Childhood and Escape from the Nazis
Josef Schlesinger was born in Vienna in 1928, the eldest son of Emmanuel and Lilli Schlesinger. He and his brother, Ernest, grew up in Bratislava, in the former Czechoslovakia. His parents were devout Jews who ran a store that sold cleaning supplies. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Schlesinger’s parents arranged for their sons to escape to England through the Kindertransport, an organizational effort that shepherded thousands of predominantly Jewish children to England in the months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Emmanuel and Lilli managed to secure passage for their children on Winton’s last transport, on 30 June 1939.
Education and Early Career
Schlesinger later reflected that his tumultuous childhood inspired his interest in journalism. He and his brother returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, where they learned that their parents had not survived the Holocaust. In 1948, Schlesinger began working as a translator for The Associated Press in Prague but felt increasingly unsafe when the country’s postwar Communist government began arresting journalists. In 1950, he paid a smuggler to take him and a girlfriend to a border town, where they crossed a frozen river into Austria.
Schlesinger fled to Canada and settled in Vancouver, where his brother was already living. He found work as a construction worker and a waiter before enrolling at the University of British Columbia. There, he wandered into the office of the student newspaper, The Ubyssey, and as he recalled in his 1990 memoir Time Zones, “found a new home.” He then went to work at the Province newspaper, where he covered the crime beat before moving east to take a job at the Toronto Star.
Seeking a livelier assignment, Schlesinger left Canada for Europe and worked for the United Press International in London and the International Herald Tribune in Paris.
Working for the CBC
Schlesinger returned to Toronto in 1966 and embarked upon a nearly 30-year career with the CBC. He began in a managerial position and worked his way up to the position of executive producer of the CBC’s flagship nightly news program, The National. Bill Cunningham, who had been tasked with revamping the program, put Schlesinger on air to comment on world news. Later, Cunningham noted that Schlesinger’s foreign accent was not a drawback but a benefit: “He sounded like somebody who knew something about Europe. And he had the journalistic credentials to support that.”
Schlesinger soon found himself itching to return to the field. In 1970, he moved to Hong Kong as the CBC’s Far East correspondent. A decades-long career covering global events followed. In a 1994 CBC documentary, Schlesinger commented that when he stopped “climbing the ladder” and began reporting again, “I’ve been happier ever since, thank you.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Schlesinger travelled the world, reporting on far-flung events for the CBC. Over the years, he bore witness to some of the most significant events of the late 20th century. In 1971, he was one of few journalists to witness first-hand China’s “ping-pong diplomacy,” when Chinese and American ping-pong players competed against each other and helped end China’s global isolation. He was in St. Peter’s Square in Rome when John Paul II became Pope in 1978, and In 1979 he covered the pope’s visit to Auschwitz, where he was upset by the organizers’ insensitivity in serving lunch right at the train ramp of the notorious death camp.
Schlesinger was a dogged reporter who fought for access to even the most hostile war zones. While covering the war in Vietnam, he managed to send a report from the besieged city of An Loc during the 1972 Easter Offensive after South Vietnamese paratroopers gave him a ride in their helicopter. He reported on the Contra war in Nicaragua and rode an elephant with an army patrol chasing Khmer Rouge guerillas in Cambodia. He was in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Although the Iranian Army blocked journalists from leaving the city, he managed to sneak off to a nearby village to ask ordinary people how they felt about the fall of the Shah.
Schlesinger’s home base was constantly shifting. In 1974, he was stationed in Paris, where he interviewed cinema legend Brigitte Bardot. (“I patted her hand and I told her she was still beautiful and so she took me home with her… and introduced me to her boyfriend,” he told The Canadian Press in 2009.)
As the 1980s grew to a close, Schlesinger saw the world order into which he was born begin to collapse. He was at the Berlin Wall in 1987 when US President Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech challenging Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” Finally, in 1989, he returned to his homeland of Czechoslovakia to report on the Velvet Revolution in Prague, when the country’s communist government fell. Later, he reflected, “If I could choose one moment, it would be going back to Prague 50 years after I’d left as a refugee from Hitler, 40 years after I left as a refugee from Stalin, and watching the whole system crumble.”
Return to Canada and Semi-retirement
After reporting on the Desert Storm offensive in Kuwait in 1991, Schlesinger, at age 62, decided he had witnessed his last armed conflict. He returned to Canada and was appointed chief political correspondent for The National. In 1994, he officially retired, prompting CBC News to air a two-part special titled Through My Eyes that documented Schlesinger’s life and work. Even after his retirement, he continued to contribute to the CBC, and in the late 1990s appeared as a cohost on CBC News Network’s Foreign Assignment alongside Ian Hanomansing.
In 2013, Schlesinger appeared as an onscreen narrator in a documentary on Nicholas Winton titled Nicky’s Family. Winton’s efforts were not made public until the late 1980s, and Schlesinger eventually befriended his saviour and worked to make his story known. “If it hadn't been for Nicky Winton, I certainly wouldn’t be alive today,” he told the CBC’s Sook-Yin Lee in 2011. “This is the man who gave me the rest of my life.”
In 2015, Schlesinger wrote about the plight of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Canada. He urged Canadians to show compassion rather than fear and resentment. His final column for the CBC, on the US elections and the tumult over Hillary Clinton’s health problems, was published in September 2016.
Family and Personal Life
While working for the International Herald Tribute in Paris in the 1960s, Schlesinger attended a dinner party, where he met his future wife, Myra “Mike” Kemmer, who was stationed there as a US Foreign Service officer. They married and had two daughters, Léah and Ann. Kemmer died in 2001. Schlesinger later married Dr. Judith Levene, a psychotherapist. They lived in Toronto until Schlesinger’s death in 2019, at the age of 90, after a long illness.
Honours and Awards
- Best Performance by a Broadcast Journalist, Gemini Awards (1987)
- Best Reportage, Gemini Awards (1992)
- Member, Order of Canada (1994)
- John Drainie Award, ACTRA (1997)
- Best News Magazine Segment, Gemini Awards (2004)
- Lifetime Achievement Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation (2009)
- Doctor of Letters, University of British Columbia (1992)
- Doctor of Laws, Royal Military College of Canada (1997)
- Doctor of Laws, Dalhousie University (2000)
- Doctor of Laws, Carleton University (2010)
- Doctor of Laws, Queen’s University (2010)
- Doctor of Letters, University of Alberta (2011)