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Canada Reporter led a life of daring escapes as a European refugee and CBC correspondent

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins

Before he embarked on his remarkable career as a globe-trotting journalist, Joe Schlesinger had twice been a refugee, first escaping from Nazism, then from Communism.

Having fled his home and lost his parents in the Holocaust, he brought to his reporting the insight and empathy of a man all too familiar with conflicts, asylum-seeking and political betrayals.

A long-time friend, Bill Cunningham, said he was told by Mr. Schlesinger’s partner, Judith Levene, that the celebrated former CBC foreign correspondent had died Monday at the age of 90 after a long illness.

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From the 1970s to the mid-90s, Mr. Schlesinger was a household name across Canada, bearing witness from the world’s hot spots, whether at Pakistan’s Khyber Pass, on the battlefields of Indochina and Central America or in the middle of a street riot in Buenos Aires.

Before his broadcast career, he honed his skills working for newspapers, where he learned “to make the banal look interesting and the interesting sound fascinating,” he recalled in his 1990 memoirs, Time Zones.

One of many co-workers who admired his elegant writing, former CBC correspondent Brian Stewart remembered the sight of his colleague after a long day’s reporting, pensively composing his scripts.

Mr. Stewart said Mr. Schlesinger had the ability to capture the mood of a story in a few words.

The day John Hinckley Jr. tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981, the only footage of the gunman was a glimpse from inside a police cruiser. Mr. Schlesinger crafted a line about the “shadowy image of a shadowy man.”

Mr. Schlesinger wasn’t above poking fun at his solemn public image. After retirement, he took part in skits on the Rick Mercer Report, where his famous, gravelly voice was deployed for mundane tasks such as voice-mail greetings.

Josef Schlesinger was born in Vienna on May 11, 1928, the eldest of the two sons of Emmanuel and Lilli Schlesinger.

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Young Josef and his brother, Ernest, grew up in Bratislava, where their parents owned a store selling cleaning products. He remembered Bratislava as a cosmopolitan place where his parents, devout Jews, could prosper. At home, he spoke Slovak and German and he picked up Czech and some Hungarian as he grew up.

By the time he turned 11, Europe was on the cusp of war. The Nazis had partitioned Czechoslovakia and Bratislava became the capital of a puppet state of Germany.

Mr. Schlesinger, right, chats with Nicholas Winton, the British stockbroker who helped spirit him and other Jewish children out of Europe before the Second World War erupted.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The Schlesinger boys were saved from the impending genocide by a British stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, who just before the war spirited hundreds of Jewish children out of the former Czechoslovakia, organizing train transports and finding them foster families in the United Kingdom.

Josef and Ernest’s parents managed to place the boys on Mr. Winton’s last transport, on June 30, 1939.

The train was several hours late and since Jews couldn’t use the waiting room, the two boys’ last moments with their father that night were spent biding time inside the public toilets.

In September, Germany invaded Poland. By then, Joe and Ernie were safe in Britain.

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Letters from their parents came infrequently. In March, 1942, their father wrote that he and their mother were going to be “resettled” by the Nazis. Then no more letters arrived.

After the war, Mr. Schlesinger returned to Czechoslovakia and learned that his parents had probably been deported to Auschwitz. At a shelter for displaced people, he met Filip Muller a former Sonderkommando – an inmate forced to operate Auschwitz’s crematoria – and learned what happened in the gas chambers.

The gates of Auschwitz – bearing the notorious sign reading 'Arbeit macht frei,' or 'work sets you free' – is seen at the site of the former Nazi concentration camp in Oswiecim, southern Poland.

KACPER PEMPEL/Reuters

He found work in Prague as a translator for the Associated Press news agency but couldn’t bear to live in an increasingly repressive Communist state.

In 1950, he paid a smuggler to take him and a girlfriend to a border town, where they ran over the frozen river to Austria.

He settled in Canada, where his brother already lived. After working odd jobs, he enrolled at the University of British Columbia and, out of curiosity, walked into the office of the student paper, The Ubyssey. “I had found a new home,” he recalled in his memoirs.

Student journalism led to the Vancouver Province, where he honed his reporting skills on the crime beat. On one occasion, while covering a hotel robbery, he beat the competition when he spotted the desk clerk’s accent and spoke to him in Czech, Mr. Cunningham, a former CBC reporter, recalled in an interview.

