second Avenue and 70th Street, never missing a day of work except in his last three years, when he had to often visit the doctor. On his desk he always had a candle lit, in total violation of the house rules, but no one was going to challenge the dean of the UN press corps, who had covered everything from the founding San Francisco conference in 1945, on a relatively minor point. He blew the candle out only when both of us were away from the room at the same time.
David, the son of a celebrated Orthodox cantor, and a pure Zionist, never belonged to a synagogue. After the untimely death of his first wife, their only son perished in the Holocaust; his second wife, Anna, who everyone called Nan, was Irish. He was Swedish, born in Malmo in 1903, and on account of this Dag Hammarskjold came frequently to Room 373. My desk was right by the door, and so I was the de facto official greeter of all the numerous visitors who came to see David.
U Thant was another frequent visitor, as he was the only secretary general who had ever been a journalist, and so had a special rapport with the press.
David wrote a weekly column, “Behind the Scenes at the UN,” under the aegis of his own news service, World Union Press; it ran in dozens of newspapers across the United States and in Israel, and was read by people such as Golda Meir, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Elie Wiesel.
David was a passionate lover of opera, and in his final years had the particular distinction of being the last person alive who could say that he personally knew Enrico Caruso. It was no accident that the first thing I saw upon entering Room 373 was a photo of Caruso standing with a group of Metropolitan Opera company employees that included David, which dated from his years there as an office boy. The teenager of course wore his magnificent smile, the David smile we all came to love. Of Caruso he would always speak warmly not only of his gregarious character but of how fantastic he had ben in his final role, Eleazer in Halevy’s La Juive, and how carefully the great tenor had prepared for it, seeking out advice from many authoritative Jews.
In my early days at the UN I served my trial period as a new arrival, sitting and writing my pieces in the open bullpen on the third floor, right outside the office of the spokesman of the secretary general, before being assigned a permanent desk. The door of Room 373 opened right onto this area, and that is how I met David. In no time, he set himself to cutting through the red tape of the UN bureaucracy, and soon brought me into his office.
I had the honor, on the first Hannukah of our colleagueship, of lighting the first candle on his menorah.
In return for all his generosity to me, I would translate the letters sent to him from Israel by the inhabitants of the Italian village of San Nicandro, who had converted to Judaism en masse and then emigrated to the new Jewish state. David knew perfectly well that my newspaper, Paese Sera of Rome, was a journal of the left, and that I was an atheist; yet in our forty years together, we never had an argument about God, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or any other issue.
David was an intimate friend of Menachem Begin, and a frequent visitor to Israel in the years of fire, both before and after the foundation of the state. He didn’t fight in the Irgun, but Nan Horowitz did, and he would recount this to me with pride.
He had on his desk a keepsake which he treasured, a letter from King Abdullah I of Jordan, which formed a part of his path breaking correspondence with that monarch, and used to tell me, “Here you can read the first dialogue of our time aimed at bringing peace between Jews and Muslims.”
In November 1975, Resolution 3379 of the General Assembly, which condemned Zionism as racism, threatened the peaceful environment that we had created in Room 373. For me, it was a watershed. A wording as blatant and one-sided as that contained in this resolution had never been seen at the UN; for me, it was pure racism. The question arose as to what line Paese Sera would take on it, especially since most journals of the left had applauded it. Going through the text line by line over the telephone with my editor in Rome, I made my opinion of the resolution clear, and then finished my plea with a passionate challenge: “If Paese Sera does not denounce this resolution, how can I ever come here and sit next to David Horowitz again?!” I won my case, and had the great satisfaction of showing David the editorial in which we condemned it.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. An author, historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.