The backstory of the Operation Ezra
The Freedom Mission of Baghdad
The incredible story of the brave pilots who saved 120,000 Iraqi Jews from devastation.
On a blustery afternoon in February of 2005, I found myself waiting for Lou Lenart in the lobby of the Casa Del Mar hotel near Santa Monica Beach. It was our first meeting, and I had no idea what he even looked like. Frankly, I was not even sure why I was there. The 84-year-old filmmaker was 30 minutes behind schedule, but as I would learn, good things happened when Lou ran late.
A painting and a yacht
The probabilities of Lou’s amazing life intersecting with mine were non-existent. I was a business executive, and while I had lived as a child in Israel and my father as a pilot with El Al, I hadn’t had much to do with Israel as an adult or in my business career. Curiously, although Lou said he knew my father well and flew with him, Dad never mentioned him, and since both my parents had died, I had no one I could check with. I really had no idea what Lou wanted. It took a painting, a board meeting, and the Israeli Air Force to put the puzzle together.
Before ever meeting Lou, I was the publisher of Forbes Magazine and my boss, the late Malcolm Forbes, was a world-class bon vivant who drank Bordeaux and collected art. One of his prized paintings, in particular, by a very special artist that Malcolm had discovered, led me to Lou.
Malcolm Forbes collected beautiful things. This was a very good thing because he paid top dollar to anyone who made him more, which he promptly spent at the next auction. He desk was constantly piling up with auction catalogs, and he would take a red grease pencil and check the pieces he wanted, then send the lot over to start the bidding.
The Forbes collection grew haphazardly, and the result was an eclectic if world-class collection of art and curio from hand-crafted wooden sailboats to toy soldiers, to Impressionists and modern realists. Only there was never enough room in the company’s offices to show all the pieces, so they found their way to his other homes or his 151’ yacht, the Highlander. And that is how I came to appreciate the work of Zvonimir Mihanovic, a Croatian artist known for large, stunning seascapes.
Mihanovic’s most important painting was of a fisherman sitting alone in a rowboat holding an umbrella, and it was prominently hung on the Highlander’s teak wall. As we would sail up and down the Hudson River entertaining Forbes clients, I would often gaze at the painting and promised myself when I finally had the wherewithal, I would buy it. The time finally came, and I contacted Mihanovic.
When Mihanovic sells you a 6x6 work of art, he also offers his skills as a picture hanger. Which is why he flew from Croatia with the painting in hand to hang it up in my house in Massachusetts. He also brought his agent to meet me, a Houstonian named Avi, whose name and accent I immediately recognized as Israeli.
When I told Avi about my father’s career with El Al, he said he might know someone who flew with him. Within a week, the Israeli Air Force Attache in Washington, D.C. contacted me. He said he knew my father’s co-pilot in the Baghdad airlift, a man named Lou Lenart. This was very strange because I had never even heard of Lou and I knew nothing of the airlift. Also, I had met or knew of all of my father’s co-pilots at El Al, and Lou’s name never came up. Avi and I exchanged business cards, and I forgot all about it.
What happens in Iraq stays in Iraq
Lou wasn’t the average 5’8” Hungarian Jew whose family came to America to escape Naziism. He had been a WWII Marine pilot who fought the Battle of Okinawa before becoming an Israeli war hero, “the man who saved Tel Aviv”.
When Lou and I spoke for the first time a few weeks back, I was more than curious to hear his story, although frankly, I had no idea what he wanted. Lou said, somewhat mysteriously, “When you get out to Santa Monica, there’s a story I want to share with you.” It turned out I had a board meeting in Los Angeles, so I said, sure, let’s meet.
He added, “It’s about Operation Ezra and your father.”
Lou’s hadn’t told his story in over fifty years because there was no one to tell it to. It could have ended in tragedy for 120,000 Iraqi Jews who were trying to escape Baghdad with their families and children. The reason it didn’t was because of the heroic actions of two men brought together by a mutual love of Israel. The story of Operate Ezra, also known as the Baghdad airlift, was so compelling it would eventually be made into a movie, ‘Above and Beyond’ that involved Steven Spielberg and his sister.
But Lou knew a secret about the flight that saved Operation Ezra, and he never revealed to the Spielberg’s. It would make a great movie all by itself.
This is Lou’s story.
