For nearly two decades, Judie Oron’s desire to help Wuditu, the young woman she regards as her adopted daughter, heal from the wounds of her traumatic experiences as an Ethiopian Jewish refugee and child slave overshadowed any urge she might have had as a journalist to tell Wuditu’s dramatic story of survival. She wanted to protect her. That’s also the reason that Wuditu’s name is a pseudonym.
But when Wuditu came to Oron and asked her to write a book about her adolescence and tell the world what Ethiopian Jews had suffered, her argument was too compelling to refuse. “Wuditu asked me, ‘If people hadn’t been willing to tell their stories about the Holocaust, how would the world ever know what happened?’”
The result is Oron’s gripping young adult book “Cry of the Giraffe” (Annick Press, 208 pages, $12.95, in paperback; also available as an e-book), a fictionalized account based on the events of her daughter’s life and written from Wuditu’s point of view.
The book’s positive critical reception since its publication in Canada two years ago has been unexpected and gratifying. Oron, who spoke with Haaretz by phone from her home in Toronto, began the project as a labor of love, believing it would be “a small book, almost like a family diary.” But the book has drawn attention: It has racked up an impressive list of prizes, including the Sydney Taylor Notable Books for Teens Award and the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award. It has also been recognized by several international women’s right organizations as a work that raises awareness about the often brutal treatment of vulnerable young women across Africa and the Indian subcontinent, particularly Ethiopia, where the phenomena of both child bride abduction and child slavery remain.
It is in the wake of that success and on the occasion of the publication of “Cry of the Giraffe” into Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad that Oron arrives at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, where she will be featured at a literary cafe event on Tuesday, February 12, at 11 A.M.
Oron’s involvement in the fate of Beta Israel, as the Ethiopian Jewish community is known, began in the 1980s, when she was working as a journalist at The Jerusalem Post after having immigrated from Canada to Israel in the late ’60s. In 1984 she took over the job of managing the newspaper’s charitable funds, and decided to create a new fund intended to help Ethiopian Jews during their initial period in Israel. She became personally invested in their plight and traveled there frequently, most intensively during the five years between 1985 and 1990. That was the period between Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, the two major airlifts to Israel, when Ethiopia was in the midst of a brutal civil war and many Ethiopian Jews, including Wuditu’s family, were stranded in the country.
In 1990, the year before Operation Solomon, which brought more than 14,000 Jews to Israel, a friend of Oron’s at the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa asked her to look after a 10-year-old girl named Lewteh (also a pseudonym), who was alone after having had been separated from her family a year earlier. Oron agreed, and cared for Lewteh for two months in Ethiopia, during which time the two grew close.
After Operation Solomon, Lewteh was reunited with her family in Israel, and Oron expected her to live with them. But Lewteh’s father, elderly and ill and partially blind, “told me he thought he was too old to raise her and asked if I would take her,” Oron writes. She began bringing Lewteh home on weekends and holidays; Lewteh bonded with Oron’s two sons, and a new extended family was born.
As the two families got to know each other, Lewteh’s father confided to Oron that he had another daughter, Wuditu, a few years older than Lewteh, who had become separated from the rest of the family during the chaos in Ethiopia. He had hired someone to go to Ethiopia to search for her, but the emissary had come back empty-handed, reporting rumors that she was dead.
Then, one night, at 3 A.M., said Oron, “I found Lewteh on her bed, crying and writing a letter to her sister Wuditu. When I asked her why she would write to someone who was no longer alive, she told me she didn’t believe the man sent by her father ever really looked for Wuditu. She said she was sure she was alive because she could ‘still feel her breathing.’”
Oron chose to trust her foster daughter’s instincts, and armed with the experience she had accumulated helping other families, and based on conversations she had with people who had been in the region when Lewteh and Wuditu were separated, she got to work trying to track down Wuditu. Her path wasn’t easy to follow.
