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Number 1 Shimbun

The life of Bernie Krisher, journalist and philanthropist

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When the former member of the FCCJ passed away in March, he left a legacy of journalistic and charitable achievements that won’t soon be forgotten.


By the
Cambodia Daily

Legendary journalist Bernard Krisher, former bureau chief for Newsweek magazine and member of the FCCJ from 1962 to 2001, passed away on March 5 at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 87. His death from heart failure was disclosed by his family following a private burial in New York.

Krisher, who began his career as a foreign correspondent in Japan, had dedicated his last three decades to humanitarian work in Cambodia.

Krisher was born on Aug. 9, 1931, in Frankfurt, Germany, where his mother had gone to give birth close to her parents. The family lived in Leipzig, where his father, a Jew from Poland, owned a fur shop. They fled Germany in 1937 for the Netherlands and France to escape Nazi persecution, and he attended two years of elementary school in Paris. When the Germans invaded France, Krisher’s family fled to the Spanish border seeking onward transit to Portugal. There, Krisher had a fateful encounter on the street with Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul who issued visas for his family and countless other Jews, against the order of his government.

In 1941, the family emigrated to the US on the vessel Serpa Pinto, known as the “ship of destiny” for its role in transporting European refugees to safety on the other side of the Atlantic. After arriving through Ellis Island and settling in Queens, Krisher began attending New York City public schools despite his lack of English, and eventually graduated from Forest Hills High School. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the city’s Queens College in 1953.

FROM THE TIME HE was a child, Krisher knew that he wanted to be a journalist. When he was 12, he started publishing his own small magazine for teenagers after the magazines he sold as a delivery boy went bankrupt. He filled his magazine, called Pocket Mirror (later Picture Story), which he mimeographed in his Queens apartment, with interviews of celebrities such as Babe Ruth, Frank Sinatra and Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations.

He said he learned most of his techniques of journalism during this time. “Persistence, energy, enthusiasm were the key essentials of this profession,” he said, “and the main enemy is cynicism.”

During college, he worked for the New York Herald Tribune as a campus correspondent and copy boy, including at the 1948 and 1952 Democratic National Conventions. He was also an editor at the college student newspaper, The Crown, where, at the height of McCarthyism, he wrote articles critical of the blacklisting of professors branded as communists and being dismissed from their teaching posts. Krisher took heat from the administration. When he didn’t stop writing the articles, the college president tried to have him removed, even writing the editor of the Herald Tribune in an attempt to have him dismissed from his job there, but the paper refused.

Krisher was drafted into the army in 1953 and stationed for two years in Heidelberg, Germany, as a reporter for the European Stars and Stripes.

He joined the New York World-Telegram & Sun in 1955, first as a reporter, then assistant editor.

From 1961-62, he studied at Columbia University on a Ford Foundation fellowship in advanced international reporting, specializing in Japanese studies at the East Asian Institute. In 1962, he left the World-Telegram & Sun and moved to Japan to join Newsweek as a reporter in the magazine’s Tokyo bureau.

 

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A comic book-style feature showing
a teenage Bernard Krisher editing his own magazine in 1947

 

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Emperor Hirohito greets Krisher
before their exclusive interview in September, 1975


HE HAD TRAVELED TO the country four years earlier when he was sent to Asia on a six-week reporting assignment by the New York World-Telegram & Sun newspaper, and met his future wife, Akiko, with whom he was married for 58 years until his death. He attributed the works of Lafcadio Hearn with inspiring his interest in Japan and on his decision to live and work there.

Krisher was promoted to Newsweek’s Tokyo bureau chief in 1967, a position he held for the next 13 years. He interviewed many notable personalities including all Japanese prime ministers and other politicians, business leaders and cultural figures. His most famous interview was a one-on-one exclusive print interview with Emperor Hirohito just before the emperor’s historic visit to the US in 1975. (For the inside story of this reportage, see the article “The Emperor, Newsweek and the ‘Nisei Onassis,’” by Eiichiro Tokumoto in the June, 2014 issue of Number 1 Shimbun.) 

Krisher’s beat included other parts of Asia, and he traveled widely through parts of Southeast Asia and made frequent trips to South Korea. He succeeded in landing the first exclusive interview with Indonesian President Sukarno in 1964, at a time when Western journalists were on the leader’s blacklist. Sukarno also introduced him to Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who invited him to Cambodia.

Sihanouk, however, severed ties with the US in 1965, in part over the US government’s refusal to apologize over an article Krisher wrote for Newsweek. Sihanouk eventually restored diplomatic relations with the US, and the prince and Krisher subsequently formed a close friendship that led to Krisher’s humanitarian work in the country later in life.

Krisher was also supportive of Kim Dae-jung when the South Korean dissident was a political prisoner. He ran interviews and articles critical of the South Korean government in the magazine, and when Kim became president of the country in 1998, he kept his promise made years ago of granting Krisher the first interview.

After Newsweek, Krisher moved to open the Tokyo bureau for Fortune magazine in 1980, remaining its correspondent until 1984. At the same time, he joined a leading Japanese publisher, Shinchosha, as chief editorial advisor and helped start up Focus, a successful news-oriented photo-weekly. He later helped set up the Japanese edition of Wired for another publisher, Dohosha. He was also the Far East representative for the MIT Media Lab.

 

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Krisher pictured with Cambodia Daily editors Gretchen Peters,
Matthew Reed and Barton Biggs in Phnom Penh in the mid-90s

 

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Krisher meets with foster children and orphans supported
by his organization, in Phnom Penh in November 2011


IN 1993, KRISHER LAUNCHED the Cambodia Daily to help establish a free press in Cambodia. It was a time of reconstruction and rehabilitation in the country, following the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement concluding two decades of civil war and Sihanouk’s return from exile and instatement as head of state. It was the country’s first English-language newspaper and was a training ground for Cambodian and expatriate journalists, publishing local and international news to readers in Phnom Penh.

Against the advice of many, including Sihanouk who cautioned him that he might be killed, Krisher started the newspaper believing that a democracy needed a free press and told his staff that a paper should be like a gadfly to keep a check on those in power. The regime’s forced closure of the print edition in September 2017 drew international condemnation.

For Krisher, his crowning achievement was the construction in the mid-1990s of the Sihanouk Hospital Center of HOPE in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, which provides free medical care to the poor and ran a telemedicine program in remote villages. He was the founder and chairman of the hospital, which was built on land donated by King Sihanouk.

A rural schools project which he also founded has, to date, built over 560 state schools across every province. While not personally wealthy, Krisher leveraged his rolodex and chutzpah to solicit funds from private donors, and the World and Asian Development banks. Known by many around him as Bernie “Pusher,” he once said, “I remain very New York – quite aggressive, confrontational against authority and establishment.”

Krisher credited the humanitarianism of Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning medical missionary who had built a charity hospital in Africa and whom he met in New York in the 1950s, as his inspiration to embark on his work in Cambodia.

Krisher also made several trips to North Korea in the 1990s to distribute rice and medical supplies to famine victims.

Krisher is survived by his wife, his two children and two grandchildren. ❶

Excerpted with permission from The Cambodia Daily.

Published in: May 2019

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