Jerry Berkowitz knew there was something suspicious about the man boarding his plane.
On Sept. 6, 1970, the Philadelphia native had stepped off his return flight from Israel for some fresh air during a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, when he noticed the figure. He considered asking the flight staff to question him, since there had been a string of hijackings throughout the summer, but ultimately decided against it.
He rejoined his wife, Rivke Berkowitz, and their 2-year-old daughter Talia on the plane. Shortly after takeoff, he saw the man and a woman running down the aisle carrying pistols and grenades.
“This is your new captain speaking,” the woman announced from the cockpit moments later. “This plane has been taken over by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. We are taking you to a friendly country with friendly people.”
September marked the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Dawson’s Field plane hijackings and the ensuing hostage crisis, which drew international attention and escalated tensions that led to the outbreak of the Jordanian civil war. Jerry Berkowitz, a college professor, was one of six men held captive for nearly a month.
Boaz Atzili, an associate professor of Israel studies, Jewish studies and Arab studies at American University, said hijacking was an increasingly common tactic for organizations like PFLP to negotiate for the release of prisoners and draw international attention to their cause after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel won against Egypt, Syria and Jordan and took control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“Until ’67, the Palestinians were basically putting their trust in the Arab states to eventually bring the liberation of Palestine, what became Israel,” Atzili said. “But the ’67 war was such a decisive blow to this vision that the Arabs will somehow win over Israel. So that’s where we see this mind shift in Palestinian operation, and basically they decided, ‘OK, if we’re not going to help ourselves, nobody is going to help us.’”
Berkowitz’s TWA Flight 74 was one of four planes to be hijacked that day, along with Swissair Flight 100, El Al Flight 219 and Pan Am Flight 93. The hijackers landed the TWA plane and Swissair plane on Dawson’s Field, a World War II landing strip in the Jordanian desert. Three days later, another hijacker forced BOAC Flight 775 to land at the field.
Men with guns rushed Berkowitz’s plane, collected passports and instructed passengers to fill out customs declarations.
“That kind of blew our minds, because you had to be prepared to have the declarations available,” said Berkowitz, who now lives in Buffalo, New York.
The next day, the militants issued demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Germany, Switzerland, England and Israel. They included the United States in the group of governments they would negotiate with.
The hijackers told all women and children to get off the plane. Many, including Rivke Berkowitz, were afraid to leave.
“I convinced my wife that I’d feel a lot better if she and my daughter were safe,” Jerry Berkowitz said.
The guards separated Jews and non-Jews before releasing the non-Jewish passengers, who were transported to Amman. The Jewish women and children were sent back on the plane.
That night, Jerry Berkowitz, now 81, was called off the plane along with five other men. Two were rabbis with American and Israeli passports, and three were U.S. government employees. They were loaded onto a truck and driven through the desert.
“Every time we stopped behind a large sand dune, I figured, ‘They’re going to take us out here and kill us,’” Berkowitz said. He had nightmares that his body would never be found and, in accordance with Jewish law when a body cannot be identified, his wife would never be able to remarry.
Their guards drove them to the Jordanian city of Irbid, where they were dropped at the house that served as PFLP headquarters. The men were kept in a small room and given a single glass to share for water.
A few days later, the guards brought the hostages an Arabic language newspaper with a picture of their plane being blown up. Jerry Berkowitz had no idea that his wife and daughter were taken off the plane on Sept. 12 and returned to the U.S. on Sept. 14. He didn’t know if they were still alive.
Atzili said the hijackings and destruction of the planes at Dawson’s Field brought tensions between Palestinians and Jordanians to a boiling point. After the Six-Day War, Palestinian groups in Jordan attempted to create an autonomous zone where they exercised control independently of Jordanian authorities. When Palestinians blew up the hijacked planes on Sept. 16, King Hussein of Jordan declared martial order and ordered a concerted attack on Palestinian forces.
Soon after the captives arrived at the PFLP headquarters, they heard the mortar fire between Palestinian and Jordanian forces that marked the beginning of the Jordanian civil war.
On Sept. 21, the Jordanian forces and allies occupied Irbid and the guards moved the hostages to an abandoned schoolhouse. On Sept. 29, the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived along with an official secretary from the Embassy of Egypt in Amman, who told the men they were being released unconditionally.
After flying to Athens to give a press conference, the group boarded a flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where Jerry Berkowitz was finally reunited with his wife and daughter. Police cars rushed them to a family member’s house, and they made it just before sundown on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
Jerry Berkowitz, who is retired, said the ordeal left its mark on his family. He and his wife had flashbacks and nightmares, particularly when a hostage crisis appeared in the news.
“In the 50 years since, I don’t know if we flew 10 times,” he said. The couple lived in Buffalo together until Rivke Berkowitz died in 2015.
He said he found solace during his captivity by reflecting on Jewish ritual and his Jewish education at Gratz College. On Sept. 26, the last Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, he prayed on the second floor of the schoolhouse, which had no roof and was open to the sky.
“And I looked up at the sky and a sentence from Genesis came to mind: ‘God told Abraham to look at the sky and promised to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens.’ And I had the sense that all over the world Jews were at synagogue, and even if they weren’t, they were praying for us to return safely,” he said.