The Wyman Aliya

By Dr. Rafael Medoff

Jerusalem Post – August 11, 2008

Moshe Gadaf had never before seen an actual airplane. Neither had his friend, Ami Farradah. The wide-eyed eight-year-olds stared in awe at the enormous Trans-European Belgian plane that the IAF had brought to the desolate stretch of the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.

The date was January 6, 1985, and the Gadaf and Farradah families were among the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who had made the perilous journey, by foot, to the site across the border from which they were to be airlifted to Israel. They had no way of knowing that leaks to the news media had just prompted the Sudanese government to suspend the operation.

In their frantic rush to fill one last plane and depart before the Sudanese military could interfere, the Israelis shut the doors to the aircraft after Moshe and Ami’s parents and siblings had boarded – but before the two boys themselves got on. The stunned children watched in horror as the plane carrying their families disappeared over the dusky East African horizon, not knowing when – or if – they would ever see them again.

But that very week, halfway across the world, a guest on NBC Television’s Today program was discussing a book that would change Moshe and Ami’s lives forever.

GROWING UP in New England in the 1930s and 1940s, David S. Wyman knew only a few Jews and very little about Judaism, aside from what he learned in Sunday School about the Israelites of biblical times. The son of a milkman and grandson of two Protestant ministers, Wyman earned his PhD in history at Harvard. His dissertation examined the Roosevelt administration’s policies toward German Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, a radical topic for the time. In those days, most Americans still regarded FDR as an icon and assumed he must have done whatever was possible to aid Europe’s Jews. Wyman was going where no scholar had gone before.

“I didn’t have any personal reason to choose that topic,” he remarked later. “I was looking for something that nobody had yet written about. I guess it was what you call bashert [“meant”]. Considering where it led me, sometimes I think that I didn’t choose the subject, it chose me.”

It led him to more than four decades of researching, writing and teaching about America’s response to the Holocaust and the lessons to be learned from it. To his surprise, it would also lead him into the heart of a struggle to ensure that another persecuted Jewish community would not be abandoned.

His dissertation was published in 1968 as Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941. It described how a combination of anti-foreigner sentiment, anti-Semitism, the Great Depression and the Roosevelt administration’s tight immigration policies kept most European Jewish refugees far from America’s shores.

Paper Walls led to an offer from a major publisher, Pantheon, to publish a sequel that would cover the Holocaust years. More than a decade of research and writing ensued, culminating in the publication, in late 1984, of The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945
By that time, it was not the first scholarly study of the subject, but reviewers agreed it was by far the best. Wyman had accessed many archives that had not been open to earlier researchers, and the result was a series of significant new discoveries about the Roosevelt administration’s behavior.

One was the revelation that the State Department actively obstructed rescue of Jews and immigration to the United States. In his public lectures, Wyman would often unfurl, accordion-like, the 120-cm.-long form that a would-be immigrant was required to fill out just to be considered for a quota space.

Abandonment also revealed not only that US planes could have reached Auschwitz and bombed it, but that they actually did repeatedly hit oil factories adjacent to the gas-chamber area. He showed how the State Department not only ignored Europe’s Jews, but actually sabotaged opportunities to rescue them. He documented the role of the Bergson Group, the Jewish activists whose rallies, newspaper ads and lobbying in Washington helped pressure FDR to create the War Refugee Board. Most of all, he demonstrated that many more Jews could have been saved, by showing how the board, despite its late creation (January 1944), did save more than 200,000 lives.

Published in November 1984, The Abandonment of the Jews immediately attracted widespread attention from the news media. The New York Times alone published a feature story, a profile of Wyman and two reviews of the book, all within the first seven weeks after its release. Appearances on major talk shows followed. In early January, the same week that the airlifts of Ethiopian Jews were halted, Wyman was interviewed by Jane Pauley on the Today show. Later that month, it was Nightline with Ted Koppel, and not long after that, he appeared on Larry King Live

Wyman’s impeccable scholarship, dignified manner and genuine anguish at the plight of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust left a deep impression on those who heard or met him. “I am convinced that had there been more Christians like [David Wyman] in the 1930s and 1940s, the history of this period would have been very different,” Prof. Deborah Lipstadt wrote to a friend at the time. “He strikes me as one of the tzadikei umot ha’olam [righteous of the nations].”

