Debris left over from the Swissair, TWA and BOAC flights that were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and blown up on a landing strip in the Jordanian desert on September 12, 1970. (AFP)
Photo: Debris left over from the Swissair, TWA and BOAC flights that were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and blown up on a landing strip in the Jordanian desert on September 12, 1970. (AFP)
Interview'I was crafting my own story for my own survival'

Trauma revisited: Historian reconstructs her week aboard a hijacked jet in Jordan

For close to 50 years, Martha Hodes buried memories of being on a plane hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1970 – until she decided to uncover all she could about the ordeal

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Photo: Debris left over from the Swissair, TWA and BOAC flights that were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and blown up on a landing strip in the Jordanian desert on September 12, 1970. (AFP)

On September 6, 1970, 12-year-old Martha Hodes boarded a flight in Tel Aviv bound for New York.

The plane never arrived at its destination.

Palestinian terrorists hijacked the TWA flight in mid-air, taking its 155 passengers and crew hostage and landing the plane in the Jordanian desert.

Martha and her 13-year-old sister Catherine, who were traveling unaccompanied, were held captive inside the plane for six days and six nights. They were ultimately released unharmed – just before the hijackers blew up their plane and two others that had joined them in what became known as the Dawson’s Field hijackings.

The hijacking of five planes (an El Al crew foiled a takeover attempt by Leila Khaled, and a PanAm flight was blown up in Cairo) by Palestinian guerillas demanding a mass prisoner release captured global attention and led to a bloody 10-day civil war in Jordan known as Black September.

For close to 50 years, Hodes — who became a historian and has written several books about 19th-century US history — largely suppressed all thoughts and memories of her ordeal. She rarely spoke about, thought about or wrote about the hijacking, until she was almost about to convince herself that it never happened.

Historian Martha Hodes and her newest book, ‘My Hijacking.’ (Bruce Dorsey)

But after five decades, Hodes decided to both discover and tell her story. She worked diligently to reconstruct that fateful week, attempting to answer the questions: What happened to her on that plane, and why couldn’t she remember?

The result is the deeply personal yet meticulously researched “My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering,” simultaneously a retelling of history and an exploration of memory.

“I almost never thought or talked about the hijacking until 9/11,” Hodes told The Times of Israel in an interview last week, noting that the September 11, 2001, terror attacks generated fresh fears of flying that she had long buried. “And then it took another 15 years almost for me to go back to it.”

It wasn’t until around five years ago, she said, that she “felt like I was ready to connect that 12-year-old girl who had wanted to forget about the hijacking… to me, the grown-up historian. And I knew that I could bring my skills as a historian to trying to remember the event.”

Vacation turned nightmare

Hodes and her sister spent the summer of 1970 in Tel Aviv, where their mother, a dancer, had settled to help establish the Batsheva Dance Company, then remarried a fellow dancer and had a baby. After an idyllic two months of sunshine and lazy beach days, the sisters were heading back to their father (another famed dancer) and the start of the new school year in New York.

Martha (left) and Catherine Hodes on the beach in Netanya on September 5, 1970 – a day before the hijacking. (Ehud Ben-David)

What transpired instead was an unthinkable, nightmarish week trapped inside a flightless cage, serving as pawns in a geopolitical war the two young girls knew nothing about.

They watched as the hijackers rigged the plane with dynamite while continuing to promise them no bodily harm. They witnessed the hijackers order all the hostages off the TWA plane, line them up and demand to know their religion – releasing some captives, but keeping all of the Jews, as well as some others, behind.

“The night air is chilly, and I hear whispers among the grown-ups about concentration camps,” Hodes writes. “I wonder if someone will give an order to shoot. When we return to the plane, not everyone returns with us.”

In recreating the experiences she had long kept buried, Hodes turned first to her diary, which she had written in faithfully every day for years, including while held captive in the Jordanian desert. What she found was a self-censored, sanitized version of events, a young girl desperate to assert that things were not so bad, and wishing to one day be able to tell her father that she had not been afraid.

“Reading and rereading my diary, I see that the aspiring writer in me constructed not a full record but instead a tolerable story; not a truthful story but instead a bearable one; not an honest story but instead a story I could tell when I got home, most especially to my father,” she wrote decades later.

A Swissair plane in September 1970 was hijacked by the PFLP and brought with two other planes to Dawson’s Field in the Jordanian desert. (AFP)

Putting together the pieces

Hodes threw herself into researching the events, contrasting her writings first with the journal kept by her sister, then digging up accounts told by crew members, reaching out to fellow hostages, watching archival footage and trying to wrap her brain around what really happened.

“What I learned as I began to research and compared my research and my diary entries was that I had omitted a great deal,” Hodes said. “I had omitted things that frightened me, I had omitted things I didn’t want to remember, or didn’t want to think about, or as a 12-year-old didn’t have the words to describe or understand.”

More than 50 years after Hodes refused to catalog the horrors, she now recounts in heartbreaking detail about being forced to live for six days and six nights aboard a grounded plane, without functioning toilets, with a scarcity of food and an inability to maintain basic hygiene.

Mothers who fashioned makeshift diapers for their babies. An unaccompanied 6-year-old who developed a high fever and was cared for by passengers, crew members and even hijackers. The hostages who sobbed uncontrollably when their loved ones were taken away to parts unknown.

Finally driving away from the planes in vans on September 12, 1970, Hodes heard the loud booms signifying that the airlines had been blown to pieces. “I think they blew up TWA. Gosh!” she wrote in her diary. Arriving at the hotel in Amman, dazed, malnourished and still without her family, Hodes wrote: “When we got inside, Catherine & I were interviewed by Time magazine & later by the New York Times!!!!”

The three airliners blown up by Palestinian terrorists in Jordan on September 12, 1970. (Wikipedia/public domain)

Decades of elusion

As she worked to recall what it was like to be aboard that plane, Hodes also tried to come to terms with why she had so painstakingly tried to forget.

“Hoping to prevent us from suffering more than we already had, my father quelled conversations about the hijacking, and I stayed silent, following a pattern of traumatized children who do not wish to upset their parents,” she wrote.

Even decades later, Hodes rarely allowed herself to think back to the experience.

When fellow hostage David Raab – who was among those held for several more weeks in Jordan after most captives were released – published a book about the ordeal in 2007, Hodes studiously avoided reading it. When he published an article in The New York Times Magazine, Hodes passed it to her husband and said, “I need you to read this before I can look at it.”

Hodes, a professor at New York University, wonders today if she ended up on her career path as a result of her experiences that fateful September.

“I feel like in a way, what I did was I turned to other people’s stories, because on some level I didn’t want to face all of my own stories,” she said. “And the stories I have written about are often based on trauma or loss or grief in various ways.”

A lifetime of delving into historical narratives and reconstructing the past was perhaps what she needed to tackle her own story, Hodes suggested.

“Maybe all along, somehow I was destined to write about my own story, as a historian,” she said. “But it was like I had to become a historian first before I could tell this story… to make sense of what I had written, to understand what I had omitted.”

My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering by Martha Hodes

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