Lou Lenart and my father, Al Cunningham, met shortly after WWII when they were among the first captains of El Al, the new Israeli airline, after the War for Independence. In those days, all El Al pilots were American, British or some South Africans, and most of them were Jewish or believed in Zionism. Al (I will refer to my father as “Al” when not speaking as his son) had a different story. Al grew up in Texas where he learned to do the two things he loved most, swimming and flying. He was born in 1916 in Corpus Christi, and he was a tall, lanky, Texan who grew up barnstorming (flying around the countryside) in the early days of aviation with celebrities like Slick Goodlin and Chuck Yeager, the character played by Sam Shepard in The Right StufF, and heard this new nation called Israel was being attacked by five Arab countries. When President Truman recognized Israel, it allowed someone like Al to go to Israel to help the cause. He jumped on a plane bound for Tel Aviv and was accepted into the shadow airforce, where Americans trained Israelis to fight the air war that was about to take place. I remember dad telling me how different things were then. As he would fly over Egypt, Bedouins on camelback would wave at him from the ground and he would wave back. It was a strange, exotic time.
In all the years, my father never mentioned Lou’s name or the Baghdad airlift or the ‘Machal’, the name for foreign WWII fighters who joined the cause in Israel. So when Lou told me his story, it was fairly shocking. My dad never talked about his military exploits, so that isn’t a surprise. But he and Lou were also part of what Tom Brokaw called ‘the great generation.” Those guys just didn’t brag about their exploits, and they certainly didn’t take any selfies. No matter how brave or sensational they were, what we call heroism today they said was just doing their job.
1948 Pilots Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman and Modi Alon in a still from the movie “Above and Beyond.” (International Film Circuit / International Film Circuit),
Lou was born in 1921 in Hungary, and his family emigrated to the United States when he was 10. He was a short, wiry pit bull with a Brooklyn accent, who spent most of his career in Los Angeles making films.
Lou joined the Marines and enrolled in flight school, became a fighter pilot, which was convenient because fighting was one of the things Lou loved most. Although he was a short fellow, you didn’t want to get too close to one of those right hooks. He even took a Charles Atlas course when he was barely a teenager so he could knock the hell out of anyone who made anti-Semitic remarks, and there were plenty of them.
Lou served with great distinction on the Pacific Theater in the Battle of Okinawa. After the war was over, he learned that 14 relatives had been exterminated in Auschwitz, and he immediately volunteered for the Israeli Air Force, and this was before 1948, so he could take part in the War for Independence. His first assignment was smuggling Czech aircraft parts, and once war broke out in 1948, he became a fighter pilot once again. On May 29, 1949, he was one of four pilots who bravely flew against an Egyptian advance in the War of Tel Aviv that never happened, thanks to Lou and is crew. The Egyptians believed Israel had no aircraft and when they saw the skies with Lou and his wingmen, they quickly retreated. Tel Aviv was spared.
Lou and Al never met during the war, but they flew the same flight paths many times. They were about to go on another treacherous mission, perhaps the most dangerous either of them had ever flown.
The persecution of Jews in Iraq was a way of life long before Operation Ezra, the name given to the evacuation of over 120,000 Jews stranded in Baghdad. Iraq had gone from a sem-tolerant regime to one that was positivelypro Nazi in the beginning of WWII, and the result was anti-Semitic rioting throughout the early 1940’s.
The catalyst for the mass exodus of the world’s oldest Jewish settlement in Iraq was the public hanging in October 23, 1948 of Shafiq Ades, a well respected Jewish businessman accused of selling weapons to Israel. The charges were considered dubious, and the Jewish community had a sentiment that if this could happen to Shafiq, imagine what will happen to us? The fear spread rapidly and other similar consequences eventually convinced people whose entire family legacy had been in Iraq to leave. But where, and how?
Operation Ezra and Nehemiah
About this time, the Mossad began sending emissaries to Iraq to begin organizing their return to their original homeland in Israel, but it was a challenge that seemed beyond hope until the Iraqi press began to incite people against Zionism after 1945.
The Iraqi Jewish community was one of the oldest such communities in the world, but in the years following WWII, violence against Jews rose precipitously while the government of TK turned a blind eye or encouraged it.
In 1947, extradition to Israel was made illegal, after the 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine, and then the War of Israeli Independence in 1948. The Iraqis were determined to thwart any attempts to increase the Jewish population in Palestine.
In an irony familiar to anyone living in the Middle East, as much as Iraq wanted to get rid of its Jewish population, the government forbade emigration of Jews because it would be seen as complicit with building the new state of Israel. The pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said discussed the idea of deporting Iraqi Jews to Israel with British officials, who explained that such a proposal would benefit Israel and adversely affect Arab countries. The Zionist underground took up the cause and was smuggling Jews out of Iraq at the rate of 1,000 per month. With over 120,000 Iraqi Jews lives at risk, time was running short.