MEANWHILE, CONDITIONS were deteriorating in the makeshift refugee camp in Sudan where Moshe, Ami and the others were stranded. “There was very little food and no doctors,” Moshe recalls. “Many people became sick, and some died. The few people who had money were victimized by local robbers. As the weeks dragged on, we began to fear that we were going to die there.”

In early February 1985, Jewish activists arrived in Washington to lobby for US intervention on behalf of the refugees.

Los Angeles Jewish publisher Phil Blazer, his assistant Hal Sloane and Nate Shapiro, head of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, met with State Department officials who told them that an American airlift was not feasible. “Reminds me of the excuses that the Bergson Group ran into when they asked the State Department to help the Jews in Europe,” says author and editor Miriam Chaikin, who worked in Bergson’s Manhattan headquarters from 1940 to 1948.

Like Bergson, Blazer and Shapiro turned to Congress, where they immediately found a friendly reception – in part because of the impact of The Abandonment of the Jews. Several weeks earlier, Jewish organizations had distributed copies of the book to every member of Congress.

A number of members of Congress attended Rep. Stephen Solarz’s private book party for Wyman near Washington. “They had either read the book or read about it, and it made them feel more strongly than ever that the United States should not repeat the mistakes of the past,” Solarz explained. “The Abandonment of the Jews made the rescue of beleaguered Jewish communities a moral imperative from which our country could not turn away.”

At about the same time, an Ethiopian Jewry caucus was created in the House of Representatives under the leadership of Solarz and Tom Lantos, himself a Holocaust survivor. On the Senate side, the key figures were Rudy Boschwitz and Alan Cranston. In mid-February, Cranston’s aides drafted a letter to president Ronald Reagan and vice president George H.W. Bush, urging the US to intervene on behalf of the refugees stranded in Sudan. In less than two days, all 100 senators had signed the letter.

On February 22, the day after the Cranston letter was delivered to the White House, Blazer and Sloane met with vice president Bush, his senior aides Craig Fuller and Dodd Gregg, and Marshall Breger, the White House liaison to the Jewish community. Blazer presented Bush with a copy of The Abandonment of the Jews. “Mr. Vice President, we can do now what we didn’t do then,” he pleaded.

The Jewish activists were not the only ones who saw the link between the book and the refugee crisis. “By one of those amazing and fortunate coincidences of history, it was just at that time that David Wyman’s book was gaining nationwide public attention,” said John Miller, then a freshman Republican congressman. “There were feature stories about it in the newspapers, and he was on radio and television shows. It seemed like everyone was talking about Wyman’s book. It was must reading. And I read it. The powerful impact that The Abandonment of the Jews had on me became a major reason that I took a special interest in the plight of the Ethiopian Jews.”

Learning that Bush was scheduled to visit Sudan on diplomatic business in March, Miller went to see him. “I spoke to the vice president and his top aides,” he said. “I gave them a copy of the book, and I told them that this was a chance to write a very different history than the history of America’s response to the Holocaust.”

Sudan might refuse to let the Israelis land on its soil, “but Sudan would not be able to say no to the United States – if our government insisted,” Miller contended.

Nobody knows exactly what Bush told Sudanese president Jafar Numairy when they met the following week, but the results spoke for themselves. On March 22, a fleet of US Air Force C-130 Hercules transport planes airlifted Moshe, Ami and 800 other refugees from Sudan to Israel.

“My memories of the flight are a blur,” says Ami. “I remember how the plane was so crowded that we all had to sit on the floor. I was too young to know whether the soldiers taking us were Israelis or Americans. All I knew was that I would finally get to see my mother and brothers and sisters again.”

