Local author shares story of freedom at Rancho Santa Fe Library
By Kristina Houck
Frank Iszak will join millions of Americans in celebrating his freedom on Independence Day. But his freedom didn’t come easy.
During a recent talk at the Rancho Santa Fe Library, the 82-year-old recalled how he and six others hijacked a commercial airliner on July 13, 1956, to escape to freedom from behind the Iron Curtain.
“Freedom,” Iszak said, was the word used most in newspaper articles to describe what he and the others, ages 19 to 25, sought.
“There was not a word about hijacking,” said Iszak of the news coverage.
“That was the very first hijacking of a commercial airline to escape the terrorism of communism. Unfortunately, during the years and the decades that followed, hijacking became a tool of terror instead of a tool to escape terror.”
Though just 25 years old at the time, Iszak recalled the events as if they had just taken place rather than more than 50 years ago. As co-architect of the takeover, Iszak said he and the other members of the group knew they would be killed if their plan to flee Communist-controlled Hungary had failed.
Still, he said he had been a “slave” in his native country for far too long.
“I’d rather die than live like that,” said Iszak, who details his escape in his memoir, “Free for All to Freedom.”
Although he knew he wouldn’t return, Iszak said goodbye to his parents on the day of the hijacking and said he would be home for Christmas. That was the last time Iszak saw them, and he never learned what happened to them.
“I was the only child,” Iszak said. “They loved me; they loved me beyond what I deserved. I loved them very deeply.”
After subduing the plane’s crew, the seven students, including Iszak and his 19-year-old wife at the time, flew without any communications until landing at an airfield.
At the time, the group did not know where they had landed, but a vehicle approached the plane. Cradling his wife’s head in his lap, Iszak reached for his gun and placed it at the back of her neck. Barely breathing and with a broken leg, his wife shifted in and out of consciousness.
“I closed my eyes and I prayed to God for strength and forgiveness,” Iszak said. “Strength to pull the trigger if I had to because if it’s East Germany or Czechoslovakia, I’d just as well save her from being raped, tortured and killed, and myself as well.”
When the vehicle finally stopped, Iszak noticed a flag, as small as his hand, flying atop the Jeep.
“It was the Stars and Stripes,” he recalled with tears in his eyes. Iszak dropped the gun. “At that moment, after 25 years of slavery and death, I was born as a free man.”
The plane had landed at a NATO airfield in West Germany, about 80 miles from the Czechoslovakian border. Iszak and the six others requested asylum.
Iszak immigrated to the U.S. in 1957 and became a citizen in 1962. He has worked as a chemist, journalist, publisher and private investigator. In 2003, along with his wife, Serpil, he founded Silver Age Yoga Community Outreach, a charitable foundation that provides free yoga classes to underserved seniors. (They also own Rhythm Yoga and Dance studio in the Del Rayo Shopping Center in Rancho Santa Fe.)
Based on his book, a movie called “Freedom Flight” is currently in development. Iszak hopes his story will serve as a reminder that “freedom is never free.”
“There’s always going to be Hitlers, there’s always going to be [communist leader Mátyás] Rákosis,” Iszak said. “It’s your job to not let it happen, and you’re not doing a very good job at it.”
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for more information on Rhythm Yoga and Dance studio.