Lionel Walsh • My Life and Times
Interlude in Geneva
A few weeks after my return from covering the Eichmann trial, Veronika, baby Brendan and I made the train journey from Bonn to Geneva to take up residence at the Hotel des Familles, in the square opposite the railway station. There we lived for a couple of weeks before moving temporarily into the tiny Reuter flat in the Grande Rue, near Geneva’s Calvinist cathedral.
My main assignment was to cover the United Nations’ European office at the Palais des Nations, which used to be the home of the old pre-war League of Nations. But many other unrelated news stories came my way, from the crash of a Swissair Caravelle to the misadventures of British climbers attempting to scale the fearsome Eiger from Kleine Scheidegg.
During my nearly three years in Geneva, it was the scene of nuclear test ban talks between the Soviet Union, United States and the United Kingdom, the conference to “make and keep Laos neutral”, and the 16-nations’ Disarmament Conference.
Reuter’s diplomatic editor, Mohsin Ali, came out from London for all of these stories, and it was in Geneva that he met his future wife, Dolores Gregory. I formed a lifelong friendship with Mohsin and Dolores, and after retirement had the pleasure of staying with them at their home in serene Pinehurst, North Carolina.
Reuters and the other leading wire services, AP, UPI and AFP, had adjacent offices on the ground floor of the Palais. There, we worked under rather cramped conditions, in offices overlooking the Palais lawns. Our offices were big enough to house a machine to perforate tape and a teleprinter linked to London. We used to punch our stories with the machine, dial up London, and feed the perforated tape into the machine, hopefully beating the opposition with the important news breaks. For wordy stories, like the Disarmament Conference, we would hire specialist teleprinter operstors. One, Edith Schawalder, and her husband Alwin became firm friends of the Walshes, as did Dita Fuchs, whom I hired as an editorial assistant. She won her wings as a fully fledged journalist by covering an air crash on her own while I was away from the office. Dita went on to marry Stuart Smith, the Baltimore Sun correspondent in Bonn.
While living in Geneva, Veronika and I made friends with the UPI correspondent, John Parry, and his wife Hillary, and on one occasion made a car trip with them to Milan.
We also spent a winter holiday in St Moritz, where I made a couple of descents of the famed Cresta Run. We took baby Brendan with us, who fell ill with bronchitis, but was quickly cured by the hotel doctor.
Eventually, the Walsh family graduated to a spacious three-bedroomed flat at Meyrin. The frontier with France was at the bottom of the garden and hehind it rose the Jura mountain range. I persuaded Reuters to furnish the apartment with Scandinavian teak furniture purchased at a shop called Pesch in Cologne.
When Veronika became pregnant with our second child, Terry, I sent her to Harrogate to stay with my parents for the confinement. When Baby Terry was born at a maternity home in Leeds Road, I rented a little house in Leadhall Lane close to the maternity home. I spent several weeks there during which we were visited by Tony Winning, then working for Lal Walker and Editor Bob Stockton at the Harrogate Advertiser. Tony wanted to join Reuters. I wrote a letter of recommendation for him, and he got the job, going on to become one of Reuter’s most distinguished correspondents. He was News Editor in Paris when I was Bureau Chief there in the late 70s.
While based in Geneva , I was sent back to Germany to cover the famous State visit of President John F Kennedy. I was present at the City Hall to report Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, which exposed the President to mocking coverage in the mass-circulaion Bild Zeitung, Kennedy having unwittingly said: “I am a doughnut.” Kennedy should, of course, have said: “Ich bin Berliner.”
Among my most spectacular adventures in Switzerland was the trial in Basle of two Israeli agents, Josef Ben Gal (Israeli) and Otto Jocklick (Austrian), who tried to kidnap the daughter of a German rocket scientist working for the Egyptians. The Israelis saw the trial as a great propaganda opportunity, and sent the man who had been government spokesman at the Eichmann trial, David Landor, originally from Vienna, to make sure the media picked up the Israeli side of the case. Accordingly, I was astonished to see my old friend, David Landor, walk into my office to give me deep background on the case. It became obvious that my old friend from Jerusalem days had not lost his touch, since he pinpointed in advance with unerring accuracy each dramatic development in in the trial, such as when Ben Gal complained of the presence of a notorious former Gestapo agent in the courtroom. Challenged by the Judge, the man admitted he was Manfred Rohrschach. “Den bin ich,” he confessed, and was duly expelled from the courtroom. Clearly, my old friend from Jerusalem days had not lost his touch. In retrospect, I must admit that my report of the trial, while fair and accurate, did reflect Israeli fears of rocket attacks from Egypt.
