The Beta Israel always dreamed of Jerusalem, though they lived in Ethiopia, and were often put in danger as a result. This sense of yearning and longing was expressed in all aspects of their lives: in their prayers, at joyous occasions, and in times of mourning. They preserved their Jewish faith at all times, despite the tribulations that they underwent. Attempts by Ethiopian Jews to reach Jerusalem never stopped. The first known immigration attempts began in the early nineteenth century. Around 1855, Daniel son of Hananya and his son Moshe reached Jerusalem, motivated by their Zionist spirit. Another significant chapter in the history of these immigration attempts was the journey led by Abba Mahari in 1862; the attempt failed and many of its participants lost their lives.
The connection between Ethiopian Jewry and other Jews around the world was sparked as a result of a trip by the Orientalist Joseph Halevy, and continued thanks to his student, Jacques Faitlovitch. This connection gave the community newfound hope in realizing their dream of immigrating to Yerusalem (Jerusalem). However, prominent rabbinical authorities in the Jewish world and government entities in Israel held conflicting opinions regarding the community’s Jewish status. Despite the challenges, in 1955, a group of teenage boys and girls reached Israel in order to study; later, some of them returned to Ethiopia to serve as teachers at the ORT schools that had been established in the meantime.
In 1973, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, ruled that the Beta Israel (the Falasha) were Jewish. He called for the government and the Jewish Agency to help save the Jews of Ethiopia. The State of Israel accepted Rabbi Ovadia’s ruling and on July 25, 1975, included Ethiopian Jewry under the Law of Return. When Menachem Begin took office in 1977, the Mossad was given instructions to bring Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. Ferede Aklum, a teacher and educator, escaped to Sudan and fled the cruel grasp of Mengistu’s regime. He reached Khartoum and sent a letter to Chaim Halachmi. This letter was the first step in opening up a secret route to help Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel via Sudan. Thousands of Jews reached refugee camps in the country on their way to Israel.
The masses that left their homes and property behind and headed for Sudan – young people, old people, and entire families – set out to realize a dream that was thousands of years old. At first, Jews arrived from the areas of Wolkait and Tigray, and later from other areas as well near Gondar. The rumors and letters from those who had succeeded in reaching Israel via Sudan encouraged their desire to pursue this route. The journey was difficult and very dangerous: robberies, rape, and even death awaited the Jews at the hands of local Ethiopians or by the Sudanese at the borders and refugee camps.
Excerpt from the testimony of a woman who immigrated in 1991, lost her daughter on the way, and does not know what happened to her father:
“Our journey from Ethiopia to Sudan on the way to Israel began in 1989. Somewhere midway, we lost sight of our guides and were left without anything for about three months – no food or water, and eating sand in order not to die of hunger. During this painful and terrible journey, we found a Sudanese army base that had been abandoned. Luckily, there was nobody there, and we managed to take a sack of flour. We split it between about 30 people. Every morning, we made porridge for the children so that at least they could survive. I did not succeed in saving my daughter, and in the end, she died and I left her on the way, as well as my father, who wanted to rest because he didn’t have the energy to keep going… In the end, I buried my daughter. Today, what pains me the most is that I don’t know what happened to my father… When my father’s relatives reached Israel and I asked them what happened to my father. They didn’t answer me, as if they were hiding something from me, and that was the worst of all…Today I am trying to find someone who will help me locate my father. My physical and mental state are unstable, and I am undergoing therapy with a psychologist and a psychiatrist for the pain and the doubts, which are killing me and taking over my life…”
Ethiopian Jews suffered greatly in the refugee camps. They lived in constant fear and anxiety that their Judaism would be exposed. In addition, diseases spread and caused thousands of deaths. The living conditions were intolerable, and crime and violence were rampant. Death became a common occurrence, and thousands lost their loved ones.
From the testimony of a woman who lost her mother and six-year-old daughter:
“We set out on our journey to the land of Israel – myself, my husband, and my four children (14 year old daughter, 11 year old son, 8 year old son, and 6 year old daughter). My mother, my older sister and her daughter, and my younger sister also came with us. One morning, we left our village and headed for Sudan, in order to reach the land of Israel - the Holy Land. The journey took three months. We stayed awake at night and walked during the day. On the way, we suffered from hunger and difficulties. Our food and water ran out and we were left with nothing. Because of the difficult conditions, I lost both of my sisters. On the way to Sudan, I was pregnant. When we reached Sudan, I suffered. The pregnancy was very difficult, and in Sudan, I gave birth to our son. I thought that he was dead because he was born unconscious, but thank God, God breathed life into him. However, there was still very little to provide him with; I was unable to nurse him because I had no milk, due to the poor nutrition.
We were in Sudan for a full year, during which I lost my mother, who passed away at Camp Sepoha, and my six-year-old daughter, who passed away at a camp in Gadarif. After a year in Sudan, a plane arrived from Israel to take us to Israel…”
The excerpts were taken from the booklet: “Memorial Day for Ethiopian Jews who Perished on their way to Israel,” October 2015. May their memories be eternally etched in the history books of the Jewish nation.
On Jerusalem Day, a state ceremony is held at Mount Herzl, attended by the president, prime minister, representatives of the national institutions and youth movements, and the general public. To commemorate this day, the CEO of the Center for Ethiopian Jewish Heritage shared his experience in Sudan as a boy:
“From day to day, the death toll rose. Death did not differentiate between the elderly and babies, women and men. Death became part of our routine at the camp. There was no health system at the camp and those who went to the ‘hospital’ at the nearby city didn’t come back alive. The refugee camps had become a death trap; death visited us every single minute, day and night. Many families, men, mothers, teenagers, elderly people who dreamed of Jerusalem their entire lives, children, babies who just came into this world and haven’t yet seen the light of day, fought for their lives until their last breath. Unfortunately, thousands succumbed and wilted like flowers, one after the next. Entire families wiped out as if they never existed, orphaned children bury their parents, husbands and wives became widowers and widows, parents buried their children. The soil of Sudan opened its mouth to obliterate us mercilessly, without leaving a trace. Even the burial was not a proper burial, under a cloak of fear that our Judaism would be discovered – a fear that did not leave us even when our loved ones died and were buried. Thousands found their deaths there in the cursed Sudan and on the journey to Jerusalem.”
As aforementioned, immigration to Jerusalem via Sudan resulted in thousands of deaths within the community. To date, approximately 1,620 names are commemorated, but there are still many more whose names are not recorded (there are those who claim that 4,000 people died on their way to Israel, but this number has not yet been proven). The Center for Ethiopian Jewish Heritage is making every effort to document and commemorate additional names of those who died on the journey. The survivors remained grief-stricken and mourning the loss of their loved ones.
Primary findings of the name collection project, October 2015
Each and every name collected during the project symbolizes an entire world for the family members and for the entire Jewish nation. The project collected testimonies about approximately 1,620 people who perished: women, men, and children who were unable to realize their dream of reaching Israel.
The following data is presented according to different categories in percentages, from the names collected during the project in October 2015.