Hijacked to Algiers — Part 6


Before we went to bed that evening, I asked if any of the crewmembers had a bible. Nobody had one, but one of the stewardesses had a small prayer book which she received as a present from one of the passengers. She gave it to me. The next day was Saturday. I knew that all of my crewmembers were secular and yet I asked them if they would all agree to organize and participate in a “Shabbat Parade” of sorts and read a few prayers from the prayer book. We would hold it in the morning after breakfast. They all agreed and some thought it was an excellent idea.

On Saturday morning, after we had our coffee, bread and jam, I asked the crew to don full uniform and stand in a line, facing East. This meant facing the door to our room. I stood in front of these nine crew members and, with the small prayer book open, I read, loudly, some prayers for the Shabbat. I ended by loudly reading the prayer: “Blessed be He who delivers us from captivity.” Our passengers were still asleep three rooms away. The soldiers which saw us through the open door were alarmed and one of them ran and called Sergeant Lashmi and the Captain who was the second-in-command. They all arrived in a panic and stopped in front of the door. They did not enter but just looked at us quietly. By the time they understood that we were paying obedience to the Shabbat by praying to God, we had ended our short prayer and dispersed in the room to take off our uniforms.

This event appeared to make an impression on the Algerians. Already on Thursday evening, during my investigation, they had asked me if I had a degree or any academic training in psychology. I told them that I did not. I really had very little such education; my only exposure was during a course in Aircraft Accident Investigation at USC where I attended a series of lectures in Aviation Psychology by Chaytor Mason, who at that time was one of the greatest experts in this field.

For lunch, we again received the very same food as heretofore, and, having amused ourselves by chewing the fat, lukewarm Air Algerie meat, we decide that we would have to speak to Lashmi about this food problem and try to change the menu starting tomorrow.

At about 3 PM, Sergeant Lashmi appeared with an Algerian civilian whom we already saw yesterday during our meeting with the media near the pool, as well as in the evening when the”VIP’s” came to see us (two days later we found out from Lashmi that this man was the “Secretary” of the Algerian Secret Service, though we understood quite well that he must have been one of its high officials!). With them was my investigator–the one who told me about the ads in the Tel-Aviv buses. Lashmi entered our room and, before we could get a word out about lunch, told us that all the children, female passengers and stewardesses would be leaving on Swissair’s flight to Geneva, right away. These were good tidings! The women and children were all asked to pack their belongings and come out to the yard, where a minibus was waiting with open windows. Everyone was very excited. Judy was so happy and excited that she almost wet herself. I went out to the corridor and approached the “Secretary of the Secret Service,” who wore a three-piece summer suit and a silk tie. I asked him if he agrees that I should go out into the yard, as far as the minibus, in order to take leave of the women and children. He agreed and I went out. After several minutes, the three children and wife of the El-Al employee called Pitel, the recently married wife of the other El-Al employee called Elkana Shemen, and the two lady revenue passengers–the Tel-Aviv high-society lady and the other lady who was a hospital nurse, and who I found out after our release was related to one of our first officers, Moshe Offer–all came out and boarded the bus. The last lady looked at me with pity and wept. The two young Stewardesses asked, “What should we say at home?”
“Not to worry!” I replied.
As soon as Lashmi boarded the minibus, it left and I turned to to the well-groomed gentleman and thanked him. In response he said, “You too will soon return home.”
“I doubt your sincerity,” I answered with a hint of bitterness as I turned to re-enter our room.

