Since August of 1967, when the body of an executive at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was found floating in the Vltava river, a fog of international intrigue has surrounded the death.
Now, a Czech historian and documentary filmmaker, Martin Smok, has come upon new leads in the case suggesting that the executive, Charles Jordan — who boasted high-level contacts with both the Israeli government and several Arab regimes — was killed after being entwined in a shadowy spy game. Smok took his findings to the Czech authorities for further investigation. Rather than being rewarded for his work, Smok was interrogated and then, last week, slapped with a fine of 40,000 crowns ($1,500) for “stalling” a murder investigation.
Smok allegedly broke the law in refusing to provide the name of an anonymous Israeli source relevant to the case, according to Jan Srb, a spokesman for the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, a Czech government agency known as the UDV which has been investigating the Jordan case since 1990.
The source had told Smok about a former teacher who lived in an apartment with a hidden passageway to the hotel where Jordan was staying at the time of his disappearance.
Smok’s new information and his legal problems come as Czech officials are attempting to wrap up their investigation. Srb told the Forward that the UDV would probably close its investigation in the next few weeks without declaring a cause for Jordan’s death.
The Czech authorities have attempted numerous times before to close Jordan’s death case, with all its touchy political ramifications for the Middle East and Czech history. Each time, the Czech authorities have ruled that not enough evidence existed to blame Jordan’s death on any of the usual suspects discussed in past media reports, including Arab terrorists, Egyptian operatives and the Czech secret police.
The array of suspects in Jordan’s death stems partly from his humanitarian work on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee. But Jordan was also involved in controversial efforts to transfer Palestinian refugees to other Middle Eastern countries — an unpopular position with Arab governments. And, at the time of Jordan’s death, the relationship between Israel and the Soviet bloc, including Czechoslovakia, was souring as a result of the Six Day War.
While Czech authorities are hoping to close the book on the Jordan investigation, JDC officials are insisting that the case remain open until a conclusion is reached.
Steve Schwager, executive vice president of JDC, raised doubts about the investigations to date: “It is inconceivable that 37 years have passed and the Czech authorities have been unable to make progress exposing the circumstances of this crime.”
Schwager stated his strong support for Smok, who spent five years looking into Jordan’s death while putting together “Father of the Refugees,” a documentary on the JDC executive which premiered on Czech television in October. In many respects, Smok has turned up more evidence in those five years than the Czech authorities did in their 37 years of investigating.
The suspicion that members of the former Czech communist secret service — called the StB — were involved in Jordan’s death has been voiced by some observers in an attempt to account for the slow pace of the official investigation. The fine against Smok is once more raising such questions.
Smok, however, seems disinclined to accept any of the conspiracy theories that suggest Czech authorities are attempting to cover up the role of the StB in Jordan’s death. While Smok does not rule out the possibility of darker machinations, he believes the fine is a part of the UDV’s effort to cover up its own lack of results from the last decade of investigations.
“It’s not a conspiracy against truth,” Smok said. “It’s a conspiracy of incompetent people trying to protect their jobs.”
In looking for his own answers, Smok has gone back to the small number of files from the months surrounding Jordan’s death that escaped the Communist shredder.
A criminal investigation at that time reported that Jordan and his wife checked into the Hotel Esplanade in Prague on August 14, 1967, for what Jordan described to friends as a “vacation.” Another possible explanation for his visit to Prague was Jordan’s involvement in a small, semi-secret group sometimes called Nativ, which has been reported on by the Israeli press. The group helped smuggle Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe to Israel, and provided relief to Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
Jordan left the hotel room on his third night in Prague to pick up a newspaper, and was next seen, four days later, face down in the Vltava river.
The anonymous source that has caused Smok such trouble, tipped Smok off to a woman — an StB informant, codenamed Morava — who lived in an apartment building next to the Hotel Esplanade, where Jordan was last seen. Morava’s apartment had a hidden passageway leading to the offices of an Egyptian airlines’ office in the Hotel Esplanade. When Smok went back to the files from the 1967 criminal investigation, he found that police had been alerted to a “disorderly” gathering of Arabs at Morava’s apartment the night after Jordan’s disappearance.
The tip-off to Morava was made after Smok’s documentary first screened in October. In the course of making the film, Smok came upon an even more revealing and neglected witness: an StB operative whose codename was Alice.
Declassified files show that Alice was brought into the StB because of her close relationship with members of the Israeli ambassadorial delegation in Prague, including a Jacob Gazit, who was alleged to be part of Nativ, along with Jordan. After Alice began cooperating with the StB, she also established relations with Egyptian secret service agents — in particular, a Mohammed Talaat, who worked at the Egyptian airlines’ office in the Esplanade.
Smok believes that Alice was used by Czech agents to provoke contact between Israeli and Egyptian agents in full view of the StB. The files of both Alice and Morava have led Smok to conclude that Jordan was caught up in this web of undercover agents when he disappeared.
But this is just one of several theories circulating about Jordan’s death. The Jewish Telegraph Agency recently reported that one Czech investigator, with information that allegedly came from American authorities, blamed Jordan’s death on an overdose of psychotropic drugs. As in many good spy stories, another version has seduction playing a role in Jordan’s death — according to this theory, he was the victim of a homosexual tryst gone wrong.
These more salacious, personal versions have diverted attention from the many stories that implicated the StB. A defector from the Czech agency, Josef Frolick, wrote a well-circulated book during the 1970s that alleged that the StB was watching as Jordan’s body was removed from the Egyptian embassy by Palestinian terrorists and taken to the Vlatva river.
When Smok was growing up, his family owned a copy of Frolick’s book, which helped cultivate his fascination with the case.
“As a teenager I read it, and I felt very illegal, like I was opening a 13th room,” Smok said. “It’s a privilege to try to find something about the most important international murder in the city where I grew up.”
Much of Smok’s proposed account lines up with the one told by Frolick, but Smok sees a smaller role for the StB in Jordan’s death.
Smok says there is reason to believe that Czech agents were responsible for setting up discussions between Jordan and the Egyptians. But he thinks that it was a rogue third party, composed of young Arab students, who killed Jordan after growing suspicious of his ties with the Egyptians.
Neighbors of Morava, the StB informant who lived next to the Esplanade, told Smok that Morava had a group of rowdy Arabs to her country house around the time of the murder.
Srb, the UDV spokesman, says that his agency was not able to confirm the tip. But Smok says the UDV investigator never even asked for the name of the witnesses who told him about the gathering.
Smok, though, acknowledged that he does not know how all the evidence he has found fits together into one story. His uncertainty led him to the UDV, with the hopes that law-enforcement officials would chase down his leads. Instead, they fined him and dismissed most of his information as “not new.”
Smok says he is unwilling to pay the 40,000 crowns and vows to keep investigating Jordan’s death.
“I will continue for my personal satisfaction, to find out everything I [can] about what the hell happened,” Smok said. “It’s become a personal quest.”
This story "Maverick Gumshoe Unearths Leads in 1960s Czech Death" was written by Nathaniel Popper.