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Vancouver felt parochial, so Mr. Schlesinger left for editing jobs in Europe. While in France, he met a U.S. Foreign Service officer, Myra (Mike) Kemmer, at a dinner party and offered to walk her home.

Whereas she was outgoing, Mr. Schlesinger, still haunted by his past, was in his own words “reserved, prickly and skeptical.”

In a tribute he sent to The Globe and Mail after she died of cancer in 2001, he said, “Mike brought me out of my shell and opened doors I had been too wary to enter.”

They married and had two daughters, prompting a move to Toronto in 1966.

Bill Cunningham, left, brought Mr. Schlesinger into the CBC fold in the 1960s. There, he became a long-time colleague of foreign correspondent Brian Stewart, right.

Kaz Ehara

He was lured to television by Mr. Cunningham, who was revamping the CBC news service.

As foreign editor, Mr. Schlesinger began appearing on air to comment on world news.

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“Everybody thought we were crazy because he had this accent, but that was one of the reasons he registered with the public,” Mr. Cunningham said. “He had this accent … he sounded like somebody who knew something about Europe. And he had the journalistic credentials to support that.”

The gravitas later associated with Mr. Schlesinger stands in contrast to his on-air debut. Mr. Cunningham insisted he put on eyeglasses to look more authoritative.

In 1970, Mr. Schlesinger moved to Hong Kong to be the CBC’s Far East correspondent.

He was among the foreign journalists who covered the ping-pong diplomacy that ended China’s isolation in 1971.

In another coup, during the 1972 Easter Offensive in Vietnam, he reported from the besieged city of An Loc after hitching a helicopter ride with South Vietnamese paratroopers.

It wasn't all glamour and heroics. Visiting a farm in China, he tumbled into a trench filled with night soil. In Cambodia, riding with an elephant-borne army patrol, he fell into a rice paddy.

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He was posted to Paris in 1974, but remained a peripatetic journalist, alternating assignments such as interviewing Brigitte Bardot and reporting on the Iranian revolution.

He also covered Pope John Paul II’s visit to Auschwitz and was angered by the callousness of the organizers, who served lunch right at the infamous train ramp.

In 1979, he moved to the CBC’s Washington bureau, where his responsibilities again ranged wide, from Argentina to the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

He visited Czechoslovakia as a reporter in 1988 and found a calcified society. However, the following year, he was back to witness the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist rule.

“First the Nazis, then the Communists: Finally, I was able to return, and watch that era, that tyranny – the last of it – vanish. It was a kind of a personal vindication,” he said in a 2005 Radio Prague interview.

November, 1989: Czech students as they face riot police in a pro-democracy protest, part of the Velvet Revolution that brought Communist rule to an end.

LUBOMIR KOTEK/LUBOMIR KOTEK/Getty

The post-Cold War era dragged him to one last war zone when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

After the start of the Desert Storm ground offensive in 1991, the CBC had one spot in a convoy being allowed through the Saudi-Kuwait border.

Mr. Stewart won a coin toss over his older colleague and headed in. When he returned, at the border checkpoint, under the infernal glare of burning oil wells, he saw reporters arguing with military police to let them through. Among them was a grey-haired man with a cane.

“It was Joe,” Mr. Stewart recalled. “Here was this older gentleman insisting he get through, arguing his way into a hell hole. I was agasp in admiration.”

Nevertheless, the 62-year-old Mr. Schlesinger told The Globe afterward that "when I saw that everyone covering the story was 25 to 30 years younger than me, I thought, 'This better be my last war.’”

He became the CBC’s chief political correspondent in Ottawa during the tumultuous days after the death of the Meech Lake Accord.

He retired in 1994, but continued to contribute reports regularly for the CBC. He also helped publicize Mr. Winton’s story, narrating a documentary about the stockbroker who saved his life decades earlier.

“When my father said goodbye to his sons nearly 50 years ago,” Mr. Schlesinger wrote in his memoirs, “he asked the Almighty to let them grow up to be just and decent men. I would hope that he would not have been too disappointed with us.”

Mr. Schlesinger leaves his partner, Ms. Levene; brother, Ernest; and Leah and Ann, his two daughters by his late wife, Ms. Kemmer.

Mr. Schlesinger in 2003.

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