About 20 minutes later, Lashmi returned to our room. Only five men remained in the passengers’ room: our two company employees, Pitel and Shemen, and three revenue passengers, Mr Paz who was the Director of the Israel-America Fund, Mr Cahiri who was a merchant born in Egypt, and Mr Maisel who, as I found out later, was a professional gambler. I went to the passengers and told them that I suggest that they come and stay in our room. They responded with enthusiasm. I then told Monsieur Jacques to advise Lashmi of my decision and the passengers came over immediately. We were now 12 men in this room. The crew members were to sleep on the side facing the door whilst the passengers would sleep on the other side of the partitioning-wall, where the stewardesses had previously slept. I suggested to the passengers that they join our cleaning and meal-service duties but made it clear that it was not compulsory for them if they did not wish to. However, they insisted that they were happy to join. I also hastened to tell Monsieur Jacques to tell Lashmi that we had had enough of the food of Air Algerie and, while I was speaking, in came the Commandant and his deputy. The Commandant greeted us, asked how we were and if we had all we needed. He was glad that we moved the passengers to our room (this must have made the task of guarding us easier for him). He asked if it was not too crowded for us and then turned to me and said, “Commandant,” (in French an airline Captain is called Commandant-de-Bord, and, in short, Commandant) “if you wish to stay in a separate room of your own, I have no problem fixing it for you, and I can also provide you with a batman.” I thanked him and told him that this was not necessary since in the IDF we had no batman and when our officers are prisoners-of-war they live and sleep with their men. I was quite comfortable living with everybody else in one room and so were all the others. I then mentioned the food problem. Monsieur Jacques asked what did the Commandant’s men eat. He replied that they ate Algerian and North African food in the unit’s soldiers-mess. We were familiar with North African food and decided to take a chance. Monsieur Jacques asked if we could get the same food and the Commandant replied affirmatively and added that if we try it and find that it was not to our taste we could always revert to the airline meals. Before he left I told him that we have not yet received the items we requested and that it is very hard for us to get along without them. He promised that we would get what we asked for next day.

After they left, I lay down on my bed and did some thinking. I was very happy about the release of the children, women, and stewardesses. Both the Commandant and the Secret Service fellow said that they were released as a humanitarian action requested by the Red Cross. I was especially relieved that Judy was released since she could not bear the mental pressure. I had started to worry that she might suffer a nervous breakdown. I was also somewhat relieved about the high-society lady from Tel-Aviv. During our meeting with the media on Friday, she walked around the pool dressed with a halter, tiny shorts, and sandals. The Algerians and other Arabs were openly ogling her sexy body with lust. This release of the women obviously meant that the Algerians wanted to demonstrate that they were a civilized and cultured people, and save them from unnecessary future problems. But the question remained: Now that they were keeping only Israeli men, how will they treat them? The Commandant’s visit, his interest in our comfort and our daily needs hinted, to my mind, that we will not be here a short time.

The next morning, Lashmi appeared with two officers: one was an elderly Lieutenant and the other was a young Second-Lieutenant. They brought with them 12 bath-towels, 12 bars of soap, 12 tubes of toothpaste, and a few cartons of toilet-paper. This was French-type toilet paper, not rolls, and they looked very old and as if they were found lying in some sunny corner for a very long time. The Lieutenant said that he had a very hard time finding toilet-paper because this was not a product which was in demand in Algeria. He then added, apologetically, that it was also difficult to find towels because the Algerians dried themselves with sheets after taking a shower, if they dry themselves at all. I looked surprised and asked naively if these products could not be found in the grand-magazins (department stores) either. It seemed to me that there must still be some French people in the city of Algier, and they would need such products, but the Lieutenant answered that neither could these items be found in the department stores because the demand for them was minimal. The elderly officer’s face lit-up when I spoke to him and he introduced himself as the quartermaster of this unit and asked if by chance I spoke Russian? I was surprised by this question and told him that I did not. He then said that he spoke Russian. I asked where he had learned this language, and the old man, who spoke very bad French, said that he had been in the USSR and had taken several courses for which he had been required to learn the language. Before they left, the old man said that he will continue to find for us whatever we needed.

