Black September: 'I didn’t know if my wife and daughter were alive'

The story of Jerry Berkowitz, hostage and survivor of hijacked TWA plane in Jordan.

BERKOWITZ AT the bar mitzvah of his oldest grandchild, Labor Day weekend (September) 2019 (photo credit: ROGER DEL RUSSO)
BERKOWITZ AT the bar mitzvah of his oldest grandchild, Labor Day weekend (September) 2019
(photo credit: ROGER DEL RUSSO)
Jerry Berkowitz was the first passenger “asked” to leave the hijacked TWA plane in Jordan. When his name was called, he was fast asleep. His wife, Rivke, woke him.
“She said, ‘You’d better take your shoes and jacket.’ She said goodbye and that was it,” recalls Berkowitz, now 81.
That was September 7, 1970. His wife and two-year-old daughter, Talia, wouldn’t see him again until September 30, shortly before Rivke lit the candles to usher in Rosh Hashanah 5731.
Berkowitz was part of a group of six men taken off the plane that day and held hostage in Irbid with no possessions but the clothes on their backs.
“There was a definitive reason for the other five. Two of them, both rabbis, had Israeli and American passports. The other three were non-Jewish US government officials, one with the State Department and two with Defense. So they were all interesting characters.”
Why was Berkowitz, a New York City college instructor, chosen? He surmises that his deep tan and crocheted kippah convinced the PFLP hijackers that he was Israeli despite not having an Israeli passport. They weren’t so far off the mark; his parents were born in Palestine.
Berkowitz believes a divine hand placed him in the group to act as a cultural interpreter between the rabbis and the government officials, who barely had a common language aside from English.
“We were taken to the northern headquarters of the PFLP in Irbid, 10 kilometers from the Kinneret and the Syrian border. We were first put into a room where there was an Israeli map in Hebrew with pins stuck in it. I never asked what those pins meant,” Berkowitz recounts.
Each hostage had one blanket to sleep on and another to cover him. They had a little table and two chairs, a clay pitcher of water and one drinking glass.
“One of our guards was a 50-year-old man from Haifa who spoke to me in Hebrew, and I never acknowledged that I knew what he was saying. He called me Yaqub; my Hebrew name is Yaakov.”
In the Frankfurt airport, where the plane stopped on the way to New York, Berkowitz had noticed a suspicious male waiting to board. “I was going to say something, but he walked through the metal detector with no problem. Turns out the metal detector wasn’t working. Next time I saw him, he was running down the aisle with a female hijacker and they had pistols and hand grenades.”
The terrorists rifled through passengers’ luggage and took whatever seemed Israeli to them. Curiously, one of the things they took from Berkowitz was a copy of his PhD dissertation. Later, they tried to confiscate his personalized prayer shawl. “My wife said, ‘You can’t have that!’ and grabbed it back. They were so stunned they didn’t argue.”
Before leaving Israel, Rivke had told Jerry she thought she might be pregnant. In fact, she was carrying twins. Back in New York, she miscarried one fetus.
“She told the doctor, ‘You have to save the [other] baby because this is all I have left of my husband,’ and that became our daughter Yael Geula,” says Berkowitz. “Geula” means redemption.
On September 29, the six hostages were freed in exchange for jailed PFLP terrorists, including the notorious Leila Khaled, whom the British had seized after her attempt to hijack an El Al jet on September 6.
“We were turned over to officials from the Red Cross and the Jordanian army,” says Berkowitz. “On the 30th we came back to New York,” landing so close to the start of the three-day holiday that Berkowitz didn’t even have time to take his first shower in three weeks.
But that was not his main concern. “I didn’t know if my wife and daughter were alive until I saw them at JFK [Airport],” he says.
The Berkowitzes had been to Israel that summer “on a sort of exploratory visit for aliyah, which was never going to happen after that, because we stopped flying.” In 1971 they moved to Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, New York, and became active members of the Jewish community.