On Sept. 6, 1970, Maria Smuk’s life — and her family’s — changed forever.
Smuk, now 82 and living in Dresden, was on a plane with her husband Helmut and their two children, ages 8 and 4, headed back to the United States from Germany. Maria and Helmut were born in Germany and had moved to the Rochester area in their early 20s to start a life together. They had been vacationing, visiting family and friends.
About 10 minutes after departing Zurich on Swissair Flight 100, and flying over Dijon, France, a man with a machine gun and a woman with a grenade stood up and told everyone not to move. Soon, over the intercom, came an announcement that the plane had been taken over by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and was being diverted to Jordan.
After Jordan and Egypt agreed to a ceasefire with Israel that ended the War of Attrition that dated to 1967, PFLP leader George Habash started to plan the hijackings in July 1970. The goal was to gain the release of their political prisoners being jailed in Israel in exchange for the hostages.
Five hijackings were attempted that day, with two others ending up in a remote Jordan desert with Flight 100 (top inset photo).
Maria and her family were seated by an emergency exit adjacent to the wing of the airplane. After what seemed like an eternity flying through the night they landed in the desert, where the combination of flashing lights, sand swirling about and campfires on the ground made it appear as if their plane was on fire.
Helmut opened up the emergency exit and the passengers scurried for their lives. But, there was no fire. And, as passengers continued to exit onto the plane’s wing, shots rang out. They were all ordered to return to their seats.
Back on board all 157 went, including crew members.
Later that same day the women and children were separated and brought to a hotel under construction in the city of Amman. Maria recalls hearing gunfire, as a war within the city was ongoing.
Helmut and the other men were held on the plane for six days. No food, no power, no working toilets, no changes of clothing. Just one glass of water per day. Those six days saw Maria’s husband lose 20 pounds.
I sat at the diner in Dresden with Maria last week to talk about the experience. Her demeanor seems always to be upbeat, and she routinely offers hearty laughs while recounting everything, but that should not confuse anyone as to how terrifying the ordeal was. She had no idea if she would ever see her husband again, or if they all would be killed.
Six days later the men were put on a bus. Someone on board who understood Arabic said he over heard that the planes were going to be blown up.
While on that bus, the three planes exploded and, according to Helmut, it felt like the bus temporarily lifted off the ground.
The families were reunited. Everyone on Flight 100 survived, even getting their luggage back.
Maria says that for quite a while afterward she and Helmut would often wake up in the night suffering from horrendous and chilling nightmares about the hijacking.
The experience on Flight 100 was a new beginning for Maria and Helmut. The decided to change their lifestyle. Helmut was a commercial painter who worked long hours. usually 60 hours per week. including side jobs. No more. They decided that from May through September it was all about the children: family first. Lots of time spent together, and many adventures and trips in the camper they decided to buy.
Maria and Helmut were married 56 years. He retired at age 62 and passed away in 2016 at age 80.
They knew each other as youngsters growing up in Germany during wartime, when bombs were regularly being dropped on their homeland. When Helmut got sponsored by an aunt and moved to the United States, Maria thought that was it for them. However, through regular correspondence like writing letters they remained in contact.
Four years later, in 1962, Helmut arrived at Maria’s doorstop by surprise and, as Maria tells it, looked like Elvis Presley. He asked her to get her papers in order and join him in the United States.
She did — and, just as Helmut had, she came here knowing not a word of English.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the hijackings. She has moved well beyond it and has all but forgotten the ordeal. When showing me photos recently at her home, she couldn’t even recall the last time she looked at them.
The accompanying bottom inset photo was taken — amazingly — during the actual hijacking through her airplane window. She says that when they saw them taking photos, they came back aboard demanding the cameras.
The woman sitting behind them turned over her camera. The Smuks did not.
Maria, who now speaks English very well, albeit with a German accent, remains busy. There is no doubt she misses the love of her life, but she is happy and still travels a lot to visit her children and grandchildren — and the land of her birth.