From journalist to hero

Judie Oron navigates the dangerous terrain of post-revolutionary Ethiopia to rescue lost Jews from starvation, slavery and even death.

Typical Ethiopian family (photo credit: Louis Rapoport)
Typical Ethiopian family
(photo credit: Louis Rapoport)
Boasting a newly crowned Miss Israel, an ambassador in Addis Ababa, and its first female MK, the Ethiopian-Israeli community has recently celebrated a series of firsts. But in 1985, when Judie Oron arrived home from work one afternoon and her two sons greeted her excitedly with the news that they wanted to play with some black kids at the nearby absorption center, she was initially surprised.
“We were living in the Castel, and my kids started screaming at me, ‘We’ve been waiting for you because there are these black people playing soccer at the absorption center in Mevaseret and we want you to take us there so we can play with them,’” relates the Montreal born Oron, who now lives in Toronto.
It was just after news of Operation Moses had broken in early 1985, and she had just been appointed director of all three Jerusalem Post Charitable Funds; it seemed natural to her to find a way to help the new immigrants.
“My kids were making friends with them, [but] these people... had literally nothing other than the clothes they came with, and usually these were being burned because of the pestilence,” she explains.
So she started a fourth fund called Operation Homecoming to raise money for the newly arrived Ethiopians’ immediate needs.
“I would write it in my weekly column [for The Jerusalem Post], and people would send money from all over the world and from Israel,” she says. “There was a huge outpouring of money. I started buying things, handing out transistors to the kids in the dormitories at schools so all the Aliyat Hanoar [Youth Aliya program] kids could learn Hebrew, [acquiring] Shabbat [hot] plates for the families.”
But this was just the beginning of her association with Ethiopian Jewry.
It’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken mother of four navigating the dangerous terrain of post-revolutionary Ethiopia to rescue lost Jews from starvation, slavery and even death. Here to talk about her book Cry of the Giraffe at the recent Jerusalem International Book Fair, Oron, now in her 60s, describes her journey from journalist to activist – many would say hero.
Following one of her rescue operations, she adopted a 10-year-old girl named Lewteh. Later, on what would be her last trip to Ethiopia, she found, and also adopted, Lewteh’s older sister Wuditu, whom the family had believed dead, and brought her to Israel. Cry of the Giraffe is Wuditu’s story.
These are not the girls’ real names, and other identifying details such as the gender of some of her siblings have been altered.
“[Wuditu now] lives in a community that is conservative, and it’s embarrassing to tell a story like this,” she explains.
While Oron categorizes the book as fiction, it is based on Wuditu’s early life, charting her journey from her Ethiopian village to a refugee camp in Sudan, where she and her family had hoped to be taken to Yerusalem, the Beta Israel’s name for the Promised Land. She and Lewteh were separated from the rest of her family at the refugee camp and sent back to Ethiopia. Wuditu reached the village of Amba Giorgis in search of help; however, terrified and alone, she was enslaved there for two years.
For most of the book, in which Wuditu is the first-person narrator, Oron is absent, until her trip to Ethiopia to find the girl – though by then, she had been working for many years to rescue Ethiopian Jewry.
WHILE ORON was working at The Jerusalem Post Funds, an Ethiopian man came with a Jewish Agency social worker to ask for money from the funds to rescue members of his family from Ethiopia.
“He said they were in danger and he had to do something,” says Oron. “So I put it through my committee and it was turned down. I went home that night pretty upset.”
It was her sons who first suggested that she raise the money herself.
“I had been one of those obnoxious kids who was always nagging my parents and their friends about their actions during the Holocaust. I asked them, ‘Why didn’t you do more?’ And of course my mother had to go and tell my kids that I would swear that if I was in a position where someone was in danger, I wouldn’t sit there doing nothing,” she says.
“So when I told my kids how upset I was, they said to me, ‘Why can’t we do this?’” she continues. “They were absolutely right, and if they hadn’t said that, I don’t know what would have happened.”
She began to approach her friends to raise money, although initially, due to the secrecy of such operations, she couldn’t explain where the money was going.
“We would say to our friends, ‘We need money. We can’t tell you why.’ And that’s when you really learn who your friends are,” she says.
She raised enough money – “from my overdraft and from my friends’ overdrafts” – to send the man back to Ethiopia for several months. At that point, Oron left The Jerusalem Post Funds and started raising money fulltime to rescue Ethiopian Jewry.
After the man returned, he asked to meet with Oron’s friends, who until then had been in the dark as to the destination of their money.
“The minute they saw him, they understood,” she says. “It took him six hours to tell us what had happened, what he had done, and we were all just in tears.”
All of them – including Oron – had thought their donations were a onetime thing, so they were taken aback when they were told that the man had paved the way for future operations.
“We all sort of groaned – some of these people had given very little money, but it was more than they should have,” Oron admits.
Still, she and her friends dipped further into their overdrafts to support the rescue operations.
Though the donations were a sacrifice, the sums involved weren’t great.
