Interview'I fought insecurity with hard work, trying to prove myself'

From Kindertransport to the White House, a British reporter’s remarkable journey

In her memoir ‘Invisible Walls,’ Hella Pick describes arriving in the UK knowing one word of English and growing into a journalist who witnessed our era’s most impactful events

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

  • Journalist and author Hella Pick. (Bea Lewkowicz/ Association for Jewish Refugees)
    Journalist and author Hella Pick. (Bea Lewkowicz/ Association for Jewish Refugees)
  • Lake District 1941: Standing behind violinist Dr. Oskar Adler, Hella Pick is the youngest in a group of refugees. (Courtesy)
    Lake District 1941: Standing behind violinist Dr. Oskar Adler, Hella Pick is the youngest in a group of refugees. (Courtesy)
  • Hella Pick with Guinea’s president Sekou Toure during his official visit to the UK. (Courtesy)
    Hella Pick with Guinea’s president Sekou Toure during his official visit to the UK. (Courtesy)
  • Hella Pick interviews Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (Courtesy)
    Hella Pick interviews Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (Courtesy)

LONDON — For nearly four decades, Hella Pick, the doyenne of British diplomatic correspondents, had a front-row seat at the events that shaped the postwar age: the end of Empire in Africa, the tumultuous upheavals which shook America in the 1960s, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

But in her newly published memoirs, “Invisible Walls: A Journalist in Search of Her Life,” the pioneering female reporter reveals her constant and continuing struggle with feelings of insecurity about her identity. Pick traces that sense of herself as an outsider back to March 1939 when, uprooted from her home in Vienna, “child Number 4672” arrived at London’s Liverpool Street Station on the Kindertransport. Alone and aged just 11, the woman who would later write hundreds of thousands of words explaining the world to the British public, could speak only one in English: “Goodbye.”

At 92, Pick has, however, also come to realize that her attempts to escape her “invisible walls” — the “unresolved questions of exile and identity… vulnerability and self-doubt” — have also played an important part in her professional success.

“My insecurities increased my determination to focus on the things that I knew I could do reasonably well and always trying to prove myself,” she tells The Times of Israel with characteristic understatement.

Pick’s upbringing in Vienna had been a comfortable one. While her parents divorced when she was 3 years old, her mother mixed with Jewish families who considered themselves full-fledged members of the Austrian middle class. Even as the threat of Nazism grew, her secular grandparents, like many other Viennese Jews, held on to the hope that “somehow their quiet lives would remain undisturbed.”

The family’s illusions and largely happy existence were shattered by the Anschluss. Pick’s mother, Hanna, was impoverished when a trickster, posing as a courier who said he would deposit her stocks and shares in a Swiss bank, disappeared. The Gestapo hauled Hanna in for questioning on five occasions. And while Hanna eventually managed to follow her daughter into exile after obtaining a permit to work in the UK as a domestic servant, her own mother, Olga, was unable to escape and is believed to have perished in Theresienstadt.

Hella Pick on her graduation day. (Courtesy)

The strong will and determination that would later mark Pick’s professional career were evident at an early age. As she waited anxiously for Hanna, Pick sent her mother what she described as “a short but important postcard.”

“I demand that you leave no later than Saturday and come direct to London,” the 11-year-old wrote. “I understand the situation better than you do. Please do as I say.” Further missives in a similar vein followed. This streak would be apparent again later when the teenage Pick resisted pressure to go to a secretarial or teacher-training college — then considered suitable work for women — in favor of staying on at school and going to university.

“I can’t really reconstruct myself to understand how it came about that I was so strong-willed about it,” she says. “I sensed at that age in my teens that I was not destined to become a teacher… and I certainly didn’t want to go and do secretarial work. I wanted to be properly and fully educated and to… make my own life and to be independent.”

Pick’s determination is all the more remarkable given her mother’s straitened circumstances: Forced into domestic service, her wages did not even cover the basics. “We had to rely on the charity of refugee organizations. It was shaming,” writes Pick.

