On the 40th anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis
Guest columnist

On the 40th anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis

The 14-month nightmare of the Iranian hostage crisis dominated headlines everywhere.

Barry Rosen. Malcolm Kalp. John Limbert. Those names may be hard to place today, but 40 years ago, they and their fellow hostages were the intense focus of all Americans, who collectively worried for their safety over the 444 days of the Iranian seizure of the American Embassy.

Americans’ distress for the well-being of the hostages throughout their captivity gave way to a shared sense of relief and profound gratitude for their safe return when the 52 hostages were released on January 20, 1981.

When Jews in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the United States learned there were Jewish diplomats among the hostages, our concerns instinctively heightened. We wanted to know how they, in particular, endured the long captivity that began on Nov. 4, 1979. So, beginning within a month of Malcolm Kalp, John Limbert and Barry Rosen’s exultant homecoming, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle recounted their stories of confinement, isolation and dread, and how their Jewish faith sustained them.

That the Chronicle published the very first glimpse into the experiences of these three remarkable men speaks to its extraordinary leadership at the time. Comprised of Orthodox, Reform and secular Jews, the Chronicle’s team forged a unique journalistic culture that cultivated its staff, held everyone to the highest standards of professionalism and exuded chutzpah.

How do I know? Founding editor Albert “Al” Bloom and Joel Roteman, who succeeded Al Bloom in 1983 as executive editor, offered me a volunteer position, equivalent to an internship today, in 1978 — a year after I graduated from Chatham College with an English degree. While I had to continue working two minimum wage jobs, I decided it was worth the opportunity to learn from the pros (and maybe wrangle a job out of them, too).

My instincts were correct. With Al and Joel’s patient support and encouragement, I did learn the workings of a newsroom and several months later became a Chronicle staff writer. When Joel discovered that I didn’t know how to write copy directly on a typewriter, he put me in front of a manual one and told me to type out my stories, however long it took. He was tough, but kind. And notably, as you will see, he wasn’t afraid to give tough assignments to rookies like me.

The 14-month nightmare of the Iranian hostage crisis dominated headlines everywhere, including Jewish newspapers such as the Chronicle. While our primary focus was Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, we covered national and international news with help from the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA). So when the hostages were finally released in January 1981, this historical event overshadowed news we typically covered, and our partnership with the AJPA proved invaluable.

Though the AJPA focused on the fact that Jews were among the hostages and that their names had not been disclosed while in captivity, in those first few weeks after Barry Rosen, Malcolm Kalp and John Limbert returned home, their identities were still unknown.

Now that the former Jewish hostages were out of danger and free to speak, our Jewish weekly, albeit low on staff and budget, decided to try to track them down and interview them.

To my surprise, Joel gave me the assignment. Always up for a challenge, I took to my rotary phone and Rolodex and reached out to any and all sources who could help. Don’t ask how or why, but someone at the AJPA (now a household CNN name) gave me a lead. That led me to three private home phone numbers and three extraordinary conversations.

The first of my three interviews, published in the Chronicle just 22 days after the hostages were released, was with Malcolm Kalp, a commercial attaché, who had been at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran for only eight days when it was overrun. He emphasized that his Jewish faith helped him withstand mistreatment at the hands of his Iranian captors, including being kept in solitary confinement for 374 of the 444 days of captivity. Because his father, Samuel, had recently passed, Kalp said Kaddish every day, “without a minyan”.

Next, I spoke with John Limbert, who had been at the embassy for only two-and-a-half months before the takeover and was Second Secretary there. He was reticent to discuss his religion, most likely because his wife at the time was a naturalized American citizen of Iranian descent and still had relatives in Iran. However, Limbert did comment on what his experience was as a hostage.

“I spent nine of the 14 months in solitary confinement. We were moved a number of times,” yet he added, “I never saw any of the other hostages,” rather, “we communicated in the restrooms by passing notes to each other through the bins.”

He reported “no physical assaults” and passed the long hours “reading a lot” and using his fluency in Farsi “to do translations for myself.”

My last interview, published in the Chronicle on Feb. 26, 1981, was with Barry Rosen, who came to the embassy in November 1978 to serve as the press attaché. Rosen did feel the bite of anti-Semitism. “Individual guards called me a ‘dirty Zionist’ and referred to my family as ‘residents of Tel Aviv.’”

Nevertheless, he told me that overall he was not treated differently because he was Jewish. “They allowed me to receive a menorah at Chanukah and packages of Passover food during Pesach.”

When I asked him if his religion helped him through the ordeal, he responded, “I think my cultural value of Judaism and family helped me to get through. In a spiritual sense I can say that it helped, but I tried hard. I read the Torah, but I only had the English version,” adding, “I was hoping a Jewish organization would send me the Hebrew, as I would have gotten more out of it. I attended the yeshiva when I was younger.”

Looking back now, I can’t help but think that in today’s 24-hour cable news cycle, with the internet, Google, Facebook and all the rest, a staff writer at the Chronicle wouldn’t get the chance to be the first to tell stories like these. But the Chronicle did scoop every other news organization back then, and I’ve often wondered why.

The answer, I’ve come to realilze, is simple: These three Jewish men felt safe telling their stories over the phone to me because I was a young Jewish reporter in Pittsburgh who had only paper, pencil and sincerity. PJC

Ilene Hurwitz Schwartz, MA, MPM, a Squirrel Hill resident, is the principal of IHS Consultants, a marketing communications firm serving private, nonprofit and public sector clients.

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