A Book that Saved Jewish Lives

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Twenty years ago last week, the United States airlifted 812 starving Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps in Sudan and brought them to Israel. This top-secret mission was the first phase in the series of rescue operations that would spirit tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to freedom.  And a book played a major role in making it all possible.

The book was “The Abandonment of the Jews,” by Professor David S. Wyman.  Published in November 1984, it presented, in heartbreaking detail, the full record of the many opportunities to rescue Jews from the Holocaust and the Roosevelt administration’s calculated refusal to take meaningful action.  Wyman was the first scholar to reveal that while the administration was claiming, in 1944, that U.S. bombers could not reach Auschwitz, American planes were at that very moment bombing German oil factories located within a few miles of the gas chambers where millions of Jews were murdered.

was quickly recognized as the definitive study of America’s response to the Nazi genocide. Elie Wiesel called it “irrefutable,” while Prof. Yehuda Bauer wrote that Wyman’s “immense scholarship combines with a sense of fairness and a sharp analytical mind.”  “[N]ever before has the evidence been marshaled so painstakingly, with such meticulous scholarship and to such effect,” Prof. Walter Laqueur concluded.  Prof. Leonard Dinnerstein expressed the reviewers’ consensus when he wrote: “We will not see a better book on this subject in our lifetime.”

Wyman’s book won numerous prizes, went through seven hardcover printings and a paperback edition, and sold more than 150,000 copies worldwide.  Following the book’s release, Wyman was featured on national television talk shows and delivered more than four hundred lectures about the U.S. abandonment of Europe’s Jews.  The large audiences and enthusiastic responses his lectures generated spoke to the level of interest that this grandson of two Protestant ministers had helped provoke among Jews and non-Jews alike.

But “Abandonment” did more than change the American public’s understanding of how the U.S. responded to the Holocaust.  It actually helped save Jewish lives.

In early 1985, just as “Abandonment” was reaching the New York Times best-seller list –an unusual feat for a book about the Holocaust– American Jewish organizations learned that some eight hundred Ethiopian Jews who had fled to neighboring Sudan were trapped and starving in refugee camps along the border, with the Sudanese government refusing to let them leave.

Jewish activists turned to Washington.  Working closely with U.S. Senator Alan Cranston, they helped mobilize all one hundred Senators to sign a letter to President Reagan urging American intervention.  Meanwhile, California newspaper publisher Phil Blazer, learning of a forthcoming visit to Sudan by Vice President George Bush, arranged for an urgent meeting with the Reagan administration’s liaison to the Jewish community, Marshall Breger, and two senior aides to Vice President Bush, Craig Fuller and Dodd Gregg. Blazer gave them copies of “Abandonment” to underscore his argument on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish refugees.

Blazer then met with the vice-president himself. Presenting Bush with a copy of “Abandonment,” Blazer pleaded, “Mr. Vice President, we can do now what we didn’t do then.”  Four days later, Cranston received calls from both Reagan and Bush, promising U.S. action on the matter, and at the end of March, the 812 refugees were secretly airlifted out of Sudan in “Operation Joshua.”   Bush later sent handwritten letters to Blazer and Wyman, thanking them for helping to bring about the rescue mission.  U.S. Congressman John Miller (R-WA) later informed Wyman that he had discussed the Sudan operation with Bush, and that the colonel who prepared the airlift had read “Abandonment” and briefed the vice president on its contents.

Not coincidentally, in a speech not long after the mission, Bush characterized the Ethiopian airlift and efforts to aid Soviet Jewry in these terms: “Never again will the cries of abandoned Jews go unheard by the United States government.”

Pundits did not miss the connection.  Wolf Blitzer in the Jerusalem Post, remarked that the U.S. rescue in Sudan  stood “marked contrast to the documented abandonment of European Jewish refugees before and during World War II … [which has been] well-documented in David S. Wyman’s recently published book, The Abandonment of the Jews.”

During a visit to Israel three years later, Wyman’s hosts took him to an orphanage to meet some of the children who had been rescued in Operation Joshua.  He later described it as one of the most  moving experiences in his life, and more than a few of those present had tears in their eyes as they watched the six foot-four scholar bend down to embrace the young orphans his book had helped save.  Wyman said later that “to meet those children, and to think that my book had something to do with their rescue, was truly a blessing.”   Amen.

April 2005