Obituary: Tom Tugend

American reporter who fought in three wars and was celebrated as ‘Jewish media’s gentleman correspondent’


He was the consummate gentleman journalist, who fled Nazi Germany for the US, fought in three wars and spent the next half century covering Jewish and national news stories.

Among other things, Tom Tugend, who has died aged 97, recently wrote obituaries for the JC, featuring American Federal jurist Stephen Reinhardt, Vietnam war correspondent Murray Fromson and Californian Reform leader Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin.

He was a man of dogged determination and wry humour, whose authenticity came through to anyone who knew him, according to his daughter Alina. Tugend’s writing was spare, concise and unvarnished.

When Alina entered his study for the first time after his death she noticed a Yiddish proverb cut out and tacked above his desk that she had never noticed before. “A man should live if only to satisfy his curiosity.”

It could be termed the true reporter’s mantra. “Although many considered my dad a hero,” said Alina, “he hated that word — he felt it was far too over-used. But he was a moral, kind man who worked hard and enjoyed life to the very best of his ability — who was loved by many for those traits”.

Tugend was 13, approaching his barmitzvah, when he left Berlin on Hitler’s 50th birthday in April 1939.

A military parade was in full swing through the streets of Berlin, which he watched from his balcony with awe and incredulity. It was a time of the most blatant Nazi ideology; swastikas flew from trees and street poles. Last year he recalled that era with his typical American black humour: “Gee, I mean, they may not like the Jews, but it’s very nice of them to give us such a nice send-off!”

Yet it took a mere six years for him to transform into a US soldier and interrogate the Nazis who had driven his family out.

“I had been a refugee a few years before,” Tugend told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2021. “They kicked me out, they were the masters. And suddenly they couldn’t be nice enough, and couldn’t do enough for us. And of course, each one — some of his best friends were Jews.”

Tugend was raised in an affluent German Jewish family. His father, Gustav Tugendreich, a respected paediatrician, saw the danger Hitler’s ascendancy would mean for Jews and left for the United States in the mid-1930s, having secured a lectureship at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. His family, initially resistant, followed just four months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

However, life in the US was not as comfortable as they might have imagined. Antisemitism was rife there, too. It was in school, reading Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, that the young Tugend discovered the true character of a close friend. In a reference to Shylock, his classmate asked the teacher, “Wouldn’t you rather buy from an American than a Jew?”

Tugend joined the army when he was 18. In March, 1944 his unit was deployed to Marseilles, supporting the French army fighting SS units there. Near the end of the war his fluent German comvinced his commanders to send him to Germany with an army counterintelligence unit, to locate and interview Nazis in the German countryside. He wrote:

“Of course, every German I interrogated said that everyone, including his brother, had been an ardent Hitler follower— everyone except himself, of course. Invariably, the informant had been a stout anti-Nazi.”

One village identified an 80-year-old blind poet as their premier Nazi. Confronted by Tugend, he pledged his continued fidelity to the Führer. “I didn’t arrest him but returned to my headquarters, demanding recognition for having found the only Nazi in all of Germany!”

Back in the United States, in March 1948 he was called by something that evoked his fundamental Zionist core: Israel’s War of Independence. He was off, leading a Mahal anti-tank unit of volunteers, firing swastika-emblazoned German guns.

“Since a Jewish state is established only every 2,000 years, I was afraid I might not be around the next time,” he observed drily.

Later Tugend completed his journalism degree in California, but in 1950 was drafted again, this time to serve in the Korean War. He evaded active service due to his graduate status, and instead edited an army newsletter in San Francisco.

After Korea, Tugend said he ran out of wars. He worked at the University of California, Los Angeles for 30 years and launched a career in Jewish journalism in 1964.

He worked for a time at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Associated Press in Spain and on the night desk at the Los Angeles Times, where he also became an entertainment writer. He was amazed by the large number of Holocaust-themed films that appeared every year, the best of which he proceeded to analyse with great enthusiasm during the Oscars season.

His background included surprises: he wrote pilot manuals at Boeing, and was a science writer at UCLA.

It was after retiring from UCLA in 1989 aged 64 that Tugend fully embraced Jewish journalism, writing for the JC, the Jerusalem Post, JTA, Hadassah Magazine, and the Jewish Journal, of which he became contributing editor in 1993. At one point he moved to Israel for a year to head the Weizmann Institute’s PR department. Yet he felt no desire to be an author.

When he married Jerusalem-born Rachel Spritzer, who would become his wife of 66 years, he said his intention was to support their family of three daughters. Lisa Hostein, former JTA editor-in-chief and current executive editor of Hadassah Magazine, described Tugend as “the consummate professional and gentleman”. The soubriquet stuck and he was lauded widely as “Jewish media’s gentleman correspondent” .

Tom was shaped as much by his military life as his Holocaust experience, according to Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. “The America he fought for was the land of liberty, democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, a haven for Jews.

And the Israel he fought was to be a land of liberty, democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, a haven for Jews, protective and respectful of the rights of its Arab and Jewish citizens. He lived those values to the end of his long life.”

The filmmaker Steven Spielberg, subject of many Tugend interviews, acknowledged the journalist’s key role in recording Jewish history, notably the creation of the Shoah Foundation, while his work won plaudits from the Greater Los Angeles Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists.

He also received a lifetime achievement award from the American Jewish Press Association and was honoured at a recent Jewish Journal Gala.

But it is the father that Alina Tugend movingly recalls; his humanity, his interest in people and ideas, and his sense of humour.

“My dad loved telling jokes, usually Jewish ones, but with an occasional priest thrown in. We loved watching his shoulders shake with laughter and the wide smile on his face, his head thrown back, as he laughed heartily at his own joke.”

His kindly, soft-spoken manner belied his penetrating insight. Friends and colleagues praised Tugend’s reporting skills, others his wry wit. Perhaps the most definitive tribute is this: “He showed us how to live and how to die.”

Tom Tugend is survived by his wife Rachel and their daughters, Alina, Orlee Raymond and Ronit Austgen.

Tom Tugend: born June 30, 1925. Died December 7, 2022

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