Forty years ago, on Aug. 20, 1967, the head of the world’s largest Jewish humanitarian organization was found drowned in Prague’s Vltava River, producing one of the Cold War’s major murder mysteries.
Was Charles Jordan, executive vice-chairman of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a victim of the StB, the Czechoslovak communist secret police?
Could he have been murdered by the Egyptian intelligence service as he sought to integrate millions of Palestinian refugees into the Arab states immediately following the Six-Day War in 1967?
Or perhaps, as some have claimed, he was done in by Arab students. There is even a much derided theory that Jordan was targeted by Jews angered by his sympathy for the Palestinians.
The Jordan case remains unresolved despite three investigations by the Czech state following the collapse of communism. But has everything possible been done to uncover his fate?
In July, the JDC had become so dissatisfied with the quality of the most recent Czech investigation — concluded in 2004 — that the organization asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure the Czech government into reopening the case. The State Department has yet to reply.
Adding to the murkiness of the case, in recent years the FBI has advanced the widely rejected view that Jordan’s death was merely an accident and, some Czech investigators say, Israeli officials have not cooperated with the probe.
In addition, in the only interview granted to a journalist by a communist security informant, a former StB source told JTA that she had never heard of Jordan, even though records show police interviewed her at the time about his death.
A faulty investigation of Jordan’s death would suggest that other secrets from the Cold War-era concerning dealings among the Middle East, the United States and the Soviet bloc are, even if unintentionally, being kept from public view.
“If we could find out more about Jordan, imagine what we might learn about how the intelligence services were operating during that time,” said Martin Smok, co-author of a 2004 Czech documentary film on Jordan’s death, “Between a Star and a Crescent — Father of the Refugees.”
Back in Prague, Smok believes that shoddy work by the Interior Ministry office responsible for investigating Jordan’s death has prevented more light from being shed on the case.
“The best way to see if the Jordan case can be solved is give it to real professionals, not low-skilled, poorly informed people” Smok said.
While making his film he clashed with the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes, or UDV, the department responsible for examining the Jordan case.
UDV spokesman Jan Srb countered that “it did investigate all of Smok’s leads and found them to go nowhere.”
“The problem is that a journalist making a documentary can be speculative,” Srb said. “We can only deal with facts, and that is what we have done.”
Smok was charged and fined by the UDV with withholding the identity of a source — a decision that was overturned by the Czech Constitutional Court.
Observers say that aspects of the UDV investigation are perplexing.
The UDV never made an attempt to interview Daniel Lack, Jordan’s legal counsel at the time of his death, or the JDC head’s nephew, Paul Kaplan, who came to Prague in 1967 to meet Jordan and instead ended up dealing with his disappearance and possible murder.
Also, in the most recent investigation, Czech authorities never sought information from the Egyptian government. And the lead investigator in the case, Eva Michalkova, does not speak English, casting doubt on how well she would be able to understand the nature of Jordan’s work, even with the assistance of translators.
Understanding Jordan’s work is essential to understanding his tragic end, Smok argued.
Jordan, 59, told friends in the summer of 1967 that he was going on vacation in Prague with his wife.
He was busy at the time helping Romanian Jews escape to Israel and had been in Bucharest prior to arriving in Prague. Jordan was due in September to submit his plan for the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees to the United Nations Refugee Agency in New York.
Jordan, born in Philadelphia but raised in Germany until Hitler came to power, made his life’s work the support of refugees.
JDC, meanwhile, was banned from operating in the communist bloc and Jews were being openly persecuted there following the Six-Day War, in which the Soviets had supported the losing side.
Arab and Soviet states were operating intelligence rings together, and sometimes against each other. But they were united in hostility against Israel, to which JDC was providing sustenance.
These were heady times to be conducting any kind of mission of mercy.
Jordan’s wife told the Czechoslovak police that he left the Hotel Esplanade on the evening of Aug. 16, 1967 to get a newspaper and never returned.
Smok notes that Jordan chose to stay in a hotel that overlooked the Egyptian Embassy and was connected by a secret passageway to United Arab Airlines.