That German scientists and technicians were working in Egypt on the development and construction of missiles and aircraft became public knowledge at the Basle trial. Ben-Gal, and Joklik received jail terms on charges of using threats to induce German scientist Paul Goercke's daughter to persuade him to cease working for the Egyptian government in Cairo.
In the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, the then Foreign Minister Golda Meir stated that “a number of German scientists and hundreds of German technicians” were helping to develop offensive missiles in Egypt, and even armaments banned by international law, which served “solely for the destruction of living things.” She rejected the German argument that legal impediments made it difficult for the German government to prevent its citizens from thus serving Egypt and demanded that requisite “legislative or other measures” be taken at once by the German Federal Republic. The Knesset unanimously passed a motion, sponsored by all parties except the Communists, stigmatizing the activity of the German scientists as “a grave danger to the security of Israel and its population,” declaring that “the German people cannot exempt itself of the responsibility for the continuation of this vile work,” and calling upon the German government “to put an immediate end to this dangerous activity of its citizens.”
Immediately after the trial ended, I received a call at my hotel in Basle to tell me that my wife had given birth to a lovely baby girl, our beautiful daughter Therese. I rushed home to Geneva to greet my daughter.
During my Geneva Sstint, I read a then new spy novel by Len Deighton, Funeral in Berlin. During my London days, Len and I had been in competition for the affections of the same girl, Shirley Thompson, Deighton winning hands down. A key part of the novel’s plot referred to a story in The Times of London concerning numbered Swiss bank accounts “belonging to long-dead victims of Nazism.” It so happened that the story quoted was a Reuter report that I had written.I felt slightly miffed that Len had used my work in this way.
One of the most fascinating assignments was the conference “to make and keep Laos neutral”. Mohsin Ali headed Reuter’s coverage of this event. His main source was the Indian delegate Arthur Lall, who entertained the Reuter team to delicious meals at his lakeside villa, where his lovely daughter Tooki, acted as hostess.
Another conference delegate was Nigeria’s Matthew M’bu, who addressed the Disarmament conference thus:
Good, Better, Best,
In my story quoting the poem, I called him “Matthew M’Bu, “Nigeria’s poet-diplomat”. Before leaving Geneva, he gave Veronika and me two Nigerian ebony sculpted heads, which we treasure to this day.
During my Geneva days, Reuters sent out two trainee journalists to assist me, and learn the job. They were Steve Somerville and Michael Reupke. Michael Reuke went on to become my news editor when I was Bureau Chief in Bonn and ultimately editor of Reuters.
Another assistant was Branislav (Barney) Petrovic, who had been assistant correspondent to Sydney Weiland in Belgrade. I remain in touch by email with both Michael Reupke and Steve Somerville, who met his wife Marie-Helene, in Geneva.
Steve will always be associated in my mind with the Ipsophone, an early call-recording device installed in the Reuter office in the Grande Rue in old Geneva near the Calvinist Cathedral. Veronika and I also lived there for a time with baby Brendan.
The Ipsophone was housed in a large, heavy metal container. It was a primitive answering machine which, as Steve Somerville describes, had a mind of its own. It once recorded a message from the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète), a French far-right nationalist militant and underground organization opposed to Algeria’s independence, then trying to assassinate President de Gaulle. The message announced a death penalty it had imposed: “La peine prononcée a été la peine de mort.” I informed the nearby police station, which I habitually kept busy issuing parking tickets on our battered Ford Taunus. One cop dubbed me “Walsh le grossiste” when I came round to pay one of my frequent fines. The cops were delighted at the Ipsophone message, and spent an inordinate amount of time in our office listening to the announcement over and over again and taking copious notes.
A few weeks before the end of September 1963, Reuters’ News Manager, Doon Campbell called me to say I was being assigned as correspondent to Brazil.
One of my last assignments in Geneva was to cover the world Pentathlon championships which brought together teams from about 20 countries. Among those competing was Brazil, led by Colonel Daltro Santos. I told the Colonel that I had been assigned to Rio, and he promised to find accommodation for the Walsh family and to have a car on the quay to meet us.
My greatly enjoyed Geneva stint ended in an all-night party in the Walsh flat, attended by most of the Geneva foreign press corps and various key spokespeople, like Dick Ford of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and Bill Drower of the British delegation. At dawn, my friends drove the Walsh family to the Geneva railway station where it had all started to catch an early train, changing at Lausanne for Genoa where the good ship Augustus was waiting to take us via Nice, Barcelona and Lisbon to my new assignment at Rio de Janeiro.
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Copyright © 2008 Lionel Walsh