Even in the democratic, Anglo-Saxon anti-tank unit that Tom Tugend fought in during Israel's War of Independence, the young journalist found an ironic moment to record -- one of many that has come to define his long life of soldiering, writing and restlessness:
"We were a bunch of Jewish guys from English-speaking countries fighting for Israel; we didn't have very good weapons. Later, after encircling some Egyptian troops, we got a shipment of 55-millimeter anti-tank guns from a Czech factory that used to supply the German army; they were so new, they were still in their oil cloths. We unwrapped them, and there was a huge swastika on the barrel of the gun. Here you had this really incredible Kafkaesque irony of Jewish soldiers fighting for Israel, shooting with guns with swastikas on them!"
Of course, Tugend, this year's winner of the prestigious Joseph Polakoff Award for Distinguished Service to Jewish Journalism, awarded by the American Jewish Press Association, laughs at the irony, as though putting himself on the firing line, armed with a Jewish heart and a Nazi gun, was one of the funnier paradoxes of the war.
Tugend's long and restless life has been colored by war: On April 20, 1939, Tugend left Germany, with his mother and sister, to join his father in London, escaping the war by only four months. In 1944, as an 18-year-old living with his family in Bryn Mawr, Penn., Tugend signed on to be part of the 63rd Infantry Division, which fought in France and Germany, and broke through the Siegfried Line. In 1949, he fought for the newly born state of Israel, and in 1950, when he was 25, he was called up to serve in the Korean War.
In between soldiering, Tugend managed to earn a degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. After his discharge from the army in 1951, he landed a job as copy boy on the San Francisco Chronicle. Eventually he was promoted to reporter, but after three years of slugging away on the court and police beat, he decided to take off for Spain. "I'd overdosed on Hemingway and I thought the Spaniards had figured out the secret of human happiness; I was looking for happiness at the time."
After a year of working and studying in Madrid, Tugend returned to Los Angeles, where he met an attractive young woman who had been sent by the Israeli foreign ministry to work as secretary at the consulate. When she agreed to go on a motorcycle ride with him, Tugend knew she had the right stuff. Even though there was no motorcycle, they married in 1956 (producing three daughters and seven grandchildren).
Thus settled in Los Angeles, Tugend worked for a year as a technical editor for McDonnell Douglas, and then landed a job at UCLA, as a science writer and communications director, where he worked for the next 32 years. (Tugend took one year off to head up the public relations department at the Weizmann Institute of Science.) During his tenure at UCLA, Tugend wrote for a number of Jewish publications, but it wasn't until he retired in 1989, that he began a second career writing full-time as a freelance journalist.
"I don't expect to win the Pulitzer Prize but I'm happily surprised my colleagues decided to bestow the Polakoff Award," Tugend beamed, his brown eyes twinkling. "It's nice to have the esteem of your colleagues half your age."
It was, in fact, Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Journal who nominated Tugend for the award, with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency backing up the nomination. "Tom is the gold standard for Jewish journalism," Eshman said. "He's an experienced reporter, an honest broker of the news, and a caring soul."
"I've never been religious, but I feel a common shared fate with other Jews," Tugend confessed. "Whatever happens to any Jew will eventually happen to me. Then there's the davka factor, Hebrew for 'in spite of.' I want the Jewish people to survive, if only to spite all those who want us to disappear."
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