Yola Reitman was enjoying a comfortable life as an El Al flight attendant and avid deep-sea diver.
One phone call changed everything.
It was Yola’s diving instructor. He’d been recruited by the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, to lead the rescue of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who had fled famine and war into neighboring Sudan.
The year was 1977 and Israel’s newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin was determined to rescue the long-lost Jewish tribe, Beta Israel. For centuries, communities of Jews lived in some 500 villages in northern Ethiopia – with a millennia-long yearning to return to Zion. Though Beta Israel’s precise “Jewish connection” has been a topic of debate, prominent rabbis from the 16th century Radbaz to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef have recognized their Jewish roots.
Thousands of Beta Israel had fled Ethiopia on foot for refugee camps in Sudan, a harrowing month-long journey traversing harsh, barren desert. An estimated 1,700 Jews died along the way, victims of starvation, exposure, and violent bandits.
Those who survived were left languishing with millions of other refugees in squalid camps – subsisting in shacks made of straw and cardboard, with epidemics of malnutrition and disease.
Saving Ethiopian Jews presented a daunting challenge. Sudan, a Muslim country and member of the Arab League, was a sworn enemy of Israel. Sudan had sent troops to destroy Israel in three successive wars, and the Sudanese capital of Khartoum was the site of the Arab League’s infamous 1967 rejection of Israel – the “Three No’s.”
How could this operation succeed in covertly transporting thousands of Jews out of enemy territory, without raising suspicion at any local or national level? Sending a convoy of buses to the Sudanese border was impossible: The land route between Israel and Sudan crosses Egypt, at the time another sworn enemy of Israel.
Geography proved decisive to the solution: Israel and Sudan both have coastlines on the Red Sea. Mossad agents hoped to locate an obscure lagoon in Sudan where naval rescue operations could be secretly based.
This solution itself was fraught with danger. Any suspicious activity would threaten not only the Mossad agents, but thousands of Ethiopian Jews who could be subject to violent retaliation.
Yet when Jewish lives are at stake, the forces of fate devise their own strategy. The Red Sea is a scuba diver’s paradise – with spectacular coral reefs and a diverse population of fish, dolphins and sharks. It so happens that a decade earlier, a group of Italian investors had the cockamamie idea of packaging “Red Sea Diving Tours” in the inhospitable third-world Sudan. On an isolated Red Sea beach, the Italians built an entire resort village – complete with bungalows, kitchen, dining hall, and essential infrastructure. When the enterprise failed, the resort lay dusty and dormant... as if awaiting its destiny.
The resort – named “Arous on the Red Sea” – was tailor-made for the Mossad. Israelis with European backgrounds would pose as entrepreneurs from a Swiss travel firm looking to promote the woeful Sudanese tourism industry. This gave the Mossad a highly plausible reason for operating on the shores of the Red Sea, while maintaining all the necessary boats, trucks, and communications gear.
For a cool $320,000, the “Swiss entrepreneurs” leased the entire resort complex for three years and with it, official “protection” from Sudan’s Tourism Ministry.
So it was that Yola Reitman’s phone rang that day. Would she agree to join the Mossad and “act” as manager of a diving resort on the shores of the Red Sea?
The timing of the call was exquisite. Yola was in Eilat on the shores of the Red Sea, hosting tourists on deep-sea diving excursions.
“It was surely an offer I could not refuse,” Yola told Aish.com from her home in central Israel. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – not only to serve my country, but to save thousands of Jewish lives. It also spoke to my adventurous spirit.”
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – not only to serve my country, but to save thousands of Jewish lives.
Besides her knowledge of both deep-sea diving and tourism, Yola was a talented administrator (she later became chief flight attendant at El Al) who could manage the resort at professional standards. “Our ability to successfully host actual tourists,” she says, “was the difference between people believing – or not believing – our cover story.”
Best of all, Yola spoke German at a mother tongue level (she was born in Germany and raised in Israel) and fit the “native European profile” so crucial to the covert operation, up to and included her falsified European passport. “I invented a whole life story about my German identity,” she says. “But because I left Germany as a little girl, I always got a bit nervous when meeting a German tourist. My best device was to fall back on the German children’s songs I knew from piano lessons in Israel.”