The time had come to get organized for a long stay. Before falling asleep the previous night, I had made two decisions. The first was that it was important that I should succeed in understanding and coping with the Algerian mentality so as to have a good and successful rapport with them. The second was that I must try as soon as possible to organize activities and occupations that would fill up the long hours of the day. The cleaning and meal-service duties did not occupy much time. Elkana Shemen played football with the Petah-Tikva team, so I asked him to lead us all in physical exercise in our room or corridor every morning. I then asked Monsieur Jacques (Yaakov Machluf) to organize a French language course, and , if it will succeed and we would still be here in a month, then to organize a second course in Arabic. The men were keen to play cards. Mr. Maisel had a couple of card decks and he suggested that those interested play Gin-Rummy or Remmie. I was not too keen on this whole idea but I knew that this was one of the popular occupations among people who found themselves in similar conditions to ours, and so I agreed but ruled that the card-games would not be played for money or valuables, but for points in a sportsmanly fashion.

When lunchtime came we were brought food “de la caserne” (from the soldiers’ mess). It was, as we’d expected, “Eastern” food–North African food which was similar to the food in other Arab countries. The quantities were sufficient. The food was warm and tasty. It contained enough vegetables, both raw and cooked. From that point on, we were served food from the mess hall. We had couscous every Thursday. It did not include different meats, such as chicken and merguez sausage as one might be accustomed to, but mainly vegetables which were cooked with the soup, as well as boiled meat. It was both satisfying and nutritious. The lunch menu and dinner menu were different, and were varied daily. The menus repeated themselves only after seven days. For desert, we received fresh fruit such as grapes, apples or pears, though they were all of very poor quality. We were surprised to get half-bottles of white and red wine similar to those which were offered to the passengers of Air Algerie. The wine, too, was of poor quality. Mainly sour and sometimes spoilt.We sometimes got beer instead of wine but not very often. We had no heavy drinkers among us anyhow.

In the afternoon, we sat to discuss what we still needed.The men said that we needed a radio so that we could hear the news and, with a bit of luck, might succeed in receiving the Voice of Israel channel “To the Diaspora,” and get the news from home. I doubted that we could get a radio, but agreed to put it at the top of our list. We needed shorts. The weather in Algiers was identical to the weather in Haifa.The days were warm and sometimes quite humid. We had not yet received the undervests and underpants which we had asked for. We needed more towels so that we could launder and dry the ones which we had. We composed quite a list and it gave me an idea: if the Algerians refuse to supply us with the items which we asked for, and if they excused themselves for lack of budget, let us tell them that we are quite ready to pay for the items which we are asking for. This might, I thought, enable us to get a good radio receiver. I suggested to the men that in order that we would be able to do so we should have a “Captain’s Fund” that would include the money which all of us had and which will be held by me.The money received from each man would be recorded by me in a list and I promised to see to it that each man would get his money back upon our return home. I added that I could not oblige anyone to give me his money, and am leaving the decision of whether to contribute to each man’s discretion. I was surprised when everybody agreed to hand over all their money to me. We made a record of the contributions. Since we were all flying back home, none of us had a large sum–the total collected amounted to $1,500. In order that we would have the best chance to receive all we asked for, especially the radio receiver, we decided not to hand the list of requests to Lashmi. Instead, I would ask to see the Commandant and hand him the list personally while explaining that we are willing to pay for the acquired items.

The next day, when Lashmi arrived Monsieur Jacques told him that our Commandant wanted to meet his Commandant. Lashmi said that he would pass along my request. He returned the following morning and said that the Commandant would receive me in his office. I hastened to put on my complete uniform and went out with Lashmi, walking in-step with him. Before we went out, I asked Monsieur Jacques to tell him that I should actually be escorted by a Captain and not by a Sergeant, but that I didn’t want to create any difficulties, so would accept his escort. I think that because of this, Lashmi decided to “set me right” and changed his step several times during our walk.I kept a straight face and changed step as soon as he did in order to keep the same step. The Commandant’s office was in a small one-story building on the opposite side of a very large yard. In the center of the yard was a mast flying the Algerian flag. When I entered the office, I saluted the Commandant. He saluted back and got up from behind the desk at which he was sitting. We shook hands, and he invited me to sit down in the armchair facing him. I took off my hat and he clapped his hands. A side-door opened and a soldier appeared. The Commandant said a few words to him and then turned to me and asked what he could do for me. I explained why I came to see him and handed him the list and as I did I had an idea: I asked him if we could add to the list newspapers, magazines, and reading-books in English, and then I said, “I shall be most grateful if you could provide me with a Hebrew Bible.”

