Part Three: Zionists, Palestinian kidnappers, and the forced migration of Soviet Jews to Israel
The forgotten story of how a pair of Palestinian guerrillas helped liberate Soviet Jews — including my family — from being forced to go Israel.
This is part three of my story about the forced Soviet Jewish migration to Israel. Read the previous two installments: Part One: A saved Soviet Jew goes to Israel and Part Two: Soviet Jews and a Zionist Population Transfer Dream Deferred. Also read a bonus installment on Soviet Jews who fled Israel back to the USSR.
At 10:30 am on September 23, 1973, two men in their mid-twenties boarded the Moscow-Vienna “Chopin” express train at a station in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia — a town right on the Austrian border.
The train was filled with Soviet Jews bound for Israel. In this crush of families and heaps of luggage, the two men probably stood out. They were alone, were carrying minimal luggage, and they had a very obvious non-Eastern Block kind of vibe. What no one realized was that they were both Palestinian, and they were heavily armed.
They made their way to their compartment and sat down. Outside, the last bit of Czechoslovakia slipped by. The train crossed the border and came to a stop at a station right outside the small Austrian town of Marchegg. Two Austrian border guards and a Czech customs official boarded and made their way through the train, checking passports and papers.
When the officials got to their cabin and asked for their passports, the two men sprung into action. One of them pulled out a Bulgarian-made Kalashnikov. The other took out a grenade and an automatic pistol. After a short strand off, they disarmed the border guards, took several hostages, and pushed them off the train. At the station, they commandeered a Volkswagen Kombi, crammed everyone inside, and drove all the way to the airport in Vienna — which was an hour away.
At their destination, they began their negotiations with the Austrian government.
The two men — their real names were Mustafa Aoueidan and Mahmoud Khaldi — said they were part of a group called the “Eagles of the Palestinian Revolution.” They had two demands. One: That Austria immediately close down a special transit camp that was being rented out to Israel and was being used as a way-station for Jews leaving the Soviet Union. Two: That Austria provide them with a getaway plane so they can escape to the country of their choice. And if their demands weren’t met? They’d execute their four hostages: an Austrian customs official and three Soviet Jews — age 71, 68, and 26.
As Mustafa and Mahmoud explained, they were doing this because they believed Israel was using Soviet Jewish immigration as a demographic weapon in its war against Palestinian people. And Austria was directly complicit.
They weren’t wrong.
Two years earlier, in 1971, the Soviet Union had suddenly started letting out tens of thousands of Jews a year. Almost all of them were routed through Schönau, an old castle on the outskirts of Vienna that the Austrian government was letting Israel operate as an immigrant transit hub. No other country was doing this. So that made Austria a strategic chokepoint in the Soviet-Jewish weaponized-immigration-pipeline to Israel.
The goal of kidnapping was to force Austria to close the camp down, and thereby shut down — or at least slow down — Soviet Jewish immigration to Palestine. But the kidnapping was also meant to carry a message. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — which was believed to be behind the kidnapping — wanted to highlight that the movement to liberate Soviet Jews and transfer them to Israel was an integral part of Israel’s war on the Palestinian people, and that anyone helping Israel carry out this migration was complicit and was therefore a legitimate target.
It all made sense. And to be honest, I’m surprised there weren’t more of these kinds of ops targeting Soviet Jews as they made their way to Israel through Europe.
But there was an unexpected twist to this story.
What the kidnappers didn’t realize was that while they were fighting for the Palestinian cause, they were also doing a huge favor for Soviet Jews. Their operation that day had a positive effect on the fates of hundreds of thousands of us — helping liberate us from forced migration to Israel.