Congressman Miller said that he later spoke with Bush about the airlift, and the vice president “confirmed that his staff members had read Abandonment and discussed it with him, and that was a major influence in his decision to order the airlift.” Bush subsequently sent Wyman a handwritten note of thanks, which is still proudly displayed in Wyman’s home in western Massachusetts.

Later that year, in a speech in New York City, the vice president referred to the persecution of Jews in Ethiopia and the Soviet Union and vowed, “Never again will the cries of abandoned Jews go unheard by the United States government.”

ONE OF the deputy commanders at the Ramon air force base in the Negev where the US planes landed in 1985, was a young captain named Amir Eshel. Today Maj.-Gen. Eshel is head of the IAF’s Planning Branch and widely considered a likely future commander of the air force.

“The secrecy surrounding the operation was extraordinary,” he said. “Even the commanders on the base did not know about it until the very last minute. The sight of those American planes coming in over the horizon was unforgettable.”

Recently, Wyman visited Israel for the first time in more than 20 years. Hearing of his arrival, Eshel asked Haim Hecht, the television director and Kol Rega radio show host, to arrange a meeting. Hecht, knowing of Wyman’s interest in meeting immigrants from the 1985 airlift, asked Moshe Gadaf and Ami Farradah to be part of it.

Eshel hosted the get-together at an air force base in the center of the country. In addition to Wyman, Hecht, Gadaf and Farradah, the participants included Prof. Bat-Ami Zucker, author of several books about America’s response to the Holocaust; and Dr. Rebecca Kook, Astra Temko and Nili Kook, the daughters and widow of Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson), leader of the 1940s Holocaust rescue advocates.

There was hardly a dry eye in the room as the gathering began with an emotional embrace among Wyman, Gadaf and Farradah. They repeatedly thanked the American historian for authoring the book that helped save their lives. Wyman presented them, and Eshel, with inscribed copies.

Eshel had a surprise for his American guest. It was he who, in 2003, conceived and personally led the fly-by by IAF planes above the Auschwitz site. He told Wyman that the idea came to him as a result of reading the Hebrew edition of The Abandonment of the Jews. “The lessons from your book form the foundation of my entire concept of why there should be a State of Israel and an Israel Air Force,” he said.

Eshel revealed that every cadet who trains to become an officer in the air force is required to view Hecht’s documentary, One Flight for Us, which focuses on the flyby and includes an interview with Wyman about the bombing issue. Eshel also recalled that prime minister Ariel Sharon, in his last Knesset speech before his stroke, spoke about One Flight for Us and read excerpts from The Abandonment of the Jews

At the conclusion of his remarks, Eshel gave the professor an inscribed photograph of the fly-by.

Hecht was moved to offer a toast. He noted the historical significance of bringing together the Kooks, Wyman, Eshel and the two young Ethiopians. “Your father and husband, Peter Bergson, was the symbol of trying to prevent the abandonment of the Jews,” he began. “You, Professor Wyman, told the story of what Bergson tried to do and how Roosevelt abandoned the Jews. But you, Moshe and Ami, are the living proof that the Jews will never again be abandoned as they were during the Holocaust. And, you Maj.-Gen. Eshel, are the Jewish people’s guarantee of ‘never again.'”

MANY OF the waves of immigration to the Land of Israel have acquired individual names, ranging from less imaginative terms such as “First Aliya” and “Second Aliya” to the more colorful “Aliya of the 300 French and English Rabbis” in 1211, or the “Aliya of the Perushim,” students of the Vilna Gaon who came from Lithuania in the early 1800s.

One aliya is even connected by name to the individual most responsible for making it happen – the “Grabski Aliya,” named after a Polish finance minister whose economic restrictions compelled many Polish Jews to emigrate in the 1920s.

Perhaps one day the Zionist lexicon will also include the “Wyman Aliya,” and Israeli schoolchildren will learn the unique and compelling story of the American Christian historian whose chronicle of the abandonment of the Jews helped ensure that they would not be abandoned again.

The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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