Names of Many Ethiopian Jews Who Perished en Route to Israel Are Still Unknown

The Ethiopian Jewish community estimates that 4,000 perished on their way to Israel

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Jewish Ethiopian migrants seen on their first day in Israel, at an integration center in Ashkelon.
Jewish Ethiopian migrants seen on their first day in Israel, at an integration center in Ashkelon.Credit: Doron Bachar
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In the mid-1980s, when she was 5 years old, Galit Eyali lost her newborn brother followed by her kindhearted mother, Dassa. The family had set out from Ethiopia to Sudan en route to Israel as immigrants in the airlift that was dubbed Operation Moses.

“We made the journey on foot. Along the way, our water ran out, and we didn’t have the strength to walk,” she recounted. With the last of their remaining strength, after their uncle managed to obtain a bit of water for them, they reached a refugee camp in Sudan, but there they faced an epidemic. Eyali’s mother, who had been pregnant, delivered her baby boy, but he died several days later. A week after that, the mother also died.

Nearly four decades have elapsed since. Eyali, who did make it to Israel, was raised by her grandparents. It was only recently, however, at the age of 42, when she was married and a mother of three herself, that this resident of Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar in the north managed to devote herself to commemorating her mother’s memory.

Eyali heard about a government project, the Ethiopian Jewry Heritage Center. She completed a “page of testimony,” in her mother’s memory, where she wrote about her mother’s life and the circumstances of her death, as well as details regarding her brother. The details are now being reviewed by experts at the center and will soon be placed at the memorial site established in 2007 at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem in memory of the Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to Israel.

“I barely knew my mother. I only have flashbacks of her. When I came to Israel, I was busy surviving and for years, memorializing her wasn’t on my mind,” Eyali said. “According to the stories, she was an amazing mom, caring, loving and endlessly giving,” she said of her mother, who was 35 at the time of her death. Not even a photo of her mother exists.

Ethiopian Jews being airlifted into Israel in 1990.Credit: Nathan Alpert/GPO

Sunday, Jerusalem Day, also marks the official memorial day for the Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to Israel, many of hunger and disease, some by suicide or other circumstances. A 2011 Israeli cabinet resolution set out the criteria for memorializing them at an official memorial site. It contains the names of those who died between 1979 and 1990 while traveling on foot in Sudan on their way to Israel. These are people whose place of burial is either unknown or who were not buried in a Jewish cemetery.

The Ethiopian community in Israel has for years referred to a total of 4,000 people who died under such circumstances, but it’s not clear upon what the figure is based. The Ethiopian Heritage Center has about 1,500 names, but it’s also clear to the center that the real figure is higher.

“There are families that didn’t want to touch this hurt and have still not reported names to us,” said Naftali Avraham, the center’s director, who managed to reach Israel 37 years ago following a year-long harrowing journey. The center is currently in the midst of an effort to gather additional names.

It’s not only the emotional difficulties that have impeded the effort but also a lack of awareness in the community about the collection of the names.

“The disparity in the numbers is inexplicable,” said Itzik Dassa, a lawyer who heads the committee examining the names being submitted to add to the memorial. He noted the paucity of names compared to the number of stories about those who died.

“Some want to remain alone with pain, without sharing it,” he said, “but it’s important that they know that we are not opening this wound for ourselves, but for those people who perished on their way to Israel. We are obligated to perpetuate their memory,” he said.

The heritage center also documents the names and stories of those who disappeared en route to Israel. That list currently contains 83 names of people whose fate remains unknown. One of them is Avraham’s own uncle, who was only nine months older than Avraham himself and would be 55 now.

Some of the missing had been arrested by the Sudanese security forces and then disappeared. Following last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Sudan, the Ethiopian community in Israel is hopeful of obtaining further information. “We assume that some of the 83 missing are still alive and that they can be found,” Avraham said, noting the relief that it would provide to their relatives.

David Mihret, the director of the Israel office of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, was holding pictures of seven relatives, including three of his siblings, who were arrested in Sudan in 1981 and then disappeared.

“It’s been 41 years that we haven’t known what happened to them. This seed of doubt, that perhaps they’re alive and suffering, while we are here enjoying life, doesn’t give us a moment of joy or happiness and weighs on us every day,” he said.

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