One man’s struggle to rescue his fellow Jews stranded in Sudan
Photos: Mishpacha Archives
Back in 1984, a young Ethiopian Jewish girl named Tuwavich Berko said goodbye to her two older brothers as they set out by foot across the Sudanese desert, where they hoped to be airlifted to Israel. That was the time of Operation Moses, a clandestine Israeli rescue operation that began shortly after a devastating famine swept through Ethiopia, threatening the survival of the local Jewish community. Ethiopian Jews had been making their way to southern Sudan from 1980, where over the next four years about 3,000 of them would be rescued either through neighboring Kenya or by Israeli commando boats via the Red Sea. Now, thousands of Ethiopian Jews trekked through the deserts of Ethiopia and Sudan with the hope of reaching Sudanese refugee camps where they would be saved by Israeli rescue teams.
Over 8,000 of them made it to Israel during the six-week airlift operation, but it’s estimated that another 4,000 died during the arduous journey — either by starvation, dehydration, or attacks by local militias. While Tuwavich stayed behind with her ailing father, she had no idea whatever happened to her brothers, or to any of her neighbors who longed for Jerusalem and traversed the desert in order to get there. Did the Israeli planes come for them? Were they slaughtered by Sudanese insurgents along the way? Did they succumb to the elements?
Seven years later, in 1991, Israel embarked on Operation Solomon, a record-setting 36-hour operation in which Israel airlifted another 14,000 Ethiopian Jews from the capital of Addis Ababa. But Tuwavich was no longer in Ethiopia. In between those two rescues, Tuwavich’s father had passed away, and she decided to cross the border into Sudan to meet her hoped-for Israeli rescuers.
Instead, she was arrested and thrown into a Sudanese jail, where the warden took a liking to her. Rather than having her killed, he released her and forced her to marry him — and so, a young teenager with no family behind her and a hopeless future before her, she buried her Jewish past. When the couple had their first daughter, they named her Piath, which means “good.” Piath was followed by another daughter, Suzy.
Among the Sudanese Dinka tribe, which was Tuwavich’s husband’s tribe, when a girl reaches the age of 12, whoever gives the most cows to her father has the right to marry her. Tuwavich’s husband needed the money, and when an older man named Hamis offered him many cows for 12-year-old Piath, she was handed over. When Suzy was 12, she too was given as a wife to the highest bidder.
After Piath had her first child, she fled from Hamis, under whose hand she suffered abuse, and ran back to her mother. But Hamis came after her, took her back, beat her, and even had her thrown onto a cold jail floor without a mattress. After that, she wasn’t allowed any contact with her mother.
Piath’s sister Suzy also suffered in an abusive marriage and was also estranged from her mother. Each of the sisters had three children of their own. Meanwhile, Tuwavich had also separated from her husband, the prison warden — he had moved to the new nation of South Sudan while she stayed in North Sudan with her younger children. But soon all of their lives were about to change forever.
In 2015, Tuwavich saw a newscast of a group of Ethiopian-Israeli Jews who came back to Ethiopia as tourists. She realized that her brothers’ dreams must have come true. The Ethiopian Jews who trekked across the desert back when she was a girl had made it to Israel after all! Perhaps her brothers were still alive — perhaps they were living in Israel too!
Tuwavich didn’t hesitate. She crossed the border to Ethiopia, traveled to the city where she’d seen the story had taken place, and began to search for Israeli Ethiopians, until she found one such couple. She pleaded with them to take her and her family back to Israel — she thought it was that simple. Of course they couldn’t accommodate her wish, but they did try to help: They showed her their smartphone and told her, “We’ll film you with our phone and then we’ll pass the video around in Israel. Maybe you’ll find your family.”
In the little clip she made, Tuwavich identified herself and gave the names of her brothers and parents. She also showed a clear sign of her identification — her palm. When she was a baby, she’d been badly burned, and one finger remained damaged. What was once a childhood tragedy now became her indelible ID. The Ethiopian couple disseminated the clip among Ethiopian groups in Israel with the message, “Anyone know her? She’s looking for her brothers.”