Getting the resort up and running was no simple task. The infrastructure in Sudan was so primitive that fresh water had to be delivered by tanker truck and electricity was supplied by the resort’s own massive generators. Vehicles, communications equipment, and diving gear were almost non-existent; some well-placed bribes helped grease those wheels.
While Yola and team got the resort into shape, a select group of Ethiopian Jews were sent into the refugee camps to locate fellow Jews and prepare them for departure. When the timing was right for an operation, hundreds of Jewish refugees fled into the nighttime desert, taking only the barest of possessions. There, they were packed like sardines onto trucks for an arduous 600-mile journey over badly potholed roads and frequent police checkpoints.
After a full night of travel – navigating by moonlight – they would stop and hide in a gulley all day to avoid detection. Only when it was dark again did they continue the journey. For these operations, Yola was stationed in the middle of the desert, serving as a communications transmitter between the refugee trucks and the rescue boats.
The second night of travel culminated in a beach rendezvous where Yola helped transfer the refugees onto Zodiac rubber dinghies. There, Israeli naval commandos ferried them on a 90-minute high-speed cruise to the Israeli mother ship, waiting outside Sudan’s territorial waters.
From there, it was home to Israel.
“Getting shuffled around from place to place was a traumatic experience for the refugees,” Yola says. “By the time they arrived in Israel, they were quite disoriented. Then these people – totally unfamiliar with modern life – were thrown into culture shock.”
Though the rescue operation cost many millions of dollars, the vacation village managed to enjoy a steady stream of paying guests. A travel office in Zurich, owned by a Jewish man who was “in the know,” enticed groups of wealthy Europeans with the offer of first-rate gear, professional divemasters, and fresh tasty food.
Locals were hired as support staff. On Fridays, the Sudanese chef would bake fresh braided bread – what he chose to call “Shabbat bread” due to its resemblance to a “braided sandal” – called “Shabbat” in the local dialect. He never suspected any connection to traditional Shabbat challah.
The resort also became a popular destination for Saudi Arabian hawk-hunters in the desert, and for diplomats stationed in Khartoum. “Because the region had so little recreation,” Yola recalls, “the wife of the Egyptian ambassador to Sudan told me how much she appreciates our being there. If she only knew!”
The village once hosted a team of elite British commandos sent on a “wilderness survival exercise.” They enjoyed the full resort amenities – while reporting back to commanders about having endured the “harrowing Sudanese desert.”
Without their knowledge, the locals and tourists were living in an elaborate stage set while the Israelis were living in an entirely different reality.
“Hiding the secret from our Sudanese staff was the biggest challenge,” Yola says. “I’m proud that during the entire three years, nobody ever had an inkling of what was happening around them.”
Because of the nature of her job as a flight attendant – away from home for long stretches, and constantly switching crews – co-workers didn’t even notice her long absence. The top-secret nature of the mission meant that Yola couldn’t even tell her family her whereabouts. “On my occasional return visits to Israel, I would avoid meeting friends because they would ask too many questions,” she says.
In Sudan, Yola established good relations with the governor of the Port Sudan region, and – because of the restrictive Muslim Sharia law – secretly supplied whiskey to the local chief of police. Through this the Israelis gained preferential treatment and were rarely stopped at roadblocks.
What was Yola’s backup plan should she ever get caught? “I was instructed, in case of emergency, to take a Zodiac boat far out to sea... then wait for an Israeli helicopter rescue. What a ‘plan’!”
Besides the ongoing exposure to exotic and potentially lethal diseases, every day carried the risk of discovery. Yola describes their “nightmare scenario” of burned-out Israeli vehicles, charred refugee bodies, and Israeli agents being paraded before TV cameras as proof of “nefarious Zionist activity.”
One day the army conducted a routine anti-smuggling raid on the resort. Yola was tipped off in advance by a local businessman grateful for the freshly baked bread Yola supplied him with daily. This gave the Israelis precious time to hide some of their more “suspicious” gear.
Things did not always go smoothly. One night, while transferring refugees onto the dinghies, the Israelis were caught red-handed by Sudanese soldiers looking for smugglers. When the soldiers began shooting at the dinghies, Mossad agents began yelling: “What do you think you’re doing!? This is an important tourist event! We’re showing the beauty of night-diving in Sudan – and you’re ruining it all!” The soldiers backed off sheepishly, as the frightened refugees hid in the dark night.