In fact, Oron paid the equivalent of $111 to redeem Wuditu from her owner.
“It’s really pathetic and sad how very inexpensive it was,” she says.
“It was a dangerous time in Ethiopia, so we were all very worried [about the man’s safety],” she continues. “He did so brilliantly – not only did he bring back his six family members,” but he ended up bringing a lot of children who had been separated from their parents.
“He was bombarded [and] I was bombarded with calls at all different times of day and night from people who said, ‘I want you to bring our family members,’” she recalls.
One of the biggest challenges for her was not being able to help everyone who approached her.
“It was really hard, but I had amazing people working with me who had amazing experience in all aspects of the aliya, and I just listened to them,” she says. “We were a private group, and we were never registered anywhere. We didn’t owe anybody anything... and we could afford to choose cases where it was fairly simple.”
INITIALLY SHE and her friends raised money for family members to go to Ethiopia, but in 1990 they decided that she would make the trip.
By that time, she could speak enough Amharic to move around the country easily, but it was a dangerous place by then – especially for foreigners.
“The first time I arrived, I saw someone shot in front of my eyes. By the police,” says Oron, who not only didn’t take the first plane back to Israel, but made several subsequent trips.
As a mother, did she ever have second thoughts about putting her life in danger? “Oh gosh, that’s a painful question.
Yes. There were many times that I thought about it,” she replies. “[At one point] I definitely thought, ‘If we get killed now, what will I have done to my family?’ You literally kiss the ground when you come out of Ethiopia alive.
At least you did then; I don’t know what it’s like now.”
It was on that first trip that she met Lewteh.
ORON SITS with Wuditu to write a letter to her family a d“I knew I would have to be there at least two months. I developed some really good relationships with people who were working in the embassy and people who were working in the Jewish Agency,” she says. “I was probably one of the few people who wasn’t on salary in the organization who spent months in the embassy. We all had our own agendas, but we did a lot of work together.”
One of the social workers, who was finishing her tour of duty and going home, brought a young girl to Oron and asked her to keep an eye on her while she was in Addis Ababa.
“So she [Lewteh] kind of literally just stuck herself to my right thigh. She would change my batteries in my camera and she would put in film. She learned to do all these things, and she was just kind of this appendage on my leg. She was adorable. She was [also] quite ill.”
After her traumatic journey to Addis Ababa, Lewteh’s arrival in Israel at the start of the 1991 Gulf War wasn’t exactly uneventful, either.
“She landed, unfortunately, at exactly the moment that the first Scud landed.
But when I came to visit her later when I got back to Israel, I remember saying to her, ‘Lewteh, you got bombed.’ She said ‘Yeah, but it was fine because you told me it would be okay and because the embassy taught me how to use a gas mask. So we got to the airport and we got to this room and I put my gas mask on and it was fine.
Hayiti gibora gedola [I was very brave].’” When Oron returned home, she visited Lewteh at her father’s house.
“Her father was very ill... his sight had been badly damaged in Sudan, and he was devastated that he had lost two girls.”
He told Oron two things: that he wanted her to take care of Lewteh, and that he had paid someone to look for another of his daughters, Wuditu, and been told she was dead.
Oron didn’t ask any questions about Wuditu, and on weekends and holidays she took care of Lewteh.
“I never wanted to ask him to [let me] adopt her legally,” she says, though she was listed as the girl’s guardian in all her files. “She was in boarding school and she came to us on weekends, for holidays, summer, and when she wanted to, she went to her siblings and her parents. The great thing was that her father and mother never, ever interfered.”
Despite the unorthodox arrangement, the relationship was friendly.
“All of us kind of became part of their extended family. She was big. She could definitely go on a bus from school. We would usually coordinate with the school, whether she wanted to come to us for the weekend or whether she wanted to go to her parents [or] her siblings. I was just given free rein to do with her as I pleased.”
ONE NIGHT a few years later, Oron woke at 3 a.m. to hear Lewteh crying.
“I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t woken up that night,” she says.
Lewteh was writing a letter to her dead sister.
“I asked her why she was doing that, and she said something like, ‘I don’t know how to send the letter. I never know how to send the letters.’” Oron thought she was referring to one of her sisters who lived in Israel, so she told her they would find the address in the morning.
“She said, ‘No, no, no – my sister in Ethiopia.’” When Oron asked her which sister, Lewteh told her it was Wuditu.
“‘Why are you writing to someone who isn’t alive anymore?’ I asked. She looked at me and said: ‘I can still feel my sister breathing. I don’t believe the man my father sent and paid money to actually looked for my sister.’” Knowing how chaotic and dangerous Ethiopia was at the time, Oron decided that someone would have to find out if Wuditu was really alive.
Why did she accord so much credibility to the gut feeling of a teenager? “God knows,” she replies. “Even now I have goose bumps thinking about it.
How easily I could have just said, ‘Now, now, dear,’ and gone back to sleep.”
