The last Jewish century saw an unrelenting braiding of anti-Semitic savagery and sadism, absolute evil from Kisheniv 1903, to Hebron 1929, to the Shoah, to Ma’alot 1974. And yet say “Leon Klinghoffer” to most anyone who was alive in 1985 and you’ll see memory and chills return
, and a nod, yes, that was about as heartless as you can get.
On Oct. 7 (Tishrei 23), 1985, while on the Achille Lauro cruise ship, Leon Klinghoffer, 69, weakened by a stroke and strapped into his wheelchair, was thrown overboard into the sea when four Palestinian terrorists took control of the ship.
It’s been 25 years, but time plays tricks on a mourner. Memory is not linear but circles around, slipping in at a mystical convenience not your own. Mourners — his daughters Lisa, now 59, an artist, and Ilsa, now 53, and a health executive — are told to get on with their lives, but this is their life, they say, thinking about what happened and what it meant, what it means.
As Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer were leaving their apartment for the Achille Lauro, Leon called out to Israel the doorman: “Take care of my girls, Israel.”
“I will, Mr. Klinghoffer,” said Israel.
I’m Israel, too. And so I recently visited the Klinghoffer “girls,” just to sit with a bottle of wine, listen to the old stories, look at the old photographs, while night fell over Manhattan.
Let’s start with the good times. The friends called each other “the Beach People,” five or so inseparable couples that vacationed together on the Jersey Shore. Back in the city, Saturday nights were “sacred” for Marilyn and Leon, say their daughters, it was their night out, they’d get all dressed up and go to the Copacabana, or out for dancing and dinner. These were the good times, before Leon’s two strokes, when this successful businessman could do the samba, listening to Sinatra and Lena Horne, doing the hip-swiveling bossa nova to “The Girl From Ipanema,” one of Marilyn’s favorites.
In September 1985, with the Klinghoffers celebrating their twice-chai (36th) anniversary, the Beach People thought it would be great to celebrate Marilyn’s upcoming 58th birthday on a Mediterranean cruise. For the anniversary, Lisa and Ilsa gave their parents a new set of luggage.
A thought unspoken: Marilyn was dying of cancer. It was in remission, somewhat, but she had four months to live. With Leon’s two strokes, well, you love the days that are left you.
On Oct. 6, in Egyptian waters, Leon and the Beach People, sang “Happy Birthday,” dear Marilyn. The captain of the Achille Lauro came by to extend greetings from the ship’s crew. They posed for smiling photos as if they had all the tomorrows in the world.
Leon’s tomorrow turned out to be his last.
On Oct. 7, most of the Beach People disembarked at Port Said, in Egypt, for a day trip to the Sphinx. It was hard for Leon to get on and off busses. He and Marilyn stayed on board.
Four Palestinians were on board, too. The planned to get off in Israel, just like the Klinghoffers. They planned a bloodbath in the port of Ashdod.
A ship’s steward discovered the Palestinians cleaning their guns. The Palestinians panicked. They couldn’t wait for Ashdod. They took command of ship. They ran into the dining room, sometimes shooting into the air, while lunch was being served.
There were screams, “Get down! Get down!” Leon couldn’t get down. “Everyone to the deck!” Marilyn tried pushing, or staying with Leon, “I’m not going anywhere without my husband.” She was forced to go to the deck, without her husband, at gunpoint.
“Don’t worry,” said the Palestinians to Marilyn. “He’ll be taken care of.”
Marilyn and Leon surely exchanged a final glance as she was yanked away. The ship’s passengers were forced to lie for hours in the sun. Her head was smacked by a rifle butt.
As in Nazi Germany, as in the airport at Entebbe, the killers divided the prisoners: Jews here, non-Jews there.
One terrorist with a submachine gun ordered the ship’s barber and bartender to throw Leon overboard. Leon was shot twice, just in case.
“He couldn’t even defend himself,” said Ilsa. “They said he was useless anyway.”
When they heard that the hostage crisis ended, with a premature report stating that no one was dead, “we had a party,” said Lisa. “A lot of people came up to the apartment. There were sandwiches and champagne. People were cooking in the kitchen. Everyone was having a grand old time.”
Then, Lisa noticed, people were leaving without saying goodbye. She’d turn on the TV and someone would turn it off. CBS reported a fatality.
Then came a call from Marilyn. “I have to tell you something, girls. Your father was a hero.”
Ilsa and Lisa said, “Mom, we know. We know about Dad.” “What do you know?” said Marilyn. She paused, “Your father was a hero. Do your crying now, girls, because I’ve done mine. When I come home, we have a lot to do.”
The terrorists had negotiated safe passage to Tunisia in exchange for leaving the ship. When Egypt not only refused to arrest them but also provided them with a plane to fly to Tunisia, President Reagan ordered that a formation of American fighter jets force the terrorist’s plane to land in Italy — the Achille Lauro was an Italian ship — where the terrorists were arrested.
Marilyn went to Italy to identify the terrorists. She walked up and down the police lineup, identifying each terrorist by spitting into his face.
A few days later, Leon’s body washed up on a Syrian beach. Returned to the United States, Leibish Ben-Pinchas had the Jewish funeral that no one, a few days earlier, thought he’d have.
Milton Gralla (a former member of The Jewish Week board), executive of Gralla Publications where Marilyn worked, helped her to establish the Klinghoffer Foundation, now affiliated with the Anti-Defamation League, which has continued to educate the public, government officials, and law enforcement agencies about terrorism. Lisa and Ilsa were invited to the White House when President Clinton signed the anti-terrorist act of 1990.
In the end, the world has gotten worse. “Terrorism used to be ‘over there,’ now it has come here,” said Ilsa.
Muhammed Abu Abbas, mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking, was given refuge in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. He was captured in 2003 by U.S. forces in Baghdad — in violation of the Oslo Accords, said Saeb Erekat, because Abbas had been a Palestinian official. Abbas died in prison in 2004.
The arms dealer for the terrorists, Monzer Al-Kasser, was captured in 2007 and brought to the U.S. for a trial that was regularly attended by Lisa and Ilsa. He was sentenced to 30 years.
“So, finally, there was some kind of justice,” said Ilsa, “though these terrorists were able to live their lives for all of these years, while my father never got to see his grandchildren or walk me down the aisle.”
Youssef Majed Al-Molqie, the terrorist who shot Klinghoffer and ordered his being thrown overboard, was sentenced to 30 years but escaped while on a 12-day furlough in 1996, Recaptured, he was released in 2009 for good behavior.