The ‘shame’ of redeeming a slave

Those children left behind haunt me and have made me an activist

Wuditu521 (photo credit: COURTESY JUDIE ORON)
(photo credit: COURTESY JUDIE ORON)
During our Passover Seder, we Jews are asked to look upon ourselves as if we personally had been slaves in Egypt. Then, we are asked to recall and imagine the moment of our liberation.
You’d think that this injunction would be a bit easier for me than for others, because two decades ago, in a dusty market town in the north of Ethiopia, I purchased a slave – a young Jewish girl named Wuditu.
I’d spent the better part of a year searching for the girl – not that finding a child slave in Ethiopia is difficult, for there are many of them in that country. But finding a specific child slave is not so simple. But, luck was on our side that day, big time. And when my purchase of Wuditu sparked a mob attack on the two of us, we escaped because, at just the right moment, a strong gust of wind blew my pile of tattered bills up into the air and scattered both the money and the crowd’s attention.
So, every year since then, on February 21, Wuditu starts her day by asking me, “Why are we still alive?” And every time, I answer, “Because there was a wind.” Then, we proceed to celebrate her freedom and our survival of that mob attack. For her, it’s a second birthday and, for me, a reminder of what life is like for so many children still trapped in similar circumstances.
Wuditu is an Ethiopian Jew and her father, Berihun, took her and the rest of their family from their village in Ethiopia to Sudan, hoping to be airlifted to Israel in the wake of a rescue mission code-named “Operation Moses.” Thousands of Jews made that harrowing trek to Sudan and many died, either on the journey or in the pestilential and violent refugee camps where they waited to be saved.
But Wuditu was not one of the lucky ones – instead, she was separated from her family and forced at 13 to walk back to Ethiopia, where she was abused, tortured and then trapped into slavery. Four years later, a stranger came to look for Wuditu and to pay a pittance – just over $100 – for her freedom. I was that stranger and as the years go by, I have come to understand that the act of buying a human child branded the two of us with a sense of shame that we still cannot escape.
You might ask, why a sense of shame? Surely, I, the “redeemer,” should have felt triumphant and Wuditu, the “redeemed,” should have felt hugely relieved. Well, yes, there was some of that, but it seems that you don’t get off so cleanly when you traffic in human beings.
I grew up in Canada, and went on to live most of my adult life in Israel. As a secular Jew, I’d sat impatiently through childhood Seders, hoping that my father would finish reading the Haggada so we could watch at least the end of the hockey finals, since in those days Montreal’s team usually won. I remember my father telling me that it was my obligation to see myself as though I, too, had been a slave, as though I, too, had been redeemed.
Slavery, redemption, I can’t say that in those days I thought much about those things. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the act of buying a child and taking her into my family. Nor did I know how to parent someone who had been abased to the degree that, whenever I or anyone else looked at her, the child would bow with her nose touching the earth.
I’ve watched Wuditu grow into a proud and competent woman. Even though she endured cruelty on a daily basis at a very impressionable age, even though all the people she encountered on her four-year journey either failed her or injured her, she is today a woman of astonishing humanity and decency. That may not be surprising taking into account that she was raised a Jew in an isolated community that strictly followed the laws and ethics of the Torah.
As for me, I’m still feeling confused and ashamed. While searching for Wuditu, I encountered other children in similar circumstances and I left them behind. I shudder when I’m quoted the line – you know the one – “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Please don’t quote that line to me! Those children left behind haunt me and have made me an activist in my declining years, something I did not expect or want to happen. I find myself haranguing people in the streets, on the subway – there doesn’t seem to be any end to my chutzpa when it comes to passing on facts about child slavery in the Horn of Africa.
Fair warning – if you come anywhere near me, I’ll harangue you, too. Apparently, it’s a side effect of buying a human being.
Judie Oron is a journalist and author of the award-winning novel, ‘Cry of the Giraffe’ (Annick Press) or ‘Bechi Ha Giraffa’ in Hebrew (Hakibbutz Hameuhad Publications), based on the story of her adopted daughter Wuditu’s years in slavery.