I was kidnapped at gunpoint when club-wielding, Kalishnikov-carrying terrorists seized the American embassy in the early rainy morning of November 4, 1979. I was immediately blindfolded, beaten, and subjected to a mock execution during my first day of captivity.
It wasn't until the end of my first month--a tortuous month that I spent blindfolded, bound hand and foot, silently facing a wall in the ambassador's residence, and getting force-fed--that my captors secreted me out of the embassy to the home of a "taghuti," a wealthy Iranian who fled the country during the revolution.
I was to learn from the sadistic young men, faces covered by black masks, that since I spoke Farsi and had met with the Iranian press corps, I had been identified as a leader of "the nest of spies," collecting secret information to undermine the Islamic revolution. I had no idea what to expect--what first-time hostage would?-when I was escorted into what once must have been a glorious ballroom, now lined with men in black holding automatic weapons. At the corner of the room, seated behind a bad replica of a Louis XIV writing desk, was a young man with a day-old beard. Shoving me with the butts of their rifles, my captors forced me into a chair across from him. I dared to look into his face--the face of a fourteen-year-old child who was visibly angry.
The first thing out of his mouth was, "You're a 'Yahud,' aren't you." ("Yahud" is the Farsi term for Jew.) It was more of a statement than a question.
I thought, What's going on here? This question seemed to be from left field. (I had no knowledge that the U.S. media, both print and electronic, had been identifying me as a Jewish hostage since the beginning of the crisis. When I was freed, my wife Barbara told me how hard she had pleaded, to no avail, with news and Jewish organizations to keep my Jewish identity secret.)
Before I knew it he threw a piece of paper on the desk-the sheet on which I was to write my confession-and said, "Admit it, you are a Jewish spy, you work for Jerusalem, and you head a ring of spies. You have ten seconds to answer. If you don't, we'll shoot your head off."
All this is going on while the bastard is counting down ten short seconds. Ten. Nine. Yes, while the shah's regime was crumbling, I was asked as the only Jew in the embassy to work with the Jewish community in Teheran to secure visas for young boys and girls to go to yeshivas in the States. Eight. Seven. Yes, I came from an Orthodox household, went to yeshiva, but I was not observant except for saying Yizkor for my dead parents.
Six. Five. Time was running out. I had to make a decision.
I finally did it when the count hit four. I had to consider my family, my wife Barbara, and my two children: Alexander, age three, and my baby girl, Ariana, who was only one. I wanted them-and not any grand master of the universe or panoply of Jewish organizations-to know that I was proud to be an American Jew. Maybe I was thinking of my parents, too, consoling myself that I'd soon be with them.
Why? The Iranian terrorists had pushed my identity button. Yes, I considered lying to them. But it seemed self-evident that I was doomed, no matter what I said. I just didn't want to die feeling that I gave in to these thugs.
I felt calm as I finally uttered, "Yes, I'm a American Jew working for the United States, and no, I'm not a spy but just doing my job working with the Iranian press."
"You're a 'Yahud,' aren't you." It was more of a statement than a question.
I was immediately torn away from my chair and dragged up a staircase and put into an empty room, awaiting my fate. I didn't believe that I had escaped death, but just given a short reprieve. Days went by. I spent my time fighting off red ants that seemed to be all over the floor. It gave me something to do while awaiting the end. I'd try to envision Barbara and the kids during happy times, but I'd always come back to my mother and father.
I was eventually moved from location to location and was always derided as the "Yahud." I can't recall whether my treatment worsened or not. It was always degrading and horrendous.
But, irony of ironies, one day in December 1980, a package came for me and there it was, a menorah, candles, a page of prayers for Hanukkah and a yarmulka. The Iranians didn't know what to make of it, and they just gave it to me. I laughed out loud. They thought I was nuts. For the moment I won a small victory. I was still alive and felt good about myself.