Then, in 1951, the Iraqi government passed a bill with permitted Jewish emigration, but they had to sell their property (at the worst prices imaginable) and liquidate their businesses. They were limited to $140 per person and 66 pounds of luggage. There was one more prohibition. What was also so important, and a fact neglected in the history books, the government would not allow them to fly to Israel. That is where Al Cunningham and Lou Lenart came in.
At the same time, the War for Independence created a community of Palestinian refugees who left their homes in what was now Israel, either out of fear or in the hopes they would return after the five Arab nations vanquished the new state. It did not turn out that way, and the refugees were homeless. The Arab nations did nothing to alleviate this problem, and in fact the government of Iraq only allowed 5,000 out of 700,000 refugees to enter the country.
Destination Tel Aviv
In March 1951, the Israeli government recognizing that a second Holocaust would happen in Iraq if it did not act, organized an airlift operation.The operation is named after Ezra and Nehemiah, who led the Jewish people from exile in Babylonia to return to Israel in the 5th century BC, as recorded in the books of the Hebrew Bible that bear their names.
Waiting in Baghdad was a tense and difficult period. Some 50,000 Jews signed up in one month, and two months later there were 90,000 on the list.
Operation Ezra & Nehemiah, also known as Operation Ali Baba, was the airlift of more than 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel shortly after the founding of the Jewish state.
Operation Ezra and Nehemiah ended in early 1952, and most of the 2,800-year-old Jewish community of 120,000 eimmigrated to Israel. Flying the Iraqi Jews to Israel lasted only several months by making multiple trips each day, and was done through a contract with the innocent sounding Near East Transport Company, in reality, it was El Al. The flights began in mid-May 1951, and technically, the Iraqi Jews were airlifted on a flight to Cyprus before heading to Israel. This was actually a bit of cloak and dagger by the Israeli government, that none of the history books acknowledge.
The Iraqi government was worried the people would find out the government was sending Jews to Israel, in their view, exacerbating the plight of their Arab brethren at war with Israel. The government’s instruction to Israel is that no flag carrier (El AL, that is) could fly the Jews and their destination could not be Jerusalem. So the government camouflaged the planes as charter outfits instead, and the flight headings were for Cyprus. The Greek island was never a real destination, just a decoy to allow the planes to leave Iraqi airspace. Once over Cyprus, they made a sharp left turn to Tel Aviv. Maintaining this secret was the key to the success of the operation, and it rested entirely on two pilots to keep their cool.
The success of Operation Ezra & Nehemiah helped pave the way for future Israeli airlifts of Jews from the around the world who found themselves in dangerous conditions. Such missions include the airlift of Ethiopian Jewry (Operations Joshua, Solomon and Moses) and the airlift of Yemenite Jews in Operation Magic Carpet.
Lou and Al flew two flights per day, flying C 46’s and there were two conditions that had to be met in order to fly. The first was that all Jews had to leave their worldly possessions behind. The second was that the plane would only hold 147 passengers, crowded like cattle in a boxcar. The number was typical of air transport in those days, an average calculation based on tghe payload the aircraft was designed to take for liftoff. That number plays a decisive role in the history of the Baghdad airlift in the same way small technicalities play a major role in all major events. The crowded conditions were the only way to get the numbers of people waiting to emigrate with their families and children. For them, it would mean the difference between life and freedom, and persecution or perhaps even death. The Iraqi guards would stop the line at exactly the passenger count.
After each landing in Baghdad, either Lou or my father would fly the next route, and while the passengers boarded each one of them took turns going to the lab while the other waited with the Iraqi police guard who was monitoring the passengers.
The condition of the passengers can only be imagined. They had been kept in detention centers in Baghdad without any facilities for weeks, and were tired, grumpy, smelly, and anxious. Under these conditions, they would scramble to get a seat on the plane because it meant more than a new country, it meant they would survive.
Early in the Operation Ezra, Lou was leaving the bathroom when he started to see a problem on the passenger line. A mother with her infant child and a small boy was nest on line, but the passenger count ended with her and the infant. Her boy could not go on this flight. The guard was adamant and having none of her wailing to allow her eight year old boy to come with them. THe mother knew that if they were separated, there was a good chance she would never see him again. She begged. The guard huffed and warned her to get on the plane or she would be turned back. She begged louder. He pushed her. So she got down on her knees and held his boots, begging and sobbing inconsolably the dirge of centuries of mothers and lost children.