Dumped in the desert
After making the long desert trek from Ethiopia to Sudan, in 1989, Wuditu, Lewteh, their parents and other relatives ended up in a refugee camp, where they were told Israeli officials would find them and fly them to Israel as soon as they were able. The parents were airlifted early due to the father’s deteriorating physical condition. The two girls, then 13 and 10, and vulnerable, were left in the camp with no male figure to protect them. In the middle of the night, they were snatched by hostile Sudanese soldiers. After the publicity of Operation Moses in 1985, the Arab world had come down hard on Sudan for allowing itself to be used as a conduit for Jews to immigrate to Israel from Ethiopia.
The Sudanese government didn’t want Jews sitting there waiting for the Israelis to figure out how to move them. So they raided the camps periodically, and angrily brought them “back” to Ethiopia. Lewteh and Wuditu were rounded up in one of the raids. They went into the truck thinking the soldiers were there to take them to Israel. Instead, they were driven back to the Ethiopian border and dumped in the desert, from which they had to make their way back to a Beta Israel village in the Gondar province.
Fearing for her sister’s health, Wuditu made the dangerous decision to head alone to the closest town, Amba Giorgis, in hope of finding someone who could help them rejoin their parents in Israel. It turned out to be a strategic mistake. A short time later, Lewteh and the other Jews in the village were located by the agencies and brought to Addis Ababa.
Wuditu heard from others that Lewteh was gone. But penniless and desperate, there wasn’t much she could do, and she remained stranded for several years in Amba Giorgis. Sleeping on the street and carrying water or doing other jobs or menial tasks for pennies or for shelter when she was able, she was homeless, impoverished and vulnerable to many predators. Ultimately, she thought she had found protection working as a live-in servant but quickly, her job deteriorated into humiliating slavery. All the while, she hid her Judaism from those around her, justifiably fearful that it could single her out for even worse abuse.
All appeared lost. Then along comes the dramatic description of Oron’s seemingly miraculous appearance in Amba Giorgis, where she paid Wuditu’s “owners” for her freedom, and extracted her from the town in a rickety taxicab, in the powerful scene that serves as the climax of “Cry of the Giraffe.” Oron knows she will never forget that day in 1992.
Once she got Wuditu, who was by now 17, to a hotel and in a bath, she could tell immediately from her beaten and bruised body that she had been through a traumatic experience, but was “super careful” not to push her to tell her story until she was ready. “I felt I needed to treat her with kid gloves.”
Like Lewteh, Wuditu easily became part of the Oron household after arriving in Israel, with her biological parents’ full blessing. “Lewteh started calling me ‘Ima’ fairly early on,” said Oron, using the Hebrew word for “mother.” “They both went back and forth between us and their family and we became close to them as well.” Neither girl was ever officially adopted, but essentially, the two families became as one, through the sisters.
Wuditu, whom Oron describes as an extremely bright girl, enrolled in an Israeli university only three years after arriving in the country, Oron brags, proud as any other Jewish mother. But her guard goes up when asked questions about the girls’ lives today they have asked her to retain their anonymity and Oron declines to discuss the details of their adulthood for fear of revealing identifying details. She will only offer briefly that “they have good lives, but there are still issues that they have to deal with.”
‘She expected me to be judgmental’
Oron, who moved back to Toronto eight years ago to be near one of her other children, but who frequently visits Israel, where Wuditu, Lewteh and a fourth child live, believes that the process of having collaborated with her on “Cry of the Giraffe” may be helping Wuditu work through some of those remaining issues.
During the process of preparing the book, Wuditu shared with Oron for the first time some of the most brutal details of what had happened to her in Ethiopia. “I think she expected me to be judgmental at some points,” said Oron. “The experience of telling absolutely everything to somebody important to her who was in no way judgmental that was cathartic for her. And the fact that she has been treated like a hero by people who read her story that has been healing for her as well.”
But Wuditu, said Oron, didn’t tell her painful story for personal gratification. She did it so people would understand what Ethiopian Jews have suffered to make their way to Israel.
“She wanted people to know what her community went through, the fatal decisions they had to make to get to Israel, and how very Jewish they were from their moment of birth,” said Oron. “And at a time where Israel is being denigrated in the world, she wanted the world to know that Israel is a country that rescues people.”
Allison Kaplan Sommer is on the editorial staff of Haaretz English Edition, where she writes the Routine Emergencies blog for haaretz.com.