Was the Hijacking of an Austrian Train Filled with Soviet Jews a Diversion Before the Yom Kippur War?

The days before the Yom Kippur War saw the first case of a Western state capitulate to Palestinian terrorists.

Israeli tank team in Suez, Oct 1973 (Photo: AP)

Austria, September 28, 1973: A few days before Syria and Egypt launched a bilateral surprise attack against Israel, terrorists from the Syrian-sponsored organization As Sa’iqa overtook a train carrying Soviet Jews immigrating to Israel.

All but forgotten in Israel’s collective memory, the terrorist strike achieved its goal of halting Jewish immigration to Israel from the Soviet Union. However, the timing of the abduction and the identity of the organization raise questions that go beyond the struggle to undermine Jewish immigration. Was the strike intended to divert the attention of Israeli security officials and decision-makers from Syrian and Egyptian war preparations? Whatever the answer, the terrorist attack occupied the Israeli government up until the war’s eruption.

 

Preparations

Terrorists oversaw detailed preparations for the strike. The first step came when a senior commander in the organization surveyed targets in Austria and Bratislava (then in Czechoslovakia). Next, three weeks before the attack, two Palestinian terrorists tried to enter Austria, but were refused when their documents aroused suspicion. Their senior commander then ordered the two terrorists to fly to Vienna on September 25, 1973. From Vienna, they continued to Bratislava where a letter with instructions awaited them.

As part of their final preparations for the attack, on September 26, the terrorists rode on the “Chopin Express” from Czechoslovakia to Austria. With them, they carried two pistol, two Kalashnikovs, two hand grenades, and ten kilograms of TNT, hidden in their luggage.

 

The Hijacking

The two terrorists boarded the Chopin Express at Bratislava. About seventy passengers were on the train; thirty-nine were Soviet Jews on their way to a transit center at Schoenau Castle in Vienna. When the train stopped in Marchegg, just inside Austria, the terrorists struck. They whipped out their rifles, wounded one person, and took five Jews and an Austrian customs official hostage.

Austrian security forces were caught by surprise; it took them an hour and a half until a twenty-six-man SWAT team and helicopter arrived. Their first task was to keep the terrorists and hostages in Marchegg. However, the terrorists quickly ambushed a Volkswagen belonging to the local train company. The terrorists then forced the Austrian customs officials to take the wheel, allowing the terrorists to escape with the hostages. The vehicle, with the hostages and abductors, sped to Schwechat Airport on the outskirts of Vienna. The Austrians were determined to avoid bloodshed at any cost, so police cars escorted the vehicle instead of trying to intercept it.

At Schwechat, the terrorists identified themselves as members of the “Eagles of the Palestinian Revolution” organization. They gave a type-printed statement in English to the Austrians, stating, “We have carried out this attack because we feel that the immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is a serious threat to our goal.”

Later, they issued an ultimatum: if the Austrian government refused to immediately close the Schoenau transit camp, they would not only kill the hostages, but Austria would become the next target of the organization’s vengeance. The terrorists also demanded that the Austrian government provide them with a passenger plane and fly them with the Jewish hostages (two men and a woman) to an Arab state. After consulting with Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, Austrian officials closed off the airfield and refused to answer the hijackers’ demands. Negotiations with the terrorists continued, and the Austrians offered them a plane on condition that they release all of the hostages; the terrorists rejected the proposal.

More hours passed. When the terrorists again threatened to murder the hostages, Kreisky agreed to close the Schoenau transit camp and provide them with a light plane for their flight to Libya.

After the incident, in a press conference held in Tripoli on September 30, the terrorists said that their original plan was to hold passengers of different nationalities hostage and kill the immigrating Jews. However, the composition of the people on the train was different from what they expected. They also stated that since the train did not stop on the Austrian border for ten minutes as scheduled, they began the operation earlier than planned. However, later, they contradicted their statement by claiming they had decided not to kill the Jews. Though they could have gone through with the killing, they wanted the world to see they were not terrorists and murderers of women and children, as “Zionist propaganda” had depicted them, but rather, they wanted to convince the world of the justice in their cause.

The two terrorists also revealed that the organization planned the operation down to the smallest detail so that their fate would not be the same as their colleagues in Munich (in reference to the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, when both the terrorists and hostages were killed). If Austria refused to comply with their demand and harmed them, As Sa’iqa would have carried out a series of strikes, blowing up three Austrian embassies and two Austrian Airlines aircraft.