This was the scene Lou saw when he left the facilities and was heading back to the plane on the tarmac. As the woman knelt down, the guard raised his leg and kicked her with his high boots so hard, the baby was tossed into midair and fell on the ground, screaming and crying. Hysteria was about to break out and for Lou, it brought back memories of his youth, when he was attacked by gangs of anti-Semitic gangs and pinned to the ground. It didn’t take much to light Lou’s fuse and he broke into a run, which meant he was doing the 100 yard dash in 5 seconds. When he would get to the guard, he was going to teach him a lesson he would never forget about harming Jews.
Lou was running late
As Lou tells the story, it is fortunate that he never even got near the guard. Because if he had, the entire airport would turn into a shooting gallery, the passengers would have been shot and killed in the melee, and Lou and my father would have been arrested and hanged for complicity. The fallout would not have ended there, either. Operation Ezra would be over. The Iraqi government was looking the other way on the Cyprus flight plan, probably knowing full well the planes were headed for Israel. Once this news got out, the program would be shut down and the Jews in Iraq would have to be exterminated.
Fate is the hunter but it is also a gambler, at least for Al Cunningham. When Lou was making a mad dash for the guard, he related that my father stepped up and picked up the baby, handed the baby to the mother and than approached the guard with a big Texan grin, and said to him in broken Arabic, I’ll take care of this, and we thank you for your patience, and with that, he slipped a $20 bill from his pocket and handed it to the guard. The guard took the money, and shook my father’ s hand, and waved the women onto the plane, this time, with her eight year old boy.
That was the real story of Operation Ezra Lou wanted me to know. If it I had not been for Al Cunningham’s grace under pressure as Hemingway called it, the entire operation might have collapsed and thousands stranded or even killed as the news would spread about the escape to Israel.
After the initial emigration, the number of Jews in Baghdad decreased from 100,000 to 5,000. Although they enjoyed a brief period of security during the reign of Abdul Karim Qassim, later regimes would seriously increase the persecution of Iraqi Jews. In 1968 there were only about 2,000 Jews still living there. On January 27, 1969 nine Jews were hanged on charges of spying for Israel causing most of the remaining community to flee the country.
On 10 March 1951, 64,000 Iraqi Jews were still waiting to emigrate, the government enacted a new law which extended the emigration period whilst also blocking the assets of Jews who had given up their citizenship. Departing Jews were permitted to take no more than $140 and 66 pounds of luggage out of the country, and were also prohibited from taking jewelry with them.
As a result of these developments, al-Said was determined to drive the Jews out of his country as quickly as possible. On 21 August 1950 al-Said threatened to revoke the license of the company transporting the Jewish exodus if it did not fulfill its daily quota of 500 Jews,[not in citation given] and in September 1950, he summoned a representative of the Jewish community and warned the Jewish community of Baghdad to make haste; otherwise, he would take the Jews to the borders himself. On 12 October 1950, Nuri al-Said summoned a senior official of the transport company and made similar threats, justifying the expulsion of Jews by the number of Palestinian Arabs fleeing from Israel.
After the war, Lenart participated in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, the airlift of Iraqi Jews to Israel in the early 1950s, served as a pilot for El Al, and flew aerial mapping missions over the jungles of Central America. He became a Hollywood filmmaker, and produced six feature films, and was the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers in the early 1980s. He maintained homes in Israel and Los Angeles, and upon his retirement, settled permanently in Israel.
Al Cunningham became an artist, a chef de cuisine, and a rancher (not really, he had one cow), and a grandfather all about the same time. He loved life enormously and saw humor in nearly everything. I can still remember his laughing to himself as he made his coffee in the morning, because of something he had read or said the night before. He had a funny story going on in his head at all times.
My father, Al Cunningham, died on TK near his home in Waco, Texas where he grew up.
Lou Lenart died on July 20, 2015, at his home in Ra’anana, Israel.
Both of them fulfilled the quote by Saul Bellow, that in the end they met the terms of their contract. Neither one was gifted in any particular way other than being great pilots and unconditiaonal love for their new found country, Israel. Today, there are 60 year olds of Iraqi birth who are alive and with their families because Lou and Al lived up to the terms of their contract.
“It was the most important moment of my life, and I was born to be there at that precise moment in history,” he told the Jerusalem Post in 2012. “I was the luckiest man in the world that my destiny brought me to that precise moment to be able to contribute to Israel’s survival.”
— Lou Lenart
“Your country will always be Israel and because your mother is Jewish, so will you be.”
— Al Cunningham to his children