Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jewish Hijack Victim Says His Ordeal Strengthened His Religious Convictions

July 12, 1985
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Richard Herzberg, the one Jew among the four Americans held separately from the other hostages after a TWA plane was hijacked last month, said today that the ordeal strengthened his religious convictions.

The 33-year-old Norfolk, Virginia insurance salesman, said that he had always attended services on the High Holy Days but during his 17 days of captivity in Beirut by the radical Shiite group Hezbollah, he prayed constantly. “It deepened my conviction that there is a God,” he said, adding that prayer gave him the “strength to just endure.”

His wife, Susan, 28, said that she always had planned to raise their children in a traditional Jewish home and now with her husband’s deepened convictions, this would be easier.

The Herzbergs were returning from a honeymoon in Greece when the plane was hijacked enroute from Athens to Rome. They appeared today at a press conference at B’nai B’rith International headquarters here, in part, Herzberg explained, to thank the American people and the Jewish community here and in Paris for their support during the hijacking.

Warren Eisenberg, director of international affairs for B’nai B’rith, said that after the hijacking, Mrs. Herzberg’s father, Ted Deutsch, a member of B’nai B’rith in Virginia Beach, Virginia, telephoned B’nai B’rith to ask help in getting information which the organization sought to do on a daily basis.

Herzberg said that neither he nor the other three Americans who had been segregated were mistreated by the Hezbollah. He said he tried to convince them that he was not Jewish and that his father was German and his mother Greek, something which he said he was not now “proud” of doing.

The two terrorists, after hijacking the plane, asked if there were any Israelis aboard. They then asked for diplomats, military personnel and Jews in that order. Herzberg said that reading from “Jewish sounding” names on passports, they called his name but couldn’t pronounce it and so forced Uli Derickson, the plane’s purser, to call out his name.

“I would do the same thing if someone held a gun to my head;” Herzberg said. The hijackers then also took Richard Troutmann, Jr., of Norfolk, Virginia, because they thought he was Jewish although he is a Catholic; Jeffrey Ingalls, a Navy seabee; and Robert Brown of Salem, Mass., a former Navy man. Also taken was a man with a Greek name who was released after the Greek government released a third hijacker captured in Athens.

Another Jew aboard the plane, Michael Brown, 27, of North Miami Beach, who was also returning from his honeymoon, was not taken because he did not have a Jewish-sounding name and does not look Jewish, according to Herzberg.

Both the Herzbergs said that Derickson behaved heroically during the incident, takings blows meant for passengers. Mrs. Herzberg said that Derickson told her that she had hidden Mrs. Herzberg’s passport which contained her marriage certificate signed by a rabbi.


Mrs. Herzberg said she took off a ring with a Hebrew inscription which she hid. The hijackers found the ring and searched for its owner. They did find a women wearing a Magen David and she and her husband were beaten until they were able to convince the terrorists that they were Catholics.

The Herzbergs said they will always have the trauma of the ordeal with them, “We are just normal people, ” Herzberg said. “We got on the wrong flight.” He said “I was never as happy as I was on the day that I got on that flight.” But now, he added, “I don’t sleep at night and she cries.”

Mrs. Herzberg said that “no matter what their cause was, it does not justify taking 36 hours of my life away from me and 17 days away from my husband.” Mrs. Herzberg and the women aboard the plane were released in Algiers.


Herzberg said that during his captivity with Hezbollah they were first questioned at Hezbollah headquarters similar to the way the FBI questioned him when he returned. He said they were then taken to a cell in what appeared to be a Hezbollah prison which contained many Arab prisoners who they could hear being beaten almost nightly. Eventually they were given a larger room with somewhat better conditions, although he noted the conditions were primitive.

He believes that Amal, which held the other hostages, did not know where the four were being kept. He noted that after they were taken to be interviewed by the Red Cross they were followed by a car which his captors eluded in a high speed chase. He believed the other car might have been members of Amal trying to learn their whereabouts.

He said that he and his three fellow inmates believed they could escape but they did not know where they were and had no idea how to get around Beirut if they got out. They decided to put their faith in negotiations although they agreed they would try to escape if their captivity lasted two to three months.

Herzberg said the worst day was the last when first they thought they were going to be freed and they heard incorrectly on the radio that the other hostages were in Damascus.

He said they were constantly being indoctrinated and he began to feel sympathy for the plight of the Shiites which he likened to that of South African Blacks who are the majority in their country while being kept downtrodden. But he said he did not sympathize with their methods of fighting everybody, including each other, to get their way.

Herzberg refused to criticize some of the hostages who voiced support for their captors, noting that each hostage had his own experience. Herzberg also would not criticize media coverage of the event as some have. “You all helped us” get released, he said. He said that he was afraid that in any future hijacking the terrorists would not allow the press in but would use their own equipment to film the event.

Eisenberg noted that several years ago 130 persons were held hostage by Hanafi Moslems in the very room where today’s press conference was being held. He said this gives many staff members of B’nai B’rith a “sense of kinship” with the TWA hostages.

Recommended from JTA