Tikva Yudkowitz’s annual family thanksgiving feast, this year on the night of September 3, isn’t about Pilgrims and Indians. Instead it commemorates her release from a hijacked plane in 1970, when she was two months shy of 12 years old.
Every year on the Hebrew date, she and her siblings each host similar feasts of gratitude for making it out alive.
“I can’t believe it’s 50 years,” Ms. Yudkowitz, who lives in Teaneck, said.
On Sunday, September 6, 1970, Tikva and her mother, Sara Raab, and her brothers David, then 17, Moshe, 14, Noam, 8, and Yaron, 6, were heading home after a summer visit to the kids’ grandparents in Israel. They were going back to Trenton, where their father, Rabbi Menachem Raab, was waiting for them.
Their TWA flight from Tel Aviv had just taken off from a stop in Frankfurt. Tikva went to the restroom, and when she got back to her seat her mother told her they were being hijacked. The passengers were told to put their hands over their heads and stay quiet.
Shocked, Tikva didn’t quite believe it until a harsh voice over the loudspeaker repeated those instructions.
“They said that they were taking us to a friendly country,” Ms. Yudkowitz said. “This was around the time there had been several hijackings to Cuba, and my brothers and I figured that was where we were going. We were actually kind of excited about it.
“But as time went on, we realized we weren’t going to Cuba. It was getting dark. The plane circled and circled for hours, and then we landed in the desert at nighttime.
“We were in Jordan.”
This grim scene was the beginning of what would be known as Black September.
The Raabs’ plane was one of four hijacked in Europe that week — TWA, Swissair, and Pan Am flights were taken on September 6 and a BOAC plane on September 9. The hijackers were terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; they demanded freedom for compatriots jailed in Israel and Europe. The PFLP also unsuccessfully attempted to hijack an El Al plane.
Ms. Yudkowitz retains vivid memories of the ordeal.
“After we landed, they told us we couldn’t go anywhere because they had dug ditches around the airplane,” she said. “We started hearing the hijackers asking for everybody’s passports. They wanted to see who was Israeli or had been in Israel. There was a lot of screaming and crying. I heard people yelling, ‘I wasn’t in Israel and I’m not Jewish, get me off this plane!’ Anyone who had an Israeli passport stamp was kept on the plane.”
On September 7, non-Jewish women and children were released. Six male passengers — three Jews and three non-Jews, one an employee of the US State Department and two of the Defense Department — also were removed, but they were held hostage in Irbid until September 29.
The Raabs were among about 80 passengers and 10 crew members who remained in the jet, which was parked on a dirt strip in Jordan.
The temperature was unbearably hot by day and uncomfortably cold at night. The toilets didn’t work; the crew and passengers took turns plunging, but the stench and the heat were beyond oppressive. “I remember having sandstorms when we had to close the plane’s doors even though it was so hot,” Ms. Yudkowitz said.
Among the other passengers were newlyweds, Holocaust survivors, a couple coming home early to surprise their family, and a few children traveling alone, “which even then I thought was sad,” Ms. Yudkowitz said. “One of the effects of this is that I never let my three daughters fly alone until they were married.”
Food and water were barely adequate, particularly for passengers trying to avoid non-kosher food. Sara Raab shared kosher items from her hand luggage with passengers who wouldn’t eat what the PFLP provided. Tikva ate not much more than pita, watermelon, and hardboiled eggs. By the time the family was released on Shabbat, she had lost 15 pounds.
“On Tuesday,” she recalled, “the hijackers announced that they had surrounded the plane with dynamite and would blow up the plane if they didn’t get what they wanted. They went through our suitcases and took away anything bought in Israel.”
The terrorists, brandishing guns, kept up an atmosphere of fear. They repeatedly interrogated passengers, including Sara Raab.
Still, Ms. Yudkowitz reflected, “I tell myself we were very lucky that it happened when it did. In those days, hijacked hostages weren’t killed.” (In 1985, the Palestine Liberation Front hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old wheelchair-bound American Jew.)
At the time, of course, the Raabs were terrified for their lives. And the worst was yet to come. In the wee hours of Friday, September 11, the terrorists took 10 men off the plane, including David Raab.