 

The Palestinian-Syrian Organization 

The group that perpetrated the attack, calling itself the “Eagles of the Palestinian Revolution,” was in reality the pro-Syrian Palestinian terror organization As Sa’iqa (the “storm” or “thunder” in Arabic). The Syrian Ba’ath Party established As Sa’iqa in September 1966, and first activated the organization in December 1966 when it tried to find an alternative to Yasser Arafat, who had risen to power in the Fatah Organization and was the Palestinians’ most prominent leader.

The Ba’ath Party also employed As Sa’iqa in President Salah Jadid’s power struggle against his ambitious Defense Minister, Hafez al-Assad. In the November 1970 “Corrective Revolution” (essentially a coup d’état), Assad ascended to power and his supporters replaced As Sa’iqa’s leadership. They used the organization to represent and promote Syrian interests inside the PLO. While the intimate link between the organization and its Syrian patrons prevented the organization from gaining popularity in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, it became a major force in the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon. With a combination of socialism and Pan-Arab nationalism, As Sa’iqa’s political outlook was identical to the ruling Ba’ath Party’s in Syria. Over the years, the organization espoused a hard line against Israel in accordance with the policy of its sponsors.

 

A Diversionary Operation?

Was the attack a premeditated diversionary maneuver before the Yom Kippur War? Since As Sa’iqa was under the close supervision of Syrian security forces, it seems unlikely that it initiated a terrorist strike in the international arena without the knowledge and consent of the Syrian government, especially if the international ramifications of such an act are considered.

In an interview with a German newspaper, the two terrorists stated that they knew war was about to erupt, and that the operation was part of the war’s preparations. Nevertheless, controversy still surrounds the question of whether the September 28th attack was part of a grand deception plan by Syria, or whether its timing was entirely coincidental.

Thirty-eight years after the event, we can assume that the Syrians realized that Israel would perceive a terrorist strike in Austria as a blatant provocation and would probably respond militarily against those responsible for it. The fear of Israeli retaliation was intended to justify Syria’s mobilization and concentration of forces in the Golan Heights, and thus conceal the real reason behind its heightened military activity in the disputed area.

Second, and perhaps the main reason for the operation, the terrorist attack occupied Israel’s political and military leadership for the five critical days before the war and diverted attention from the real threat.

The Israeli government was furious with Austria for caving in to the terrorists’ demands, setting a dangerous international precedent, shutting down the Schoenau transit camp, and thereby blocking the conduit for Jews leaving the Soviet Union to Israel. Prime Minister Golda Meir was in Strassburg on October 2, 1973 delivering a speech to the European Parliament.

After the attack and following Austria’s compliance, Prime Minister Meir’s headquarters changed the text of her Strassburg speech to: “The countries of Europe must decide how they will act. To everyone who upholds the rule of law, I declare, there is only one solution—not to make deals with terrorists, not to have any contact with terror organizations. Any government that chooses to negotiate with these murderers does so solely on its responsibility. In Vienna—a democratic government—a European government, reached an agreement with terrorists, and by doing so has brought shame and disgrace upon itself. It has violated a basic principle of the rule of law.”

At the conclusion of her speech, Meir flew to Vienna for an urgent meeting with Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (who was of Jewish descent). Seated behind an enormous desk that served as a kind of “defense barrier,” the chancellor received Meir in his office. The Israeli PM sat down, and the two leaders began to talk.

Meir opened the dialogue: “Since the Arab terrorists have failed in their murderous attempts to bring destruction and ruin on Israel, they’ve recently turned to outrageous acts against Israeli and Jewish targets in Europe with the assistance of the Arab governments. I know that you, as a Jew, have never uttered a single word in reference to the Jewish state.” Kreisky replied, “That’s true. I have never hidden my belief that Zionism is not the solution to the Jewish problem, no matter what anyone says.”

Meir responded diplomatically, “Therefore, even more so, we owe much to your government for everything it has done in the transfer of thousands of Soviet Jews via Austria and Schoenau to Israel.”

“But the Schoenau transit camp has been a problem for us for quite some time,” Kreisky noted stiffly.

“What kind of a problem?”

“First of all, it was always a prime target for a terrorist attack . . .”

