The Makings of History / Operation Georges

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In the early 1930s, a Jewish immigrant couple from Poland settled not far from Liege, Belgium. He earned a living as a door-to-door peddler of sewing notions; she was a law student. The Gutelmans had two sons. Georges, who was born in 1938, is the hero of our story. When he was not even 3 years old, the Germans invaded Belgium. His mother was killed at Auschwitz; Georges does not remember her. His father managed to find two Christian families, each of which agreed to take in one child. This was their way of fighting the Nazi invasion.

Georges GutelmanCredit: Limor Edrey

Georges Gutelman did not know that the carpenter who raised him was not his father. He did not know that his best friend, who grew up on the neighboring farm, was his brother. Nor did he know that they were Jewish. Only at the end of the war was he told, and the boys were returned to their father's care.

Georges ended up studying metallurgy. One day he saw an advertisement offering a cheap flight to the United States with a charter called Saturn Airways. At the last minute the flight was canceled, but Gutelman assembled a few dozen friends and organized a group flight for them to America. That was just the beginning.

A year later, he organized five flights, the year after that 30 and after that 50. By 1971, Gutelman had accumulated enough capital to be able to buy a passenger plane of his own. This is how the Trans European Airways company was established. It operated charter flights in Europe before it began to specialize in a particularly lucrative market: flying pilgrims from North Africa to Mecca.

Gutelman would bring his planes for upkeep to Israel Aircraft Industries (as it was called at the time ), and over time became one of those Jews on whom Israel relied for carrying out all kinds of secret missions, such as transporting weapons.

In this context Gutelman was not surprised in the winter of 1984 to hear from a high-ranking Mossad official, Efraim Halevy. Halevy, who later became the agency's head, let him in on a historic secret: About 10,000 Jews who had managed to leave Ethiopia - many of them with the help of emissaries from Israel - were staying in Sudan and their lives were in danger. Then-Sudanese ruler Jaafar Nimeiri had been paid off to allow them to be rescued by air. His two conditions: that the operation be carried out in total secrecy, and that the flights would not go directly to Israel.

Gutelman felt the Jewish people was asking for his help. He knew he was endangering his business and that he would have to violate innumerable laws and regulations. However, as it happened, Belgium's justice minister at the time, Jean Gol, was a Jew, and he agreed to help. Gol also happened to be in charge of the secret services in his country. He obtained authorization from Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens and thus began the airlift that would enter history as Operation Moses. Its route: Khartoum, Brussels, Tel Aviv.

The flights, on Boeing 707 aircraft, departed before dawn, landed five hours later in Brussels, where they refueled and continued on immediately to Israel, where they arrived some 12 to 15 hours after setting out. Each flight carried about 200 passengers. The price of each ticket was $75, altogether about $15,000 for each flight.

The passengers traveled without passports. Many were sick and were reclining on seats, hooked up to infusions. Some died during the flight; there were also some babies born en route.

A drama like this cannot be kept secret, and indeed at least 200 people in Gutelman's company knew what was happening. A few of them threatened to go on strike because they feared the passengers were going to be used as slaves in Israel.

However, the first 35 flights occurred without a hitch, with some 7,000 passengers arriving safe and sound before the story leaked to the press.

The first to reveal the secret was Arie Leib Dulzin, one of the leaders of Israel's Liberal Party, and a former minister without a portfolio, who was then chairman of the Jewish Agency. He divulged the secret to donors from Canada, who published the story in one of their bulletins, and from there it reached The New York Times.

The Israeli press restrained itself, but an interview in the settlers' journal Nekuda with Yehuda Dominitz from the immigration department at the Agency, led to the cessation of the operation. It is impossible to know for certain how many Ethiopian Jews were "blabbed" to their fate.

Georges Gutelman was devastated. There were 15 more flights that could not depart. The publicity also hurt his business, as he had expected. The Mecca pilgrims stopped flying with him, he received death threats and his children needed to travel to school with bodyguards. His aviation company went through many incarnations before eventually going bankrupt. Gutelman went into the field of solar energy.

Twenty-five years have gone by, and Gutelman was in Israel this week. The Ruppin Academic Center, which is deeply involved in the social integration of the Ethiopian community, has awarded him an honorary degree. He knows that many of those who came to Israel from Ethiopia have not managed to find happiness here, but he is pinning his hopes on the next generation. He has never gotten a pilot's license and says he is glad about that: Had he himself participated in flying the Jews here, he says, he would have endangered their lives because of being overcome by so much emotion.