They were also helped by the kindness of strangers. In England’s Lake District, where they spent much of the war, for instance, Pick’s headmistress paid for her schoolbooks. Later, when she went to the prestigious London School of Economics, Pick’s professor, the renowned political theorist Harold Laski, helped to pay her fees.

Lake District 1941: Standing behind violinist Dr. Oskar Adler, Hella Pick is the youngest in a group of refugees. (Courtesy)

Jumping in head first

Pick got her foot on the first rung of the journalistic ladder as a reporter at West Africa magazine. Despite a lack of experience and being virtually the only woman covering decolonization in British and French West Africa, she excelled in the role. Indeed, she soon struck up friendships with some of the key political players, and future leaders, in the region, including Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Sekou Toure in Guinea. So frequent were Pick’s meetings with French African leaders that they attracted the attention of the French secret services who believed she might be a British spy.

From Africa, Pick moved to New York where she became the United Nations correspondent for The Guardian, the liberal British newspaper on whose staff she would remain for over 30 years. Pick’s stint occurred at a time when the UN was at the center of the clash between East and West. Her persistence and charm when in pursuit of a story didn’t escape the notice of UN diplomats. When she asked a French diplomat one day where his British colleagues were, he replied: “They are all in the men’s room, hiding from you!”

Her subsequent posting to Washington, Pick says now, was the most enjoyable of her career. And while she later returned to the UN, The Guardian frequently sent her across the US to buttress its coverage. She reported on the Kennedy assassination, Barry Goldwater’s doomed bid for the White House, and Richard Nixon’s triumph in 1968 and ignominious fall six years later. She was on the scene when the Beatles made their triumphant debut in New York in 1964 and in Selma a year later as civil rights marchers helped hammer a decisive nail in the coffin of segregation.

Hella Pick with Guinea’s president Sekou Toure during his official visit to the UK. (Courtesy)

Her time in the US had its lighter moments too — she tripped and fell briefly into president John F. Kennedy’s arms when introduced to him at Hyannis Port. “I was a little embarrassed, but certainly not displeased,” she recalls.

Pick was also often confused for Henry Kissinger’s wife. “She is not my wife. My wife doesn’t criticize my work,” the Secretary of State pointedly told guests at a reception when Pick was, once again, mistaken for Nancy Kissinger.

Pick denies that she ever felt she was a trailblazer for women foreign correspondents, while recognizing some of the barriers they faced. Even into the 1960s, for instance, women at dinner parties thrown by the British embassy in Washington were expected to “retire” at the end of the meal, leaving the men to their cigars, port, and high politics. But, Pick says, at times, being a rare woman in a male-dominated field “actually made life easier for me. I stood out as a woman, people tended to remember me more… and that could be quite helpful.”

Working to overcome insecurity

But a sense of insecurity continued to bubble under the surface of Pick’s successes. “When I look at the plethora of subjects I covered during my first six months in Washington,” she writes, “I confess to being amazed at myself! It demonstrates once again how I tried to battle with my indelible sense of insecurity by using intensive work to prove myself and win approval.”

‘Invisible Walls,’ by Hella Pick. (Courtesy)

In the 1970s and 80s, Pick’s beat moved across the Atlantic to Europe. In the early years, she spent much time reporting on Britain’s convoluted entry into the EEC (which later became the European Union). Later, she was on hand as the first signs of cracks began to appear in the Soviet bloc, witnessing a million Poles turn out to greet Pope John Paul II on his return to his homeland in 1979.

Four years later, she joined Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity trade union and Poland’s first post-Communist president, as he and a small group of supporters gathered to listen to a clandestine Western broadcast of the ceremony in which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

And, as the Cold War drew to a close in 1991, Pick found herself sipping coffee and chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet leader kicked his heels waiting for US president George Bush, who was marooned on a US destroyer in heavy seas off of the coast of Malta.