Another threat to the rescue operation came from a well-meaning group of Diaspora Jews, whose vocal demand that Israel rescue the Ethiopian Jews drew dangerous attention to the issue.
Due to the increasing peril, standard Mossad protocol would call for abandoning the mission and immediately returning home. In his gripping first person account, Mossad Exodus (Geffen Publishing), Gad Shimron writes: “How could we leave [our fellow Jews] behind in the unbearable conditions they endured? Soon we came to think of it as abandoning comrades on the battlefield, or even betrayal!”
Two years into the operation, it was determined that naval rescues had become too dangerous and the focus shifted to airplanes. The “small details” was locating a suitable landing site in the middle of the Sudanese desert. This proved, once again, a Godsend. Mossad operatives discovered a forsaken airstrip built by the British for use in one of the remotest battlefronts of World War Two. Though abandoned for decades, the runway was in pristine condition – no potholes or trenches.
For these operations, bedraggled Ethiopians were brought in the dead of night to rendezvous with Hercules cargo planes, like those used at Entebbe a few years earlier. Landing in the heart of enemy territory, Israeli planes escaped detection as the nearby battery of surface-to-air missiles proved but a rusted remnant... now improvised as a children’s playground.
The Ethiopian Jews, having never seen an airplane (donkeys were the common mode of transport), were petrified as the metal behemoth rumbled down onto to the desert floor. Amidst a spectacular dust storm, Israeli commandoes deplaned bearing assault rifles and rocket launchers. Some of the terrified Ethiopians tried fleeing into the desert night.
End of Operation
“Operation Brothers,” as it was affectionately known, came to an abrupt halt in 1984 when an irresponsible Israeli politician bragged publicly about the mission. Predictably, the news caused outrage in the Arab world. Facing certain torture and death if caught, the Israelis evacuated the Arous village overnight. They left behind a resort filled with scuba-diving tourists who would awaken the next morning to find the entire senior staff had deserted them – yet with the promise to refund their money.
U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, stepped in to help rescue the last Mossad operatives – shipping them out of Sudan in large boxes labeled “U.S. Diplomatic Mail.”
Gad Shimron writes: “Sudan was one of our finest hours, the enlistment of an entire defense establishment for a truly altruistic purpose... What other country would be ready to invest tens of millions of dollars to set up an operational infrastructure for secret activity in an enemy country, involving large army forces, only to save several thousand famished refugees in war-torn Africa?”
Indeed, the Sudanese operation marked the first time in history that blacks have been systematically moved from one country to another – in freedom rather than in chains.
Prior to this operation, approximately 250 Ethiopians lived in Israel. Operation Brothers increased that number by nearly 5,000 percent!
Operation Brothers became the precursor to new daring rescues of Ethiopian Jews. For example, on May 24, 1991, as the Ethiopian government collapsed in the face of a rebel takeover, 34 El Al passenger planes rescued over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in the span of 24 hours. “Operation Solomon” set a world record with 1,067 passengers crammed onto a single flight.
Today, there are approximately 130,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent living in Israel. And while the transition to Israeli society has come with challenges, Ethiopian Jews occupy respected positions in academia, medicine, arts, the military, and the Knesset.
The story of this Mossad operation is the subject of the movie, The Red Sea Diving Resort. The film is produced by Israeli Alexandra Milchan (daughter of Israeli billionaire Arnon Milchan) and stars Chris Evans, with Yola portrayed by Haley Bennett.
Yola was hired as a consultant and given royal treatment on the film set, currently ongoing in Africa. “It’s nice to see Hollywood talking about something important,” she says. “This film treats the Ethiopian issue with sensitivity and shows Israel’s wonderful humanitarian side.”
The film was released in 2019 on Netflix.
Yola looks back with great fondness at her three years in Sudan. “Aside from the thrilling rescue missions, I loved being in Sudan with its vast desert and pristine sea,” she says. “And best of all, we did a lot of night diving to cover up our nighttime rescue activities. That was a wonderful treat for me as a diver!”
Source: Reprinted with permission from aish.com.