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Obituary John Kayston Dies at Age of 87, Worked at JTA for Nearly 50 Years

May 2, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

John Kayston, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who worked his way up at JTA to executive vice president, died Saturday here of a heart attack at age 87.

“For 50 years, my dad was totally dedicated to JTA,” said his daughter, Anita Rapp. “He would come home at unbelievable hours. He was on call 24 hours a day. He would come home and then come back on the A train to fix something.”

In addition to his daughter, Kayston is survived by Ruth, his wife of 63 years, and two grandchildren.

Soon after Kayston left Germany, he was able to use his German language skills and some journalistic ingenuity to shed light on Nazi activities in the United States.

He went as an interpreter with Daniel Schorr, who later became a well-known correspondent for CBS and National Public Radio, among others, to cover the German-American Nazi Bund.

“The storm troopers at the door asked for our press I.D., and refused us entry when they saw we were from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency,” he told JTA a few years ago.

“We went to another entrance and when showing our I.D. we covered the word ‘Jewish’ with our thumb.”

They were let in.

Kayston was born in Saarbrucken, Germany, in 1915. Before he left his native land in 1935, he was active in Jewish and Zionist youth groups.

He started his JTA career in April 1936 as a mail clerk and messenger. He held down a variety of positions until he became business manager in 1967.

During those years, he helped shepherd JTA out of difficult financial straits, said Robert Arnow, a past president of JTA.

“He was a calming influence” at JTA, Arnow said.

He was named general manager in 1970. In 1976, he was named executive vice president, responsible for JTA’s administration and finance.

In the early 1980s, Kayston quit smoking.

As the rest of the office continued to smoke, he would chew on cigar after cigar — but not smoke them, said Mark Seal, who was then JTA’s business manager and later became executive vice president.

“He had profound respect for anyone who had ever worked for JTA,” Seal said.

Kayston held the position of executive vice president until he retired on Jan. 1, 1984. Since that time, he has served as executive vice president emeritus.

Kayston was a dedicated family man who had the chance to put those beliefs into practice. During his early years at JTA, he helped get his cousin and father — both refugees from Nazi Europe — jobs at the agency.

In 1966, he traveled to France to meet his sister, whom he had not seen in more than 30 years. She had gone into hiding during the war. It was a moving experience that he never forgot, his daughter recalled.

As part of that trip, he visited Israel for the first time. It was a country that played a part in his daily life at JTA, and he would often get aggravated while reading The New York Times over what he thought were anti-Israel slants to articles, Rapp said.

Even though he wasn’t a native English speaker, he quickly adapted to the new language and became an expert and meticulous grammarian — traits even more important in the pre-computer days.

He was known to some as the “Walking Encyclopedia,” a testament to his prodigious general knowledge — and his daughter would rely on him for homework questions in spelling, grammar and knowledge, she said.

Those questions were most often answered by phone from his JTA office, where she knew her father would be.

JTA “was really his life,” she said.

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