A rather chillier reception greeted Pick when she interviewed the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. After a tortuous three-day negotiation to pre-agree the questions, the interview proceeded in a farcical fashion. Ceaușescu read answers from note cards but his interpreter gave Pick no clue as to what the self-styled “Conductor” had said. In the end, she jumbled the questions, throwing in ones that hadn’t been agreed upon, leaving Ceaușescu confused and irritated. Two days later she received a transcript of the interview: “an indigestible officialized version of what may or may not have been said,” Pick writes.

Hella Pick interviews Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (Courtesy)

Pick struck up a better relationship with the former German chancellor, Willi Brandt, whom she interviewed in 1971. The pair sat talking into the early hours “not about the political situation and transatlantic problems, but about Hitler, the Holocaust, German history, antisemitism, guilt, conscience, morality, reconciliation.”

The conversation, she writes, was “cathartic… for the first time I understood that I could come to terms with Germans and the German nation; that I could stop thinking ‘Nazism’ and Germany were synonymous and could open up to Germany as a solid post-war democracy.”

Halfway to catharsis

Pick admits that she had felt little of the same unease about Austria, which she began visiting soon after the war, despite being aware that it was far more reluctant than Germany to examine its Nazi past.

The incident underlines Pick’s attempts to wrestle with her own past. When she arrived in Britain in 1939, she writes, hiding her Austrian roots was “an obsession,” but attempting to cover up her Jewish identity “went even deeper.” It was not until she was posted to New York — “a city full of Jews leading normal lives as an integral part of American society” — that Pick began to understand that being Jewish “did not spell danger and need not be a handicap.” But, Pick adds, it was not for several more decades before she “really felt comfortable — and secure — as a Jew.”

A pivotal moment came in the 1990s when Pick was commissioned by her friend, the publisher George Weidenfeld, to write a biography of Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. The commission, she writes, led her “to confront… my culture and my responsibilities as a Jew,” as well as to question whether her “reconciliation” with her Austrian roots was justified.

Journalist and author Hella Pick. (Bea Lewkowicz/ Association for Jewish Refugees)

The well-received Wiesenthal biography was followed by a further book examining Austria’s postwar failure to grapple with its past and its decades-long attempt to portray itself as Hitler’s first victim.

“I clearly have a slightly ambivalent attitude towards Austria but, at the same time, I feel very happy, very comfortable when I am in Austria,” Pick says.

Her research on Austria and later work for Weidenfeld’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue led Pick to form a close friendship with the publisher. Weidenfeld became, she says, “an example of the kind of Jew” she wanted to be, describing him as “a very proud and conscious Jew, deeply immersed in Jewish culture, profoundly committed to Israel and yet a totally secular Jew who felt perfectly comfortable in his skin.”

Writing through the pain

Pick says she found writing the memoir “extremely painful” at times. Her relationship with her mother was close and loving but also often strained. Having lost everything in Austria, Hanna “felt I was the only treasure left to her — quite a responsibility for me to bear,” Pick writes.

Hella Pick’s mother, Hanna. (Courtesy)

Overprotective and, at times, overbearing, Hanna came to live with her daughter when she went to university, fretted and complained about her overseas postings, and even took to phoning Pick’s editors in London to raise her concerns.

Pick’s failure to marry and have children — as Hanna hoped and expected her to do — was another source of tension.

“In a sense, she wanted all the time to exercise some control over me and, in some ways, I suppose, I have translated that into different aspects of the way I’ve led my life,” Pick says.

Pick’s account of her remarkable life closes on a somewhat melancholy note thanks to Britain’s acrimonious departure from the EU.

“I found it increasingly difficult to identify with a nation that consented to divorce itself from Europe,” she writes. “If self-distancing has become the signature tune of lockdown, self-distancing from Britishness has become my personal heartache. The net result? I no longer know where I really belong.”

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