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After 36 Years, Questions Persist in Murder Mystery of JDC Official

October 9, 2003
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After 36 years, new details are emerging about a murder mystery in Czechoslovakia involving the a Jewish official, shadowy deals with Arab agents and the Czech secret police.

But the mystery, which could have come straight from the pages of a spy novel, remains unsolved.

A new documentary, “Father of the Refugees,” broadcast on Czech public television Monday night, has shed new light on the activities of Charles Jordan, a vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and has introduced new theories about Jordan’s death.

Thirty-six years ago, Jordan’s body was fished out of the Vltava River, only a stone’s throw from Prague’s historic Charles Bridge.

A few days before the grim discovery, Jordan had left his Prague hotel, telling his wife he was off to buy a pack of cigarettes. He was never seen alive again.

More questions than answers remain about what happened to Jordan. Was his death an accident, suicide or murder?

Jordan, a U.S. citizen and top JDC official, had been working in a shadowy, clandestine world, doing deals behind closed doors to assist Jewish refugees trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

His fateful trip to Prague came shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, when anti-Jewish feeling was running high, particularly in the Arab world.

Jordan also had made powerful enemies in some Communist regimes where he had been wheeling and dealing, trying to secure freedom for Jews.

The new documentary by Martin Smok, a young Jewish filmmaker, tackles the question of whether or not Jordan was murdered — and if so, by whom?

One theory holds that Jordan was killed by Palestinian students in the Egyptian Embassy in Prague, with the tacit approval of the Czech secret service.

The documentary attempts to debunk that theory, arguing that it was highly improbable that the Palestinians would have stayed silent about such a successful killing so soon after the Arabs’ disastrous defeat in the Six-Day War.

Instead, the film suggests, it’s possible that Jordan — who apparently was preparing for the evacuation of Jews from Syria at the time of his death — was a victim of a secret-service intrigue.

At the time of Jordan’s death, a deputy at the Egyptian Embassy — which was next door to the hotel where he was last seen — was being followed by the Czech secret service under a special operation code-named Operation Spider.

The film points out that the operation was supposed to be focusing on the Jewish community, and that this may somehow be connected with Jordan’s death.

Smok tracked down the head of the operation, an agent called “Alice,” but the agent declined to reveal any information about the case.

Prague Jewish community leaders had mixed feelings about the documentary.

“Smok has a tendency to look for the sensational,” the Jewish’s community chairman, Tomas Jelinek, said. “But the positive thing is that he found a tranche of archive reports and captured the testimony of people who have since died.”

Much of the new information on the case came from interviews with Jordan’s lawyer, Daniel Lack.

Another theory suggests that certain unidentified persons were upset that Jordan did not attempt to stop Arabs from using JDC-backed food stations in North Africa that were intended for poor Jews.

Smok, who became interested in the Jordan case nearly 10 years ago during the making of another documentary, says there are at least 20 theories about how Jordan met his end, including suicide. But the filmmaker says he is convinced Jordan did not kill himself.

“People like Jordan simply do not commit suicide,” Smok told JTA, pointing out that six days after his death, Jordan was due to make a presentation at the United Nations about the financial details of a ground-breaking plan to end Palestinians’ refugee status by finding housing and providing job training for them, among other things.

There have been numerous inquiries into Jordan’s case, but none have established conclusively the circumstances of his death.

“The Czechoslovak criminal police were the only people who ever genuinely attempted to investigate his death, but in the Cold War era no one provided them with any relevant information,” Smok said.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 did not bring the Jordan case any closer to resolution.

The Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes launched a series of investigations into the case — one at the request of Palestinian officials who said they wanted to see their names cleared — but came up with no fresh leads.

Earlier this year, yet another theory surfaced, this one from the FBI. According to Czech investigators, the FBI wrote to Czech officials suggesting that Jordan may have committed suicide after overdosing on psychotropic drugs.

The Office for the Documentation and Investigation of Communist Crimes said it had filed the report for future reference. But Smok says the office’s investigation has been poorly managed, arguing that officials had never contacted Jordan’s family, employers or some of the witnesses appearing in his film.

The agency said the case is still under investigation.

“We want to watch the documentary, see what it has to say, and then we will probably ask Mr. Smok to come and tell us what he knows about the case,” agency spokesman Jan Srb told JTA.

Smok says he’s now looking for financial backing to produce an English version of the documentary.

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