Henry Kamm, Pulitzer-Winning New York Times Journalist, Dies at 98

Henry Kamm, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times who covered Cold War diplomacy in Europe and the Soviet Union, famine in Africa, and wars and genocide in Indochina, died on Sunday in Paris. He was 98.

Mr. Kamm’s son Thomas confirmed the death, at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

From the continent he had fled at 15 to escape Nazi persecution during World War II, to the battlefields and killing fields of Indochina, Mr. Kamm was the consummate star of The Times’s foreign staff: a fast, accurate, stylish writer, fluent in five languages, with global contacts and reportorial instincts that found human dramas and historical perspectives in the day’s news.

His early displacement deeply influenced his 47-year career with The Times, Thomas Kamm, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, said in an email in 2017. It “explains the interest he always showed throughout his journalistic career for refugees, dissidents, those without a voice and the downtrodden,” he said.

Henry Kamm won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for articles on the plight of refugees from Indochina who fled their war-torn homelands in 1977 and braved the South China Sea. Many sailed for months in small, unsafe fishing boats, suffering horrendous privations, only to find themselves unwanted on any shore.

In interviews with hundreds of the refugees — “boat people,” as they were called, who had sought safety in the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Japan — Mr. Kamm wrote of the despair of men, women and children whose escape from probable death had led to ordeals of near starvation, terrors of drowning on the high seas and crushing rejection as the world turned them away.

“In the sad picture of the wanderings on land and sea of tens of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia since the end of the Indochinese war two years ago,” Mr. Kamm wrote from Singapore, “nothing exemplifies so fully all the ironies and pain of people who thought they were choosing freedom and wound up in a limbo of hostility or indifference from those from whom they expected help.”

A decrepit freighter riding at anchor out in Singapore Harbor, he wrote, was laden with 249 Indochinese refugees who had boarded the ship in Thailand and had lived on its open deck, through pitching storms and merciless days of baking sun, for four months, finding no haven in port after port.

“At first they waited to go to a country that would give them a home,” Mr. Kamm wrote. “Then they lowered their hopes to finding a country that would recognize their existence and let them ashore at least temporarily until one government or another decided to let them come to stay.”

Because of Mr. Kamm’s reports, the Pulitzer judges noted, the United States and several other nations eventually opened their doors to the Indochinese refugees.

Mr. Kamm later wrote two books about Asia. In “Dragon Ascending: Vietnam and the Vietnamese” (1996), he portrayed a nation struggling under communism and recapitulated its war with the United States in the perspective of a 4,000-year history.

His book “Cambodia: Report From a Stricken Land” (1998) traced that nation’s descent into barbarity, from the murder of millions of its own citizens by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s through the decades of economic and social suffering that followed.

“Kamm’s account of Cambodia’s long tragedy is spare, blunt and angry,” Arnold R. Isaacs wrote in The New York Times Book Review. “Based almost entirely on his own reporting, it draws little if any material from the work of other journalists and historians. That this turns out to be a strength, not a weakness, is a tribute to the quality of Kamm’s journalism over the years.”

He was born Hans Kamm in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw in Poland) on June 3, 1925, to Rudolf and Paula (Wischnewski) Kamm. The boy grew up fluent in German and Polish.

His Jewish father was arrested in Nazi roundups of Jews following the events of Crystal Night in November 1939, but was released from the Buchenwald concentration camp on condition that he leave Germany, which he did in late 1939, making his way to England and the United States, where he settled. Hans and his mother, after a long, fearful wait for visas in Breslau, crossed Europe in a sealed train to Portugal and reached New York on a Portuguese ship in 1941.

Hans attended George Washington High School in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan and learned English. In 1943, he was naturalized as an American citizen under the name Henry Kamm. Turning 18, he enlisted in the World War II Army and fought the Germans in Belgium and France, where he learned French.

Discharged in 1946, he attended New York University and graduated in 1949 with a degree in English. Impressed by his knowledge of foreign affairs and language skills, The Times hired him as a copy boy.

Over the next decade, Mr. Kamm was a newsroom clerk and then a copy editor in New York, but had three bylined articles, two in 1958 about developments in the recording industry and a 1954 first-person account of island-hopping travel in the Lesser Antilles, an island chain in the eastern Caribbean.

In 1950, he married Barbara Lifton. They had three children: Alison, Thomas and Nicholas. The couple separated in the late 1970s and were divorced many years later. Since the ’70s, Mr. Kamm had lived with Pham Lan Huong, with whom he raised her adopted son, Bao Son. With the exception of Pham Lan Huong, who died in 2018, they all survive Mr. Kamm, along with 10 grandchildren.

After The Times began a Paris-based international edition in 1960, Mr. Kamm was sent there as an assistant news editor. In 1964, he became a foreign correspondent and began covering stories across Europe.

He was assigned to cover Poland full time in 1966.

In 1967, he wrote from Lidice, in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic), of the lingering horrors of the 1942 massacre of 173 men as a reprisal for the assassination of a Nazi official. And in a visit to Auschwitz, where millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis, Mr. Kamm told of an old woman swaying atop the ruins of a crematory where bodies had been burned as she read the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

“The old woman finished the prayer, kissed the book and returned it to the shopping bag she had held between her feet while she prayed,” he wrote. “From the bag, she took a candle that Jews light on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. She lit it, put it in a sheltered spot deep in the rubble of the furnace, climbed down to the ground and left silently.”

Mr. Kamm was The Times’s Moscow bureau chief from 1967 to 1969, and won a George Polk Award for his reporting from the Soviet Union.

In 1968, he covered the Prague Spring, a period of liberal reforms — later suppressed by invading Warsaw Pact troops — under the Communist leader Alexander Dubcek.

Among Mr. Kamm’s best news sources was his friend Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and dissident who became the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989-92) and the Czech Republic’s first president (1993-2003).

Mr. Kamm later had assignments in Southeast Asia, Paris and Tokyo, where he was bureau chief.

In the 1980s, while based in Rome and Athens, he made frequent trips to sub-Saharan Africa to cover devastating droughts, crop failures and famine. Based in Geneva in the 1990s, he reported from many countries in Europe and Asia.

After retiring in 1996, Mr. Kamm lived in Lagnes, France, near Avignon in Provence. He later moved to a retirement home in the west of Paris, adjacent to the Bois de Boulogne park.

In 2018, he applied for and received German citizenship — a reconciliation, of sorts, with the nation he had fled as a teenager. The archive of his papers, including some 7,000 Times articles, is held by the New York Public Library.

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