29 May 2011

20 Years Since Operation Solomon with author Judie Oron

Posted by Moshe Mikanovsky

20 Years Since Operation Solomon
Toronto author Judie Oron to participate in special event marking 20 years since Operation Solomon, which brought thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel
Moshe Mikanovsky, Translation Elad Benari
ShalomToronto, May 19, 2011

On Tu B’Shevat, 1985, when I was a student in junior high in Kfar Saba, we went out to plant new trees with Ethiopian immigrants who had recently come to Israel on Operation Moses, and were housed at the absorption center in the city. It was a rainy and muddy day, quite normal for Tu B’Shevat. My strongest memory of that day was the bus ride back to the absorption center. The bus was full of new immigrants, most of whom wore traditional white clothing, and we, the students, stood in the aisles and tried to make conversation with them, mostly using our hands. But what left the biggest impression on me was the smell of oranges. All the new immigrants, without exception, ate oranges. They peeled them slowly and enjoyed them, slice by slice, as it quenched their thirst in the packed bus.

Cry of the Giraffe, Judie Oron, Annick Press

In Judie Oron’s award-winning book, “Cry of the Giraffe” (Annick Press), which I read together with my eldest daughter, she tells the tragic story of Wuditu, daughter to a Jewish family in Ethiopia who tried to reach Israel and the city of Jerusalem – the dream of Ethiopian Jewry for centuries – through Sudan. Tragically, in the refugee camp Wuditu and her sister Lewteh were separated from their family and forced to march back to Ethiopia. Years went by, during which Wuditu had to work carrying water, making beer and finally, against her will, became a slave.

While still a child in her parents’ home, before the trip to Sudan, the heroine describes the attitude of Christians toward the Jews, and how life is deteriorating day by day. One day, she went with her father and sister to the market, but the family was disappointed to discover that the market was closed. A local resident tells them that the authorities have changed the market day to Saturday in order to make it harder for Jewish merchants to sell their wares. As they return home with a heavy heart, Wuditu recalls how, on their previous visit to the market, everything was so different:

“My father had bought a special fruit for my sisters and me. We’d carefully peeled it and separated it into pieces, two for each of us. I’ve never tasted such a fruit before. It was sweet and tart at the same time. I kept the taste on my tongue and savoring it, refusing to drink water along the way so that it would stay in my mouth as long as possible.

                “What was that fruit we had last time, Abatie?” I asked as we walked dejectedly back to our village. I hoped to cheer him up.

                “Birtukan,it was an orange,” he answered.

                “The fruit has the same name as the color,” I said.

                “That’s right, Wuditu, just like the color,” my father replied. But I could tell that his mind was on this new problem that we now faced.

Cry of the Giraffe is based on Wuditu’s story and told in her voice. But Oron’s personal story is also fascinating and unique. Oron was a columnist and features writer for The Jerusalem Post and in 1985 was appointed Director of the newspaper’s charitable funds during the period that Operation Moses brought Ethiopian Jews from Sudan – a route that gravely risked their lives. Judie saw the need to create a new fund to help these new immigrants, knowing that their isolation in remote villages had made their integration into a modern, technological society especially difficult. In this role, Judie was able to meet people in the community, to hear their stories, to volunteer with the Jewish Agency and to make extended trips to Ethiopia.

Operation Solomon occurred on May 24 – 25, 1991 and airlifted 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in less than 36 hours. In fact, 14 323 boarded the planes in Addis Ababa, but 2 babies were born on the planes during the flights to Israel. The previous year, Judie had worked with a Jewish Agency team that issued family reunification forms for those waiting in Addis Ababa. At the time, it was the only way that the Ethiopian government was willing to grant exit visas. She also helped write a letter that was given to U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, at that time head of a U.S. delegation that was negotiating with the Ethiopian government.

First meal in Jerusalem, Diplomat Hotel, May 24 1991. Photo: Judie Oron

First meal in Jerusalem, Diplomat Hotel, May 24 1991. Photo: Judie Oron

The country was then in the throes of a desperate Civil War. As the war waged on, Oron followed the daily reports of the rebel’s progress, becoming more and more worried as their army advanced toward the capital, Addis Ababa. More than 14,000 Jews huddled in the area of the Israeli Embassy, frightened and anxiously​​ awaiting the fulfillment of their dream.

At 4 A.M., on the morning of May 24, Judie was woken by a phone call from Susan Berhani, wife of Zimna Berhani, a senior official at the Jewish Agency’s Ethiopian desk and later appointed Israeli Consul to Ethiopia. Judie immediately went to the Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem, the first place where the immigrants arrived following the complex operation. Her job was to help evacuate the sick to local hospitals and then interview the remaining immigrants for their identity cards. This process was complicated by the fact that the immigrants didn’t have any birth certificates or other records and by the fact that most of them had little or no education. This problem was partially solved by matching the immigrants’ ages to historical events and agricultural seasons. The registration process for the 1,200 new immigrants at the Diplomat Hotel took months and involved complex and lengthy individual interviews.

The year before Operation Solomon, Judie had met Wuditu’s sister in Addis Ababa and, at the request of her ill father, had taken her into her family. One day, Judie saw the child, (Lewteh in the book) writing a letter in her room. When she asked her to whom she was writing, Lewteh replied that she was writing to her sister. Oron then discovered that a member of the family had been left behind in Ethiopia. No one knew what had happened to her. Risking her own life, Judie left for Ethiopia in February of 1992 to look for Wuditu. After much effort, she found her and released her from the slavery in which she had been living for the previous two years. Judie brought the girl back with her to Israel, where Wuditu and her sister Lewteh still live today.

“Cry of the Giraffe” was published earlier this year and has already received six awards, including the American Library Association’s Amelia Bloomer Project List of Recommended Books for 2011, the Association of Jewish Libraries’ 2011 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Teens Award, and the 2011 Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award for Youth Literature.

On Tuesday, May 24, exactly twenty years after Operation Solomon, Judie Oron will take part in a commemorative event about that daring rescue mission. She’ll share her observations during the months and years leading up to the Operation and her experience during the mission itself. She will also speak about Wuditu, the child left behind after the Operation and about the girl’s heroic journey to freedom.

The event will be held at Kensington Place Retirement Residence, 866 Sheppard Avenue West, between 6:30pm and 8:30pm. To reserve your seat, please call Lisa  at (416) 636-9555.

For more information on Judie Oron and her book “Cry of the Giraffe”, visit www.judieoron.com

You can also purchase the book on Amazon, or at a book store near you.

Moshe Mikanovsky is Shalom Toronto’s arts writer (www.mikanovsky.com, moshe@mikanovsky.com)

 You can also read the Hebrew version of this article online at the ShalomToronto website.

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