When Tikva woke up to find her brother gone, “I cried so much that my mother finally said if I didn’t stop she’d kick me off the plane.”
Her mother was being brave for her kids, but the night before had been traumatic as she saw her son being led to an unknown fate.
In his 2007 book, “Terror in Black September,” David recalled: “My mother, who had been sitting a few rows behind, heard the rustling and quickly came to me, trying to convince my captors not to take me away, that I was but a child. She was threatened with a gun, and I descended the rickety wooden ladder off the plane, sure that I was being taken to be killed.”
Fortunately, he was not harmed, but his group was held captive in Amman for 16 days while war between Jordanian and Palestine Liberation Organization fighters raged around them. David arrived back in Trenton on September 28.
The rest of the passengers were liberated on Saturday, September 12, put up in a hotel in Amman, and sent home the next day.
“We stopped in Nicosia to refuel and there my mother couldn’t decide if she should continue home or stay to be closer to David,” Ms. Yudkowitz said. “It was very scary not knowing where David was.”
Ultimately, Sara Raab decided to accompany her four other children back to New Jersey, where her husband had been following the news with increasing worry.
Members of Congress welcomed them at the airport. In Trenton, Tikva’s friend and neighbor Larry Yudkowitz — her future husband — was in the Raabs’ driveway with his parents, waiting to greet them. And when David finally came home, the neighbors threw a block party.
“Everyone made a big deal, and then we got on with our lives,” she says. “Back then we didn’t know there was such a thing as PTSD” — post-traumatic stress syndrome — “but I must have had issues.”
Her parents said she didn’t have to do any homework until David came home. In general, though, the kids were encouraged to approach the new school year as normally as possible. “I even went to a bar mitzvah while my brother was a hostage, and I don’t know how I did that,” Ms. Yudkowitz said.
In 1996, David Raab arranged a trip to Jordan with his mother and siblings. “He wanted to thank King Hussein for his help in getting them released, and he wanted see where he was held,” Ms. Yudkowitz said.
“We drove around and found the house. And then a shopkeeper came out and told us he was there in 1970 and remembered what happened. It validated that this really did happen.”
Sara and Menachem Raab made aliyah, as did David, Moshe, and Noam. (David and his wife, Leah, lived in Teaneck from 1984 to 1999; Moshe and his wife, Rebecca, lived in Teaneck from 2012 to 2014. Yaron lives in Florida.)
Over the years, Ms. Yudkowitz took frequent trips to visit her parents and brothers. Her mother died earlier this year. Now she is waiting for the day when it will be possible to visit her father in Jerusalem.
She is, understandably, a nervous flyer. “I look at people suspiciously and I worry,” she said. “Last summer, on my way to Israel, I suddenly heard the shaky voice of an older man on the loudspeaker, and I went into panic mode. It turned out there was a bunch of yeshiva kids misbehaving and it was their rebbe telling them in Yiddish to sit down and behave. But I had already gone into a panic and I could not calm down.
“I went to the flight attendants and told them I had been hijacked when I was 11. I said, ‘I know what is going on now is harmless but I can’t get past it.’ I had a pounding headache. And one flight attendant told me PTSD can happen anytime, even after 49 years.
“They kept checking on me until I finally calmed down. I was shocked by my reaction.”
Nevertheless, the last 50 years have been full of blessings. The Yudkowitzes wed in December 1981 and moved to Teaneck. Their three daughters are wives and mothers now. One lives in Bergenfield, one in Paramus, and one in San Diego.
Only the San Diego branch of the family couldn’t make it to the thanksgiving meal. “We usually invite another family, but obviously we can’t do that this year,” Ms. Yudkowitz said. “I’m sad that my mother did not live to see the 50th anniversary. She would have enjoyed being there.”
David Raab, now living in Ra’anana, is organizing a 50th anniversary Zoom reunion for fellow former hostages.
He and his siblings feel that the world failed to learn anything from Black September, which morphed from a specific event into a deadly movement that carried out attacks that came to include the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The Raab family, however, learned a life lesson. “Life hangs by a thread,” David said. “We’d had a great vacation, and all of a sudden our lives changed.
“I learned that you have to take advantage of what you do have and keep things in perspective.”