Metro View: In Charlie Jordan's memory

Was the pre-eminent Jewish refugee worker of his era killed by Palestinian terrorists?

charlie jordan 88 (photo credit: AP)
charlie jordan 88
(photo credit: AP)
February marks the centenary of the birth of Charles Jordan - not a household name, unless you were a displaced Jew in Europe after the Holocaust, a Jew in Hungary during the 1956 uprising or in Algeria during the violence of independence. Jordan - born on February 7, 1908, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to German immigrants - was the pre-eminent Jewish refugee worker of his era. He was relentless, resourceful, salty, compassionate and charismatic. He spent his career working for the Joint Distribution Committee and was its director at the time of his mysterious disappearance and death in Prague in August 1967. Forty years later, the US State Department had no comment on the inability of the Czechs to conclude an investigation into his death. But it had quite a lot to say about Charlie Jordan when he died. At a memorial service at Carnegie Hall in New York on September 17, 1967, Jordan was eulogized by Ambassador James Wine, then the special assistant to the Secretary of State for Refugee and Migration Affairs. Quoting the British poet William Wordsworth, Wine described Jordan as "a man of high self-sacrifice and a laborer without pause." "The government of the United States is cognizant and wholeheartedly grateful for the courageous work accomplished by the American voluntary agencies and to the men and woman like Charlie Jordan who have done so much to alleviate human suffering and homelessness," Wine told more than 1,000 people who had gathered in Carnegie Hall to pay tribute to Jordan. People "remember him in all those places around the globe to which Jews have fled these last 30 years because they were refugees - Cuba in 1941, Shanghai in 1946, Paris in 1948, the docks of Naples in 1956 when the Jews of Egypt fled Nasser, the airport at Algiers in 1961 as refugees by the thousands left for France," said Max Fisher, then chairman of United Jewish Appeal. "To Charles Jordan, no one was a stranger." In a cable read at the memorial, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, called Jordan "a man of uncommon ability, generous character, great courage and complete devotion to the dispossessed of this world." So extensive was Jordan's personal and professional influence that memorial services also were held in Jerusalem, Antwerp, Athens, Bombay, Bucharest, Geneva, London, Madrid, Milan, Teheran and Vienna. WHEN JORDAN went missing in Prague, his disappearance drew international attention. The New York Times devoted its "Man in the News" column on August 19, 1967, to Jordan, under the headline "Father to Refugees." Jordan had traveled to Prague on vacation with his wife, Elli. He was 59 on the evening of August 16 when he left the Hotel Esplanade, across from the Prague Opera House, to buy a foreign newspaper. Four days later, his body was pulled from the Vltava River, where it had caught on a weir. Countless tourists have photographed the spot, part of the picturesque view from the Charles Bridge. No one knows how or why - and, probably, where - he died. There are vague suspects covering the gamut of Cold War anti-American or anti-Jewish attitudes: the Czechoslovak secret police, the Soviet KGB or Arab or Palestinian agents. The only certain thing is that it was not a burglary - or not a successful one. When his body was recovered on August 20, Jordan was wearing his Rolex watch and two gold rings. SINCE THE 40th anniversary, no Czech official has responded to any requests for information about the status of the investigation into his death. The State Department's comment, in a letter to the JDC last year, on that anniversary, said only that from 2000 to 2004, the Czech government undertook an "extensive investigation into the Jordan case, with the active assistance of the US Embassy in Prague." "Despite exhaustive efforts on both sides, no concrete evidence developed. Subsequently, the Czech government closed the case after what we believe was a diligent pursuit of all available information in the case," the department said. No one, however, identified what assistance the Americans provided. "Closed" implies solved, but no one would say if the Czechs made a determination of how Charlie Jordan died when they closed the case. Charlie's friends thought he was murdered. The only official reference to murder comes in the most unlikely of places: a footnote in a volume of the State Department series "Foreign Relations of the United States," also known as FRUS. These volumes include significant foreign policy documents, correspondence and cables. Among them is a telegram from the embassy in Czechoslovakia on May 28, 1968, in which the American ambassador, Jacob Beam, reported meeting with foreign minister Jiri Hajek. One of the many items about which Beam asked was "for a definitive report on [the] Jordan case." This brief reference comes with a footnote that says: "Charles Jordan, European representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, disappeared and was murdered during an August 1967 visit to Prague. His body was recovered on August 20. In 1975, a Czech intelligence agency defector informed a US Senate committee that Jordan had been killed by Palestinian terrorists while under Czech security surveillance." THE FOOTNOTE understates Jordan's position, and the defector's statement was subsequently discredited. But for those grasping for an official verdict of murder, there it is: footnote 5 on page 200 of FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume XVII. "With the untimely passing of Charlie Jordan, humanity lost one of its undisputed champions," the State Department envoy said at the Carnegie Hall memorial in 1967. "Jordan's death came as a diminishing number of Americans were concerned with the stateless and the oppressed," said Wine. Americans were troubled. This was not a romantic moment in the US comprised solely of hippies, flower power and "make love, not war." There were race riots in American cities, and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements had peaceful and violent factions. "The ever-increasing lack of dedication to ideals and altruistic endeavors makes the loss to society of men like Charlie Jordan all the more grievous and alarming," said Wine. The tragic unwillingness or inability of Czech and US authorities to solve the mystery of Jordan's death should not overshadow the extraordinary gifts of his life. On the centenary of Jordan's birth, Wine's warm proposal seems especially fitting. "I cannot help but believe," he said, "that there is nothing that would be more pleasing to the man we honor today than to see this memorial serve as the occasion at which all those present make a solemn pledge to rededicate themselves to the cause for which Charlie strived every day of his life." In Charlie Jordan's memory, Wine called on people to be "more concerned with the well-being of their fellow man regardless of his race, religion or nationality, and to abandon deadening complacency for a purposeful life of service dedicated to making this a better world in which to live." Amen.