Oron and a member of Lewteh’s family started to visit places where Ethiopians who had been through Amba Giorgis – the town to which Wuditu had told Lewteh she was going – had recently arrived, and asked if anyone had seen her. They finally met someone who had.
“He said he thought she was a slave,” says Oron. “He said she was very ill.
She looked terrible. And he said he thought maybe it wasn’t worth going because maybe she wasn’t alive. So that was great news. I related to the positive part of it and started sending faxes and telephone calls to the embassy [in Addis Ababa].”
ONCE SHE had reliable information that Wuditu had been seen alive, Oron flew to Ethiopia to look for her in Addis Ababa. Lots of Jews were coming to the embassy at that point, which was the end of January 1992, but there was no sign of Wuditu.
She found someone in Addis Ababa who thought he had seen her, so she flew to Gondar, where she received the help of Israeli consul Zimna Berhani.
Following another lead, she and Berhani drove out to Amba Giorgis.
“Basically we were run out of town,” she relates. “But we did manage to leave word that if somebody brought Wuditu to the Israeli offices in good health, unharmed, I would pay.”
When Berhani and the rest of the consular staff had to return to Addis Ababa, Oron was left with strict instructions either to stay in her hotel or to use the embassy car to drive to the Israeli offices.
As time wore on with no sign of Wuditu, she knew she would have to make a move before her visa ended.
She had no assurances that the sightings of which she had been informed were really of the girl she was seeking, “but I just had this weird sense. I had this thing going in my head [from T.S.
Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’] ‘Hurry up please it’s time,’” she says. “I don’t know where that came from. I didn’t feel I could ignore it.”
Help finally came in the form of a newly married Italian couple who planned to climb the Semien Mountains alone in war-torn Ethiopia.
The hotel desk clerk told her they were arriving the next day, and “he was laughing because it was just after the revolution; it was chaos, there was murder everywhere… and they were going to go climbing in the Semien mountain range.”
Oron had two thoughts: that the couple would have to travel via Amba Giorgis on their way to the mountain range, and that they had better have made good plans or they were not going to come out alive.
“The next morning two absolutely adorable young Italians – they couldn’t have been more than 21 – who were on their honeymoon, showed up. I was lying in wait for them. We chatted over breakfast,” she recalls. “And I just looked at them and I thought, ‘Hell, I might as well just kiss them goodbye.’” The three of them climbed into a derelict cab, and off they went.
“There was a rope tying the door handle to the clutch, which I was told to hold onto because otherwise the door might swing open and [the driver would] get a fine,” she says.
Halfway to the mountains, she told the couple and the driver that they would be stopping in Amba Giorgis.
The couple was thrilled – this made their honeymoon adventure complete – but the driver was furious.
They stopped at the kiosk and met a man called Berre who seemed to know whom she was looking for. She told him they were going to the Semien Mountains and that she would be back to look for Wuditu – and she could pay.
She dropped the tourists off at the mountains and secured them a guide before returning to find Wuditu.
Back in Israel, Oron says her sons welcomed both girls with open arms.
“My great luck in all of this is that both of my sons are the same age as the girls, which helped a lot, and they were amazing. I think it really humanized them to hear the girls’ stories.”
Many Ethiopian Jews are still searching for information about lost relatives who were separated from their families as Wuditu was.
“I think almost everybody [literally] lost someone. Even today, if you walk around on the street and community centers and talk to Ethiopians, you’ll find that many of them have a relative who has not come to Israel, but they don’t have any indication that they died.”
IT WAS Wuditu herself who urged Oron to write the book, though she knew how difficult it would be for her mother to expose her story – and to hear about some of the harrowing details of her experience for the first time.
“I remember my first review was a Kirkus review, and I was really upset because they said, ‘You would wonder why a mother would want to tell a story like this about her daughter,’” says Oron. “And I didn’t for 20 years.”
But Wuditu had her film-producer brother Daniel record her recounting part of her story to convince Oron to write about those experiences.
Oron says her daughter’s reasons for deciding to tell her story were threefold.
“The first was that she wanted people to know how Jewish her community was and how determined they were to come to Israel, how Zionistic they were,” she explains. “What they went through, knowing full well that they might die, because it was pretty clear to them from letters from Sudan that didn’t hide the death rate.”
Her second motivation was to show Israel in a positive light, given its negative image in the international media.
She also wanted to tell the story of the children who had been left behind, many of whom will work as slaves until they die.
“She lost a friend who was trafficked and enslaved, China, the character in the book,” says Oron.
Unfortunately many African children are still enslaved today.
“For people in Ethiopia today, it is hugely common,” she says. “It’s one of the things Wuditu and I have been working on recently – I just find myself obsessively researching child slavery and trafficking.... We’re talking hundreds of thousands of children who are being trafficked for either domestic work or slavery, or you name it.”
And ultimately, she says, there was no way she couldn’t fulfill Wuditu’s wishes.
“I explained to her many times how dangerous this could be for her,” she says, but “as a mother of a grown-up child, there’s no way you can say no.”