Meir cut him short, and with an undisguised tone of reproach said: “Mister Kreisky, if you close Schoenau, this will never end. Wherever Jews congregate in Europe in transit to Israel, terrorists will hold them for ransom.”

“Yes, but why does Austria have to bear this burden alone?” Kreisky countered. “Why not others?"

“Like who?” Meir asked.

“Like the Dutch. Fly the immigrants to Holland. After all, the Dutch represent you in Russia.” [This was true. After the Russians broke off diplomatic relations with Israel during the Six-Day War, the Dutch Embassy in Moscow represented Israel’s interests in the Soviet Union.]

“I’m certain the Dutch would agree to share the burden if they could,” Meir said matter-of-factly, in an attempt to lower the tone of the discussion. “But they can’t. It doesn’t depend on them; it depends completely on the Russians, and the Russians made it clear that they would not allow Jews to fly from Moscow. If they agreed, we would fly them directly to Israel. The only way that they can leave is by train, and the only country that has been willing to let them pass through is yours.”

Kreisky replied: “Mrs. Meir, it is Austria’s humanitarian duty to help refugees from any country, but not when it puts Austria in the line of danger. I will never be responsible for bloodshed on Austrian soil.”

“And is it not a humanitarian obligation not to surrender to terrorist blackmail, Herr Kanzler?” Meir asked pointedly.

“Austria is a small country. It is not a superpower. Small countries don’t have many options when they’re being blackmailed by terrorists.”

“I beg to differ,” Meir retorted angrily. “We can’t allow ourselves to make deals with terrorists under any circumstances. Your action will only encourage further acts of hostage-taking. You have betrayed the Jewish immigrants.”

Kreisky’s brow furrowed darkly. “I cannot accept such language, Mrs. Meir, I can ...”

“You’ve opened the door to terrorism, Herr Kanzler,” Meir shot back. “You’ve brought renewed shame on Austria. I’ve just come from the European Council. Each and every member condemned your action. Only the Arab world sees you as a hero.”

“If so, then I can’t do anything about it,” Kreisky said indifferently, growing uncomfortably reticent. Then, with an implicit shrug of his shoulders said, “You and I belong to different worlds.”

“That is true, Mister Kreisky,” Meir said in a voice shaking with faux Jewish weariness. “I will forego the pleasure of a press conference. I have nothing to say to them. I’m going home.” She then left through the back door.

Five hours later, standing before the Israeli media at Ben-Gurion Airport, Meir spoke to reporters, stating, “The best way to sum up the spirit of my tête-à-tête with Chancellor Kreisky is: he didn’t even offer me a glass of water.”

While nearly all of Meir’s energy was concentrated on the Austrian matter, Egypt and Syria were in the last stages of preparation for their combined attack. On October 6, 1973, at 14:05, the opening round of the Yom Kippur War was fired.

The Intelligence Blunder

After the 1973 terrorist attack, As Sa’iqa ceased its activity in Austria, only resuming operations in Austria and Germany in 1979 (local security forces foiled most of its attempts and arrested a number of activists). The organization’s most grandiose operation during this period was in Turkey, when terrorists entered the Egyptian Embassy in Ankara and held the embassy personnel hostage.

In exchange for their release, the terrorists demanded that Egypt sever ties with Israel. In this case too, as in other attacks, As Sa’iqa’s demands expressed the policy and interests of its patrons in Damascus.

The Schoenau transit camp was shut down, but the pressure that Israel exerted on the Austrian chancellor forced Kreisky to find an alternative solution. The transit of Soviet Jews through Austria was renewed after the war. Operations at the Jewish Agency’s transit camp in Schoenau Palace were taken over by the Wöllersdorf National Association of the Red Cross of Lower Austria for Refugees.

This arrangement continued until the Soviet government closed the gates to immigration. Kreisky’s decision to suspend activity at Schoenau is considered the first case in which a European government acceded to the demands of Palestinian terrorists.

The question remains: can it be determined with absolute certainty, that the terrorist strike in Austria was part of a Syrian master-plan to cover its preparations for the surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War?

Perhaps Israel’s prewar intelligence shortcomings were so great that the Syrians did not need to go through so much trouble to hide their preparations, since Israeli intelligence anyway flagrantly ignored the many indications of the impending catastrophe.

 

Photos: Soviet Jews at a train station in Vienna; Golda Meir and Bruno Kreiski, 2 October 1973; Photos courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives

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