The Commandant replied that he will do his best in order to get us everything which we asked for and as far as payment is concerned, it was not mandatory but it might help. “Anyhow, we will get back to this question after we get you everything which you asked for.” And then he said, “Commandant, everything which you asked us for thus far was ok. These were the items which I, too, had I been in your situation, would have asked for.” While we were talking, the soldier returned and brought, on a tray, small cups of black coffee and strong tea. Both were strongly sweetened.While we spoke, we had some of both. At the end of our meeting the Commandant rose from his armchair while extending his hand. I rose and we shook hands. I then put my hat on and saluted and as soon as he saluted me back I turned round and left his office. Lashmi was waiting outside. We went back to our room.

Two days went by. Then, the old quartermaster, his young deputy, and Lashmi came back. The first thing which they gave us was a portable radio-set made by Phillips. In addition to that, we received underpants, undervests, army shorts, cubes of laundry soap, and cigarettes–but no additional towels. The quartermaster apologized and said that he did not find any, but would continue to look for them. He also brought us the local paper “El-Mudjahid” both in Arabic and in French, an old Parisian “Le Monde” magazine, and two old magazines in English. Lashmi explained that there was censorship in Algeria of foreign newspapers and magazines. We were so happy to get the radio that all else became of secondary importance to us. Monsieur Jacques asked politely how much we should pay and the quartermaster quoted a somewhat high price for the radio and said that we did not have to pay for the rest.

For some time, I had been convinced that we were being listened-to continuously. I knew that there was no need to install listening devices within our room because it could be done from outside, even from some distance, quite successfully (my suspicion would later prove correct, as I shall tell you later.) Nonetheless, on the Saturday after the children, women, and stewardesses were released, and we all came to stay together in this one room, we checked it to see if there were any listening devices implanted in it. We did not find any. We then examined the radio very carefully. We were particularly concerned that this radio might somehow be fitted with a listening device. We checked it as best as we could, and did not find anything. None of us understood much about secret listening devices anyhow. Be it as it were, all of us knew that we had to watch what we said, and therefore none of us spoke of things best kept secret.

In inspecting the radio, we found that it was a portable radio that ran on batteries and could not be powered by the electrical supply in our room. This concerned us as we worried about what would happen when the batteries died. Would the Algerians agree to buy new batteries for us? I therefore restricted the radio’s use: I forbade that it be used for music, and allowed only that it be listened to news and commentary. I also restricted its use to no more than four hours a day. It was an excellent portable radio and it received all the wavelengths including short and long wavelengths very clearly. In order that my time restrictions be observed, I appointed Yona Lichtman and our junior Steward Yaakov Weiss as the only ones who may operate it in order to find the news program broadcasts, especially those of the British B.B.C., the French broadcasting stations, the Voice of America and try to receive the Voice to the Diaspora from Israel. They succeeded in receiving all of them. The broadcasts from Israel were not always received loudly or coherently, but we succeeded in understanding the bulk of the broadcast.

Two days after we received the radio, Lashmi brought me a bible. When I asked the Commandant for it, I reckoned that in order to find a Hebrew bible, the Algerians would need to request one from the small Jewish community which I presumed still existed in Algiers, and whom, I thought might try to establish contact with us or encourage us in some way, because they likely would have heard about our hijacking. I was, of course, naive in thinking this way. The Algerians did not look for this bible among the Jews, but rather among the Christians, probably in one of the churches which remained in Algiers or in one of the Christian Missions, as the Hebrew Bible which they brought me was published by the Scottish or American Mission. I was still glad to get it. It fulfilled our requirements even though it was not strictly Kosher. Once we received the Bible, I suggested that we pass it among us daily and every evening, after dinner, the man who had it during the last 24 hours would read out to us one chapter of his choosing. My suggestion was accepted and every evening, after dinner, the man who had the Bible in his possession that day read out to us the chapter which he chose. Those who had difficulty in finding an appropriate chapter were helped by others.


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