Modern-day Operation Moses: How a settler saved an entire Ethiopian family

Many Ethiopian Jews died on the way to Sudan, and many others who managed to reach Sudan were somehow left behind.

A.Y. Katsof exits a plane from Ethiopia to Israel with "Suzy" and Ambassador to the South Sudan Hanan Godar (photo credit: Courtesy)
A.Y. Katsof exits a plane from Ethiopia to Israel with "Suzy" and Ambassador to the South Sudan Hanan Godar
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Netflix production of The Dead Sea Diving Resort, which was a somewhat romanticized version of one of the most heroic of Israeli operations in the mid-1980s, told the story of how a clandestine tourist-aimed business venture launched in South Sudan by members of Mossad in 1984 to 1985 enabled the covert evacuation of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in a daring air lift that became known as Operation Moses.
It received huge publicity in its time following the arrival of these Jews in Israel, and was followed by similar operations, but so many dramatic events have happened in the world since then that there has been a tendency to forget what went into this truth, which seemed stranger than a fictional story.
Many Ethiopian Jews died on the way to Sudan, and many others who managed to reach Sudan were somehow left behind.
A chance meeting in 1999 between Rabbi Aron Katsof and Adina, a young woman who had come from Ethiopia as an eight-year-old child and was going back as a volunteer, added a new dimension to Operation Moses, in that Katsof, too, became part of an historic rescue operation, and succeeded in re-uniting a family from among those who had been left behind.
Katsof, who came to Israel from California 15 years ago and now lives in Esh Kodesh near Shiloh in the West Bank, was under the mistaken impression that all eligible Jews from Ethiopia had already immigrated to Israel.
Adina sent him post cards from Ethiopia and wrote about the Jews whom she had met. This sparked Katsof’s curiosity, and he flew to Ethiopia to see for himself. He was in Addis Ababa and in Gondar.
What he saw inspired him to make a video that included an interview that he had conducted with Tuwavich Berko, a woman whom he had met in the synagogue in Ethiopia.
Berko was one of the Ethiopians who had been left behind when the rest of her family were evacuated to Israel. She had been 14 years old at the time, had been placed in a Sudanese prison, and was later sold into a forced marriage.
A similar fate was imposed on her two daughters, each of whom was sold into marriage when she reached the age of 12.
Berko’s husband was cruel to her and she ran away from him. Then, she saw a TV program that focused on Ethiopians who had returned to Ethiopia either as volunteers or on roots trips, and from this she learned that Jews who wanted to go to Israel congregated in the synagogue in Addis Ababa, and somehow managed to make her way there.
Berko had forgotten her native tongue and could communicate only in Arabic. Fortunately, Katsof speaks Arabic, and after hearing her tragic story, reached the conclusion that no one would help her unless he himself did something to alleviate her situation.
He promised that he would somehow bring her to Israel.
As rash a promise as it was, Katsof was determined to keep it.
“We Jews don’t leave people behind,” he said this week in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
A RESOURCEFUL man with connections among diplomats, Christian pastors and other people who became involved in Berko’s rescue, Katsof paid many visits to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda during a three-year period to make good on his promise.
He also had to deal with Israeli bureaucracy to prove that Berko was Jewish and he had to organize a visa and passport.
Meanwhile, one of Berko’s daughters, Piath, had managed to locate her mother. Piath knew where Suzy, the other daughter was living, but it was difficult to make contact because they had no cell phones.
One of Berko’s brothers had seen Katsof’s video and had recognized his sister and had put numerous messages on Facebook in a bid to learn more about her and her Sudanese family.
Although these attempts were slow in yielding results, eventually they were able to track down Suzy. Katsof went in search of her, and when he found her, she was in shock. She had never seen a white man before and thought that he was a witch doctor.
Eventually, Berko was reunited with her two daughters, and all the arrangements for their flight to Israel were completed, when there was another bureaucratic hassle, because the names on the birth certificates did not match other family names. Berko had been born in Ethiopia and her daughters in Sudan, and therefore their names were different due to the difference in language and culture. There were more delays while the documents were amended.
According to Katsof, visas in Ethiopia can be purchased only with US dollars, yet it is illegal to buy US dollars.
He managed to get some money from sources in Israel and the US, but his funds were rapidly drying up.
A third of the expenses incurred in facilitating the family reunion had come out of Katsof’s own pocket. The rest came from people of goodwill, both Jews and Christians. The Christians were mainly Evangelicals.
Everything was all set, when Suzy decided to go back to Sudan to pick up her children.
She, too, had been the victim of a cruel husband who beat her. The children were in the care of his family, and although overtures had been made to him to relinquish the children for a goodly sum of money, he was unwilling. However, he had gone to a witch to consult her about what to do, and she had told him that he must not give his children to the Jews. Berko, Piath and Piath’s children arrived in Israel last April and stayed with Katsof and his family.
But time was running out for Suzy. Efforts were still being made to pay her husband to give up the children, who were in the care of his family in the village. During this period, the youngest child died, and his family contacted him to come home for the funeral. He took the child’s death as a sign from heaven that his other children must be given better health care and education, and he signed a waiver.
The upshot was that after traveling through Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, Suzy finally arrived in Israel last week.
She is illiterate, and when Katsof asked her what she wanted to do, she said that the first thing she wanted was to learn to read and write, so he enrolled her in an ulpan where she will learn to read and write in Hebrew.
Then he asked her what she wants to do after she learns to read and write, and she replied: “I want to be an ambassador.”
Katsof knows that there is little chance of that happening, but then again, as Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Katsof himself feels privileged to have been given the ability to bring together three generations of a family that had been left behind.
“We don’t leave anyone behind,” he repeated.
And this still may not be the end of the story.
There are other Ethiopian Jews waiting to be reunited with their relatives in Israel. Katsof has no definite plans in that direction, but one never knows what will trigger his next move, he said.