Award-winning author & writer
Judie Oron is a Canadian/Israeli journalist who was born in Montreal , moved to Israel in 1967 and returned to Canada in 2004. Judie worked as a weekly columnist and feature writer at the Israeli, English-language newspaper, ‘The Jerusalem Post.’ During that period, she was appointed Director of the newspaper’s four charitable Funds, including ‘Operation Homecoming,’ for Ethiopian Jewish immigrants arriving in Israel after a secret airlift from Sudan, code–named 'Operation Moses.'
Later, Judie left the newspaper to organize and direct a small, under-the-table organization that assisted at-risk Ethiopian Jews to leave war-torn Ethiopia for Israel . In the process, she took a 10-year-old girl named Lewteh into her family.
Two years later, upon discovering that Lewteh’s sister Wuditu was a captive in Ethiopia, she went there to free her from slavery and bring her to Israel, where she lives today. Judie's award-winning novel, ‘Cry of the Giraffe,’ is based on Wuditu’s years in captivity and narrated in her voice.
Cry of the Giraffe is such an inspiring story that is based on a true story. How important was it for you to tell Wuditu's story?
JO: Simone, I’m so happy to hear that you found Wuditu’s story inspiring! It encourages me to hope that the book might play a small role in the fight against child slavery. Such tragic stories!
But to answer your question, our family kept Wuditu’s story a secret for years, because of the ugly nature of her experience. Then she decided that she did after all want people to know what happened to her. She wanted people to know about her community, about their courage in making the perilous trek to Sudan and about their rescue by the Israelis during Operations Moses and Solomon. She’d become very concerned about the number of children in that part of Africa who were suffering a fate similar to the one she’d endured – years of brutal slavery, without the possibility of ever attaining freedom. For these children, there most likely won’t be a stranger like me coming to free them.
Would you say it was faith that allowed you to meet Lewteh and later free her sister Wuditu from slavery?
JO: I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly religious person, but the circumstances surrounding these two meetings were so fortuitous that I’ve often felt there must have been a guiding hand there. Whatever it was, I’m grateful to have these two wonderful women in my life and I shudder to think that bad timing might have prevented this from happening.
How did Wuditu and Lewteh feel about you writing a book about their life?
JO: As I mentioned, Wuditu was very committed to the project and involved in it at every stage of writing. We really burned up the wires with discussions, since she lives in Israel and I live in Canada. Lewteh was more hesitant to expose herself and after we consulted, we decided to change both the girls’ names and some of the place names, in order to protect their privacy.
Why did you want to tell Wuditu’s story?
JO: As I got into the writing of Cry of the Giraffe, I realized that the book can be viewed, in many ways, as the diary of a slave. Wuditu and I both felt that a story like that might have some influence on the way people think about child slavery. Recent reports say that there are 27 million slaves in the world today. But experience teaches us that it’s easier for people to relate to just one person’s story. And Wuditu reminded me that if people hadn’t had the courage to tell their terrible stories, we would never have known what really happened in Europe during the Holocaust. Her comment affected me very strongly since I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and have since watched so many other cases of mass slaughter take place around the world.
Briefly describe your experience in Ethiopia at that time?
JO: I went to Ethiopia to search for Wuditu in February of 1992 – we recently celebrated our 20th anniversary, which Wuditu calls her second birthday. At the time, Ethiopia had just been through a revolution and things were very chaotic. There were soldiers everywhere, carrying massive weapons - some of these soldiers couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old. It was sad and yet terrifying to encounter them during my time there. It was clear that the country had suffered terrible devastation – the water infrastructure, in particular, was ruined. At our hotel, which was new, we got a half-pail of very dirty water only once every two or three days! The landscape in that part of Ethiopia is stunning, but people in the villages looked frightened and exhausted after many years of warfare.
What were the responses like to the book?
JO: The book has been gratifyingly well received by reviewers and has won several prestigious awards and citations, including Canadian, German and American awards. This is a writer’s dream. As I go from one book talk to another, I’m incredibly moved at how strong people’s reactions to the book are. It was written for an audience of young adults, but seems to have found a very loyal and dedicated adult audience. Readers seem to take Wuditu’s story to heart and adapt it to their own histories. A Holocaust survivor told me that Wuditu’s story is so much like the one she endured after having been torn from her family and sent to a death camp. These are the kind of reactions that keep us writers struggling to get our stories written down!
Were there any challenges when writing Cry of the Giraffe?
JO: I think the greatest challenge for me was the need to be at one and the same time a loving mother and an objective reporter. There were moments when my emotions totally overwhelmed me, some chapters that I found nearly impossible to write. Also, after keeping Wuditu’s story a secret for so many years, it was terribly difficult to reverse that stance and start spewing it all out there. Despite the fact that I had Wuditu’s support, I often felt like I was throwing my daughter under a bus! Without her support, the support of my other children and that of a wonderful publisher and editor, I would never have been able to finish this book.
When you are not writing what do you enjoy doing?
JO: My kids live in two different countries – Israel and Canada . So I spend a lot of time on internet phone lines with them, when we’re not traveling to be together. Over the last few months, I’ve been doing some research for a new project. And I love to weave and make beaded jewelry. I find working with wool and beads and anything that involves color very soothing. You could definitely say I’m a color junkie!