Within a few months, Tuwavitch’s brothers, Yaakov Alamo, a resident of the yishuv Ofra in the Shomron; and Uri Ben-Baruch, a resident of Kibbutz Lavi in the north; discovered their long-lost sister.
They had actually been looking for her for years, but once she was no longer part of the Jewish community, had married a non-Jew, moved to Sudan, and changed her name, they had no way to trace her. The brothers — Torah-observant integrated Israelis — made contact and instructed her to take her family and go to the Jewish community in Gondar, where they would start working on her aliyah.
She did, and that’s where she met a man named Aaron Katsof, who facilitated the dramatic rescue of her entire family — an odyssey that took several years and involved crossing African borders, battling third-world bureaucracy, greasing many palms, and most of all, a huge dose of siyata d’Shmaya.
aron Katsof made aliyah from California 15 years ago and is a well-connected community activist living in the Shomron yishuv of Eish Kodesh. He’s traveled to Ethiopia several times over the past few years in order to help the nearly 7,000 Ethiopians who are still waiting to come to Israel, most of whom have some sort of Jewish lineage or relatives in the Holy Land.
“Some are Jewish according to halachah, while others are children of Jewish fathers, but live as Jews in the community,” Katsof relates. There are two such communities, he says. One is in the capital of Addis Ababa and the other in the rural area of Gondar, where most of the Beta Yisrael lived for centuries. It was from there that they trekked on foot to the capital city of Addis Ababa, or across the border to Sudan, where thousands of them were airlifted to Israel in the 1980s and ’90s.
Today, Gondar has access to online and wireless communications, but there’s no running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity. Addis Ababa is a bit more progressive and modern, but in many places there’s running water just once a week, and the low-voltage electricity is only enough to power small items like radio transmitters. Around the city there are still neighborhoods where people live in mud huts.
“When I arrived in Gondar for Shacharis, I found 600 people davening with tallis and tefillin — the whole community davens together three times a day. In the last 20 or so years that there has been a lot of travel back and forth between Ethiopia and Israel,” Katsof says. “They read from the Torah, and their tefillah is like ours, except that part is in Amharic and part is in Hebrew. At the end of each tefillah they sing ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ and Israel’s national anthem, as a symbol that they’re waiting to make aliyah. For Kabbalas Shabbos, they sing the entire tefillah Carlebach style, and they’ve all learned a little Hebrew, including the children. Every month, volunteers arrive from Israel to teach them to read and write Hebrew, and they also have organized Torah shiurim.”
As he was davening, Katsof noticed that one of the worshippers, a teenage boy, had different features than the rest. He didn’t look Ethiopian, but rather like a tribal African.
“After davening, I approached him and asked what his story was. I discovered that his name was Choll, and that he speaks English and Arabic, but not the local Amharic,” says Katsof, who served in IDF Intelligence and speaks fluent Arabic, which is how he communicates on his visits to Ethiopia. “He told me the story of his mother, how she was thrown into a Sudanese prison, forced into a marriage, had children, and how she finally located her brothers after 30 years.”
Choll took Katsof to where he lived — his mother’s mud hut. There, Tuwavitch Berko told him her history in detail. She described her daughter Piath, her daughter Suzy, her third child who drowned in a bucket of water as a baby — and then came Choll, whose name means life. Why life? Because it’s customary to give that name after a child dies and another is born. After Choll, several other children were born, all of whom Tuwavich introduced to Katsof.
“I asked where the daughters were living, and she got choked up and began to mutter all kinds of phrases in Arabic, like ‘Allah yachpizhom’ [Hashem yishmor] and ‘Allah yerachmu’ [Hashem yerachem]. I realized that she didn’t even know if they were alive,” Katsof recalls. “Their husbands kept them estranged and she hadn’t seen them in years.”
That conversation catapulted Katsof into a three-year-long adventure. “At that moment I realized that no one in the world would help them, and if I wouldn’t get involved, these Jewish women would remain in Sudan for the rest of their lives, living with poverty, disease, and violence. I thought of my own daughters — I have six children and the two oldest are girls, and if they would be stuck somewhere dangerous, I would do anything for someone to help them. I had landed up in a place where there was no one else — I had to be that someone. We Jews don’t leave people behind.”
(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 781)