ROME, Feb. 9 (JTA) — Robert St. John, a journalist, author and tireless supporter of Israel, died Feb. 6 near Washington at age 100. During a 75-year career in which he worked on five continents, St. John chronicled World War II and befriended Israel’s founding fathers. An eloquent non-Jewish spokesman for Jewish causes, he maintained close ties with the Jewish state and was honored by Jewish and Israeli institutions. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, called him “our goyisher Zionist.” St. John made his name as a foreign correspondent covering World War II for The Associated Press and NBC Radio. His first book, “From the Land of Silent People,” recounted the Nazi conquest of Yugoslavia and his own harrowing escape through the Balkans after the fall of Belgrade. Wounded when German fighter planes strafed a train he was on, he carried machine-gun slugs in his leg until his death. The persecution of Jews that St. John witnessed during World War II helped instill in him a deep and enduring interest in Israel, Jewish issues and anti-Semitism. Covering the January 1941 pogrom in Bucharest, when Romanian fascists tortured and killed about 170 Jews, marked a watershed for him. “I realized that I had been born into a group that had been doing this sort of thing for 2,000 years and therefore had to bear some of the responsibility,” St. John, who had sheltered a local Jewish family to save them from the massacre, recalled later. “I promised myself that if I lived out the war, I’d spend the rest of my life trying to atone for these sins, for the atrocities committed in Bucharest by men born Christian and presumably exposed to Christian precepts they had so barbarically violated.” St. John, who was born in Chicago, covered the birth of Israel in 1948 and eventually made more than 40 reporting trips to the Middle East. He covered the Eichmann trial and five Arab-Israeli wars, including the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon: at the time, he was 80, by far the oldest of the hundreds of reporters on hand, and the only one who had covered all four previous Arab-Israeli conflicts. Many of St. John’s 22 books were on Jewish or Israeli topics. They included “Shalom Means Peace,” about the birth of Israel, and biographies of Ben-Gurion, Israeli statesman Abba Eban, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, as well as books on American Jewish history, the Jordan River and the resurrection of Hebrew as a spoken language. He also wrote “The Man Who Played God,” a novel set in the Budapest Ghetto and Israel, based on the so-called Kasztner affair. Rudolf Kasztner, the leader of Hungary’s wartime Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee, was murdered in Israel in 1957 after being accused of having “played God” in negotiating with the Nazis to win safe passage out of Hungary for 1,684 Jews. St. John is survived by his second wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1965. The couple met in 1959 when Ruth was on the organizing committee for a lecture on Israel given by St. John at a Jewish event in Charleston, W.Va.
Journalist who backed Israel dies at 100