A Book That Saved Jewish Lives

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Twenty-five years ago this week, the United States airlifted 812 starving Ethiopian Jews from a makeshift refugee camp in Sudan and brought them to Israel. And a book played a major role in making it possible.

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The book was “The Abandonment of the Jews,” by Professor David S. Wyman. Published in November 1984, it described, in heartbreaking detail, the many opportunities to rescue Jews from the Holocaust and the Roosevelt administration’s 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 just a few miles from the gas chambers where millions of Jews were murdered.

‘Abandonment’ 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.” Prof. Leonard Dinnerstein expressed the reviewers’ consensus when he wrote: “We will not see a better book on this subject in our lifetime.”

‘Abandonment’ 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, Prof. Wyman was featured on “Larry King Live,” “Nightline,” and other 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 stimulate 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 late 1984, Israel struck a secret deal with the Sudanese government to let Israeli planes land near the Ethiopia-Sudan border and bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Thousands of Ethopian Jews streamed to the border site. But leaks to the media embarrassed the Sudanese regime and it canceled the deal in the midst of the operation.

More than eight hundred Ethiopian Jews, many of them destitute young orphans, were stranded near the border when the last Israeli plane left.

American Jewish activists turned to Washington for help. Working closely with U.S. Senators Alan Cranston and Rudy Boschwitz, and Rep. Stephen Solarz, they helped mobilize all one hundred senators to sign a letter to President Reagan urging American intervention.

Meanwhile, California Jewish newspaper publisher Phil Blazer, learning of a forthcoming visit to Sudan by Vice President George Bush, arranged to see the Reagan administration’s liaison to the Jewish community, Marshall Breger, and two senior aides to Vice President Bush, Craig Fuller and Dodd Gregg.

It was just then that ‘The Abandonment of the Jews’ had reached the New York Times best-seller list and attracting nationwide attention. To underscore his argument on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish refugees, Blazer gave copies of ‘Abandonment’ to Breger, Fuller and Gregg.

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.” U.S. Congressman John Miller (R-WA) also met with Bush and, citing Wyman’s book, emphasized the importance of the United States not repeating the errors of the 1940s.

The vice president, in his meeting with Sudan’s leaders shortly afterwards, made it clear that the U.S. intended to rescue the Jews. The Sudanese were in no position to object.

On March 22, 1985, a fleet of US Air Force C-130 Hercules Transport planes airlifted the 812 refugees from Sudan to Israel. They called it “Operation Joshua.”

Vice President Bush later sent a handwritten letter to Prof. Wyman, thanking him for helping to bring about the rescue mission.

It was surely no coincidence that, 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.”

During a visit to Israel three years later, Prof. 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.

March 2010