Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon

How I survived a plane hijacking 50 years ago

A photo of the Sept. 15, 1970 edition

A photo of the Sept. 15, 1970 edition of the Standard Star. Robert Hirsch, his mother, Miriam, and his brother, Howard Hirsch. The photo was taken by Gil DeLoren on Sept. 14, 1970, when Robert and his brother arrived at Kennedy Airport.    Credit: Rob Hirsch

In the bedroom of my house at the dead end of a peaceful street in Searingtown, I lay tefillin, wrapping the worn leather straps around my forearms and adjusting the phylacteries with automatic precision. I took over this obligation after my father died in 2013 to fulfill the promise my father made to God on Sept. 6, 1970. That’s the day my U.S.-bound TWA Flight airlines plane was hijacked.

“If you return my children safely, I will fulfill the daily obligation of laying tefillin set forth in the Torah,” my father promised 50 years ago Sunday.

As a father of four, I cannot help but think of the unimaginable anxiety my parents must have felt on that day after learning that TWA Flight 741 from Frankfurt, which was supposed to deliver their three children, ages 15, 13 and 10, from Israel to New York had been hijacked.

“This is your new captain speaking. This flight has been taken over by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. We will take you to a friendly country with friendly people.” The announcement reverberated across the shocked silence of our plane. My brother said maybe we would get to miss a day or two of school. I was excited. I was 10, after all. At the time, terrorism wasn’t usually the source of mass bloodshed that it is today.

PFLP hijackers seized several jetliners during their September 1970 operation. Flight 741 was hijacked somewhere over Belgium and diverted to a Jordanian airstrip, where we sat for seven days. During the day, the stillness of the heat in the Jordanian desert was so oppressive that it felt as if we were going to suffocate in the strange silence of the quiet plane. My brother, my sister and I, with the assistance of the flight crew, teamed up to remove the emergency exit window, allowing a modicum of air to be shared among the nearly 150 passengers.

At night, I slept under a row of seats on the floor next to the open exit. My teeth chattering from the cold desert winds.

One of the Holocaust survivors on the plane only drank half of the bottle of chlorinated water we were given each day, apprehensive that our bottles may not get refilled.

There was an 18-year-old boy with long, shaggy hair and a scruffy beard named Mitch, who took me under his wing. I thought he was so cool. One day out of nowhere, he was separated from us by the terrorists and transported to an unknown location along with all the other Jewish men on the plane. This was the only time I remember crying during the whole week.

Setting the stage for the future of Western negotiations with terrorists for many years to come, to secure our peaceful release, the British government had agreed to exchange us for the freedom of Palestinian prisoners held in Europe, including notably Leila Khaled, who was captured in the attempted hijacking of my parents’ flight. My parents were flying on El Al 219, one of the flights the PFLP tried to commandeer on Sept. 6, 1970. The hijackers were overpowered by the highly skilled El Al on-board flight security, along with army-trained pilot Uri Bar-Lev.  

As I unwrap my tefillin and get ready to start my day in Searingtown, I am grateful. I am grateful that, in 1970, Western leaders decided to capitulate to the demands of terrorists, so that I could come home. I am grateful that if I had to be on a plane that was hijacked, it was in 1970, before terrorists more frequently resorted to violence. And I am grateful that my parents’ El Al Airlines plane was staffed with trained on-board security who overpowered the terrorists and allowed my parents to return to the United States unharmed.  

But, increasingly, my personal gratitude is countered by a creeping feeling of naivete. As terrorism continues to rage and with seemingly no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is increasingly difficult for me hold onto the belief that everything is going to be OK.

Rob Hirsch, of Searingtown, is the founder of Chaverware, a synagogue management software solution. Freelance writer Jenny Leon helped write this essay.