Ihsan Mohammad Talaat, the second secretary of the embassy and head of the airline, also was a colonel in the Egyptian secret service, according to a 1967 police report on Jordan’s death.
“It’s possible Jordan was trying,” Smok said, to make a connection with Egyptians “to help the Jews in Egypt who were jailed after the Six-Day War.”
No one saw Jordan leave his room that evening, inviting one theory that Jordan was in fact murdered within the airline office or an apartment linked to the hotel.
The new leads turned up by Smok include Marie Podloucka, now deceased, who told a source she hid Arab students in her country house after they murdered Jordan, a story discounted by the UDV.
Podloucka allegedly claimed to Smok’s source that she helped drag an unconscious Jordan through her apartment, which had access to the Esplanade.
At least one person alive today knew about the comings and goings of the Egyptians in Prague in 1967, and for the first time she spoke to a journalist during an extensive interview with JTA.
She was an StB informant who worked for Talaat, the Egyptian Embassy official and United Arab Airlines chief. According to her StB file, she was ordered by the Czech spy agency to seduce him and gather information on his activities.
As explained in the file, her mission was to provoke contacts between the Egyptians and Israelis in Prague by expanding operations “from the office of the object into the bedroom of the object.” The informant was to offer the Egyptian secret service information about Israelis in Prague and then offer Israelis information about Czechoslovak arms shipments to Egypt.
The informant told JTA, on condition of anonymity, that she had no knowledge of Jordan until contacted by the UDV in 2004. That is surprising, as she worked for Arabs at the time of Jordan’s death, when presumably there would have been much talk in Arab circles about a rare murder of an American Jew in Prague.
StB files also show that the spy agency briefly questioned the informant in 1967 about the whereabouts of her employer concerning the Jordan case.
According to Smok, since the questioning was cursory, it leaves open the possibility that the StB was aware of who was involved in Jordan’s death. The JDC leader had visited the U.S. Embassy and the Prague Jewish Community during his stay, something that should not have gone unnoticed by the secret police.
Arguing against StB involvement in Jordan’s death, the UDV says the spy agency would not have carried out such a significant act without the direction of the Soviet Union, which the UDV believes had no reason to eliminate Jordan and thus create further tension with the West.
Within this web of sex and spy agencies, is there more to be investigated?
Smok went so far as to assert that the United States and Israeli intelligence agencies knew much more about Jordan than they were sharing with their Czech counterparts, a conjecture that’s hard to prove.
Michalkova of the UDV said the U.S. agencies had been cooperative, although oddly the FBI sent a note saying it had concluded Jordan had died as the result of an accident, a theory neither the UDV nor anyone even vaguely familiar with the case accepts.
Israel had not responded to repeated requests for information, according to Michalkova, who noted that as late as 2005 the Czech interior minister was asking for assistance from his Israeli counterpart, to no avail. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, to whom the intelligence services report, told JTA it was looking into the matter.
Czech and Israeli intelligence sources told JTA they found the UDV claim bizarre, since the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, currently has an intensive and excellent relationship with its Czech counterpart.
The sources noted that although the Mossad may not have wanted to work directly with the UDV, it does not mean it didn’t share what it knew about Jordan or Arab activity in Prague in 1967 with Czech authorities interested in the case.
On the Czech side Tomas Kraus, chairman of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, echoed the sentiment of many Czech, Israeli and American sources.
“There are a million theories,” Kraus said, “but I don’t think we can ever get to the bottom of it.”
He added that “a U.S.-led investigation couldn’t hurt.”
Many of the files relating to the case, particularly those of Talaat, were destroyed by the StB just before the communist regime collapsed.
Pavel Zacek, perhaps the country’s most respected scholar of the StB, worked on the Jordan case for the UDV in the early 1990s. He left the investigative agency in 1999 because he felt that its mission was not to solve cases but to close them.
Zacek, now acting director of the newly established Institute for the Totalitarian Regimes Studies, was asked by JTA if the UDV could have done more with Smok’s material.
“It’s true that there is a bit of arrogance there, that is, if we didn’t find out the information ourselves, we felt, why accept it?” he said. “But to be fair, I am not sure you can investigate that case completely from Prague. There are just too many international parties involved.”