That’s how Sam Yossman described his love for the Beeb at an event to introduce his new autobiography, “Šaltojo Karo Samdinys” [Cold War Hired Hand], co-authored with Inga Liutkevičienė.
Trying to sum up his book, itself only a brief summary of a very rich life, Yossman spoke about his Litvak roots in Vilnius, the post-war period, Jews in the Soviet Union and the eventual success he and his friend Yefim Kybarskis, whose family includes a well-known Litvak doctor, and others had in exiting the USSR for Israel. Kybarskis traveled to Lithuania for several presentations of the new book of which the first was hosted by Lithuania’s Department of Minorities as part of a series called “Litvakai sugrįšta” or “Litvaks return.” Also accompanying Yossman was a team of children and grandchildren and assorted friends from Lithuania and elsewhere. The audience included Department personnel, reporters, interested parties from other Lithuanian institutions and a representative from the embassy of Azerbaijan in Vilnius. A representative expected from the Turkish embassy did not appear. Algis Gurevičius, director of the Jewish Cultural and Information Center in Vilnius, also attended.
Holding up the new book, a much younger Yossman gazed out from the cover, a corporal in the Israeli army in khaki fatigues, binoculars half raised, rifle at the ready. The dashing figure of the young corporal was almost immediately contradicted by Yossman’s own account of his time in Israel: he didn’t like it much. It wasn’t what and his friends had expected, it was too hot for a son of the north and he felt he might as well have gone to Uzbekistan or some Arab country. He stayed long enough to fight for Israel in the Yom Kippur war in 1973, but soon repatriated, to England.
This is the point where some real enthusiasm leaked out of Yossman’s very matter-of-fact accounting of his life delivered in the sort of perfect Lithuanian the elderly generation of Lithuanian writers and intellectuals use as his co-author’s son, apparently, delivered a synchronous translation in English.
“I got work at the BBC, in the Russian-language department, every journalist’s dream!” Yossman recalled. “I love the BBC, I am a BBC patriot, I won’t countenance anyone saying anything against the BBC,” he explained. In fact Yossman, using the nom-de-BBC Sam Jones, was known throughout the Soviet Union for his rock music program on the Russian service called Babushkin Sanduk, or Grandma’s Hope Chest, still remembered by millions in the former USSR.
Another emotional point in the presentation came during discussion of his time in Azerbaijan as a BBC correspondent. A local man showed him real hospitality at a time he needed it most, and he never forgot. He recalled hurrying back to Kiev, where Margaret Thatcher was meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, without a passport, only a BBC employee’s card. “There was talk at Bush House of exchanging me for a Russian spy,” he joked. When the large earthquake struck Azerbaijan in 1988, Sam Yossman organized a benefit concert for the victims which included some big names in rock, such as Paul McCartney, Cliff Richards, Black Sabbath, Asia, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and ABBA. Yossman betrayed some slight emotion when he said, “I hope I have repaid my debt” to the man who took him in in Azerbaijan.
One got the impression Yossman was only skimming the surface of events in his life and that the book contains many such stories, which are only a subset of the full story of the man.
Yossman will also present his book at conference hall 5.5 at the Vilnius Book Fair at 12 noon on February 27, according to the publisher, Mažoji Leidykla.
The Jewish Culture and Information Center in Vilnius will host Yossman at 3:00 P.M. on Sunday, February 28.
Excerpts from the book have been provided by the publisher here.
A Lithuanian Radio interview with Yossman is available here.