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While the resettlement of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the late 20th century made world news, very little is known about Ethiopian Jewish rescue efforts during the Holocaust. Following their own suffering under Italian annexation, in August 1943 a group of Ethiopian Jews decided to act to help save European Jews.

Ethiopian Jewish leaders pressed the Emperor of Ethiopia to welcome Jewish refugees from Europe.  On August 8, 1943, The Palestine Post (presently The Jerusalem Post) included a short article on page 3 about the proposed Jewish immigration into Ethiopia. According to the article, the Ethiopian Minister in London met with Mr. Harry Goodman and Dr. Springer to discuss possible Jewish immigration into Abyssinia. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie simultaneously discussed rescue plans at Addis Ababa, where he apparently showed “considerable interest and sympathy.” The article noted a number of Greek Jews had recently immigrated to Ethiopia. Also, “a leading member of the Falasha (black Jewish) community expressed to the Emperor the desire to assist European Jewry and to welcome them in Falasha towns.” Falasha was once a widely used term for Ethiopian Jews and is now considered derogatory.

While many details remain unknown about the 1943 effort to save European Jews, there is no question that Ethiopian Jews understood the plight of Jews worldwide and hoped to open up their own homes and villages to their European counterparts.

Years later, Israeli Jews, some of whom were Holocaust survivors, successfully rescued Ethiopian Jews through a series of covert operations. In the fall of 1984, approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were transported from Sudan to Israel through Operation Moses to escape refugee camps and a famine during the Sudanese Civil War. From May 24 to May 25, 1991, Operation Solomon transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just 36 hours. At the time, Jews in Ethiopia were in danger under a worsening political climate. American government officials helped to plan both operations.

One of the IDF pilots during Operation Solomon was Arieh Oz, a Holocaust survivor previously hidden in the Netherlands to escape Nazi persecution. After liberation, Oz enlisted in the Israeli Air Force and the rescued child became a rescuer of Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon. The Talmud states, “whoever saves one life saves the entire world.” For the Haitsma family who hid Arieh Oz, the precept certainly holds true. Oz survived the Holocaust thanks to a brave Dutch couple and went on to participate in the rescue of Ethiopian Jews.

Nearly 150,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel today, and many serve in the IDF just like Oz. Georges Gutelman is another example of a young Jewish boy once saved during the Holocaust who later provided Israeli authorities with his airline company’s planes to help rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews.

That Ethiopian Jews once tried to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust and later were rescued by Israeli Jews, some of whom were Holocaust survivors from Europe, reveals that one saved life may lead to thousands more.

This blog post is made possible through a grant from The Judith Gotlieb and Neal Brodsky Good Works Fund, in memory of Bernice and David Golieb & Seymour Brodsky and in honor of Barbara Ribakove.

Banner image: Map of Europe and Africa acquired by Abraham Melezin in Stutthof. His nickname “professor” impressed the barrack kapo, who gave him a map to follow to Soviet advances on the eastern front and the Allied fighting in Africa. In fact he had been a professor of geography in Vilna before the war. It was the clandestine use of this map that led to questions from young Poles and eventually to lectures (see notebook, 2002.A.44.) The map was too small to follow the western front accurately. AM kept the map with him, carrying it on the evacuation map. (“I am a geographer. I like to have maps with me.”) Melezin was passing as a non-Jewish Pole with the name Adam Melzhinski. He was interned in Stutthof as Polish political prisoner #32209. Gift of Abraham Melezin family.