Prague mystery

Who killed American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee director Charles Jordan?

Charles Jordan (photo credit: )
Charles Jordan
(photo credit: )
No one knows why Charles Jordan died 40 years ago in Prague. It could have been the Czechoslovak secret police, the Soviet KGB or Arab agents who dumped Jordan in the Vltava River. No one knows with certainty how he died. Maybe he drowned. When he was found on August 20, 1967, after four days in the polluted river, Charlie Jordan's body was damaged beyond diagnosis. An autopsy was inconclusive. Czechoslovak officials turned over Jordan's body, along with organs that may not have been his. A bloated corpse and a bag of body parts marked the end of the life of the director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Charlie Jordan was 59 when he died. The death of Jordan, an ardent advocate for Jewish refugees, became a cold case during the Cold War. It was a bitter and ironic fate for a man honored by governments and international agencies for decades of daring and fearless rescue of endangered people of all faiths. I never knew Charlie Jordan, but he has been a presence in my life for the last dozen years, when I began research into his death and his life for what became the cover story of The Jerusalem Post magazine on August 22, 1997: "Chronicle of a death unsolved." Nothing has changed in the past decade, except the shrinking number of people who actually remember Charlie. I have heard conspiracy theories advanced and discounted, and stories about sex and spies. Was he really on vacation with his wife, as friends and colleagues insisted? Did he really leave his hotel to buy a foreign newspaper, or did he disappear into a tunnel within the building? At times, talking about Charlie feels like an audition for an Oliver Stone movie; at other times, it seems compelling and sordid in a film noir, Mittleuropa-in-the-mist kind of way. Neither conspiracy theories nor confrontations with the past appeal to Mittleuropa. Jordan's death falls squarely within an era that, by now, many would rather forget. AFTER THE "Velvet Revolution," Jordan's death was investigated by the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism (UDV). That office was intended to identify and prosecute Czechs for crimes committed during four decades of communist rule. Like West Germany struggling with de-Nazification, and East Germany trying to come to terms with Stasi crimes without too much damage to the social order, Czechs have anxieties and grievances about examining the communist era too closely. Not everyone wants to know the extent of betrayal and government invasion into their private lives, and many fear that people could be charged for communist-era crimes in some post-communist political vendetta. When the UDV began its work, the Jordan case was more than two decades old. It originally had been investigated (or not) by competing criminal and political police agencies of the communist regime; a few earnest historians from the UDV seemed compelled to spend a lot of time trying to discern the extent to which the criminal and secret police had sabotaged each other's work, had purged records, and why. This is fodder for some of the conspiracy theories - some of which have nothing to do with Charlie Jordan. Often you don't know whether to laugh at the absurdity, cry at the tragedy, or remind yourself yet again that Prague was the city of Franz Kafka. For instance, it is known that a file in this case - called "The River," presumably the Vltava - was destroyed. Many documents were routinely purged after a certain amount of time because they were deemed obsolete, superfluous, or because someone needed room in the file cabinet. Others were destroyed to eliminate everything that could be evidence of anything incriminating; presumably the communists were trying to protect themselves while communism was collapsing around them. So, when a file does, in fact, surface, one does not celebrate the information. Instead, you suspect it simply because it survived. If documents were destroyed en masse for reasons that are both political and prosaic, ergo, any document that still exists must be propaganda or planted to throw investigators off track. Which investigators and what track are irrelevant. Very Kafka. THIS IS how people of a certain age think and speak in Prague when you ask about a murder from 1967. Without amnesty, there is no incentive for witnesses or perpetrators, still alive 40 years later, to come forward with information. By now, it is doubtful the Czech government would solve the case. But at minimum, it should issue an official ruling that Charlie Jordan was murdered, which is what officials have said privately in a dozen years of conversations, and should explain why it cannot reach a conclusion - even if that reason is that it does not want to accuse a former Soviet or an Arab state of murder. This expectation is not out of line. Last month, the government appointed Pavel Zacek to direct the new Institute for the Totalitarian Regimes Studies. The institute will have the authority to gather and analyze documents from the Nazi occupation and communist eras, including the archive of the communist secret police (StB). Zacek is no stranger to the Jordan case; he worked on it at the UDV. Although his new institute will probably be as unpopular as its predecessor, Zacek did not strike me as Oliver Stone material. THE REAL question, though, is why, despite the end of the Cold War, the US has not aggressively and persistently sought information about the inexplicable death of one of its citizens. There is something especially tragic about the death on duty of humanitarian aid workers. Yet the State Department, under presidents Clinton and Bush, has had to be prodded by reporters to make official inquiries to the post-communist Czech governments regarding an official determination about Jordan's death. Governments are responsible for the fate of their citizens. As Jordan's few surviving friends prepare to commemorate his 40th yahrzeit on August 20, it is hard to discern the greater mystery: who killed Charles Jordan, or why the US government does not care. Perhaps foreign service and humanitarian workers should sign a waiver before they are sent abroad: Let it be clear that in the event they suffer the fate of Charlie Jordan, governments will do for them what they did for him. The writer is the author of Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference, with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by Vallentine Mitchell in London.