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Bernard Simon, longtime B'nai B'rith public relations director, dies

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; B08

Bernard Simon, 89, who served for more than 20 years as public relations director for the Jewish humanitarian organization B'nai B'rith International, died April 20 at his home in Olney. He had complications from spinal stenosis.

Mr. Simon's death was confirmed by his son David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of the HBO TV series "The Wire" and "Treme."

Early in his career, Bernard Simon was a freelance journalist who wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, Coronet magazine and the Toronto Star. He worked as associate public relations director for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which fights anti-Semitism, before becoming public relations director at B'nai B'rith in 1956.

In addition to being the organization's chief speechwriter and editor of its magazine, Mr. Simon bore witness to Communist restrictions on Jewish cultural and religious life when he traveled to Eastern Europe in 1961. His internal reports about the oppressive conditions he saw helped spur American Jewish leaders' campaign to free Soviet Jews and allow their immigration to the West.

Ten years later, Mr. Simon traveled to Vienna, Austria, a transit hub for an early wave of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union who arrived by train on their way to Israel and other nations. Eventually, more than 1.5 million Jews left the Soviet Union, according to NCSJ, a Washington-based nonprofit organization formerly known as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

In 1977, when members of a Hanafi Muslim group seized B'nai B'rith's headquarters and two other Washington buildings, Mr. Simon and more than 100 of his colleagues were tied up and held hostage.

Mr. Simon was among a small group of captives designated by the radical Muslims as the "old men," who were unbound so they could feed their coworkers. The captors made several demands, among them that the government hand over men who had been convicted of killing the children of Hanafi leader Hamaas Abdul Khaalis; if those demands weren't met, they said, the "old men" would be the first to be killed.

The ordeal lasted 38 hours, until ambassadors from three Islamic countries persuaded the Hanafis to let the hostages go. Mr. Simon wrote about the experience in a New York Times op-ed piece:

"Shock. It numbs the emotions, insulating you from the worst of your fears. It keeps your sanity intact while, your hands bound, you are squirming from flat on your back to flat on your belly, inching for a more comfortable resting place on the hard cement floor."

He wrote of the cold and fearful night he and others spent in captivity and of the sudden and welcome appearance the following morning of D.C. police officers.

"People keep saying: 'I've now begun a new life.' Not so," he wrote. "It's the same one. But different."

Bernard Simon was born May 7, 1920, in Weehawken, N.J., and grew up in Jersey City above a small grocery store owned by his parents, immigrants from Russia and Poland.

He graduated in 1941 with a degree in journalism from New York University, where he served as managing editor of the campus newspaper. After serving in the Army during World War II, he sold freelance articles and worked at the Religious News Service, which became the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

He joined the Anti-Defamation League in 1950. For his work on a 1953 dinner honoring President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mr. Simon helped earn the organization a Silver Anvil, the highest award of the American Public Relations Association.

The nationally televised event, featuring entertainers such as Lucille Ball, Ethel Merman and Helen Hayes, made headlines across the country when Eisenhower used it to speak out against the anti-Communist efforts led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.).

Mr. Simon retired from his public relations post at B'nai B'rith in 1979 but stayed on to manage the organization's retirement plan, which he had revamped during the 1970s. He headed the retirement plan until the late 1980s and advised its managers into the 1990s.

He was a member of the Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase and an associate member of the National Press Club from 1958 until he retired.

In an e-mail, David Simon called his father "warm, optimistic and inclusive." He recalled his father editing the galley proofs of the younger Simon's book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," about Baltimore homicide detectives: "He tried to systematically delete every single profanity, even those in quotes. He could never be as blunt as the world often is."

In addition to David Simon, of Baltimore, Mr. Simon's survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Dorothy Ligeti of Olney; another son, Gary L. Simon of Potomac; and five grandchildren. A daughter, Linda Evans, died in 1990.

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