The backstory of the Operation Ezra

The Freedom Mission of Baghdad

On a windy 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. 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 remarkable life intersecting with mine were non-existent. While I had lived in Israel as a child and my father was a pilot with El Al, I hadn't visited as an adult. 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 way to confirm, and I had no idea what Lou wanted.

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 an exceptional artist that Malcolm had discovered, led me to Lou.

Malcolm Forbes collected beautiful things. His desk piled up with auction catalogs, and he would take a red grease pencil and check the pieces he wanted, send the lot over to start the bidding.

The Forbes collection grew, and the result was an eclectic if a world-class collection of Impressionists to 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.

Mihanovic's painting was of a fisherman sitting alone in a rowboat holding an umbrella, hung on the Highlander's teak wall. As we would sail up and down the Hudson River, I would gaze at the painting and promise myself that I would buy it when I had the money. The time came, and I contacted Mihanovic.

Mihanovic flew from Croatia with the painting. He also brought his agent, Avi Ram, an Israeli.

When I told Avi about my father's career, he said he might know someone who flew with him. Within a week, the Israeli Air Force Attache in Washington contacted me. He said he knew my father's co-pilot in the Baghdad airlift, a man named Lou Lenart. I had never heard of Lou, and I knew nothing of the airlift. Avi and I exchanged business cards.

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, 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 meeting in Los Angeles, so I said, sure, let's meet.

He added, "It's about Operation Ezra."

Lou hadn't told his story in over fifty years. The airlift could have ended in tragedy for 120,000 Iraqi Jews trying to escape Baghdad with their families and children. It didn't because of the heroic actions of two men brought together by a love of Israel. The story of Operate Ezra, also known as the Baghdad airlift, was so compelling it was made into a Speilberg movie, 'Above and Beyond.'

But Lou knew a secret that saved Operation Ezra, and he never revealed it to the Spielbergs. It would make a great movie all by itself.

This is Lou's story.

My father, Captain Al Cunningham

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 South African, 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 swim and fly. He was born in 1916 in Corpus Christi and 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 later became famous when Sam Shepard played it in The Right Stuff.

When President Truman recognized Israel, it allowed Al to help the cause. He jumped on a plane for Tel Aviv and joined the shadow airforce, where Americans trained Israelis to fly. I remember dad telling me how different things were then. As he would fly over Egypt, Bedouins on camelback would wave, 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 word for foreign WWII fighters who joined the cause in Israel. So when Lou told me his story, I was floored. My dad never talked about his exploits, so that isn't a surprise. But he and Lou were also part of what Tom Brokaw called 'the great generation." Those guys didn't brag, and they certainly didn't take selfies. No matter how brave or sensational they were, what we call heroism was doing their job.

Lou with members of the "Machal."

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, becoming 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 learned14 relatives died in Auschwitz and immediately volunteered for the Israeli Air Force before 1948. His first assignment was smuggling Czech aircraft parts, and once war broke out in 1948 became a fighter pilot 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 his crew. The Egyptians believed Israel had no aircraft, and when they saw the skies with Lou and his wingmen, they quickly retreated. Tel Aviv survived.

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.

God's Co-Pilots

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 semi-tolerant regime to pro-Nazi by the beginning of WWII, and the result was anti-Semitic rioting throughout the 1940s.

The catalyst for the mass exodus of the world's oldest Jewish settlement in Iraq was the public hanging on 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 felt if this could happen to Shafiq, imagine what's next? Fear spread rapidly and eventually convinced people to leave.

But where and how?

Operation Ezra and Nehemiah

The Mossad began sending emissaries to Iraq to organize their return to Israel, the Iraqi Jew's original homeland. Still, it was a challenge that seemed beyond hope until the Iraqi press began to incite people against Jews after 1945.

The Iraqi Jewish community was one of the oldest such communities in the world. Still, following WWII, violence rose precipitously while the government turned a blind eye.

Extradition to Israel became illegal after the 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine and after the War of Israeli Independence in 1948. The Iraqis were determined to thwart attempts to increase the Jewish population in Palestine/Israel.

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 complicit with building the 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 at risk, time was running short.

As a result of these developments, King al-Said wanted to drive Jews out as quickly as possible, although secretly. On August 21, 1950, he threatened to revoke the license of the transport company if it did not fulfill its daily quota of 500 Jews. In September 1950, he warned the Jewish community of Baghdad to make haste.

Then, in 1951, the Iraqi government passed a bill officially sanctioning Jewish emigration, but they had to sell their property (at the worst price) and liquidate their businesses. They were limited to $140 per person and 66 pounds of luggage. There was one more prohibition. The government would not allow them to fly to Israel.

That is where Al and Lou stepped in.

At the same time, the War for Independence created a community of Palestinian refugees who left their homes in Israel, either out of fear or hoping they would return after the five Arab nations vanquished the new state. It did not turn out that way. The refugees were homeless and stateless. 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 recognized that a second Holocaust was about to occur in Iraq. Operation Ezra & Nehemiah, also known as Operation Ali Baba, was the airlift of more than 120,000 Jews from Iraq to Israel shortly after founding the Jewish state. It is named for the books of the Bible, which record the Jewish exile to Babylonia in the 5th century BC.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, some 50,000 Jews signed up in one month, and two months later there were 90,000 on the list.

The Iraqi government was worried people might find out the government was sending Jews to Israel and exacerbating the plight of their Arab brethren at war with Israel. The government's instruction to Israel is that no flag carrier (El AL) could fly the Jews, and their destination could not be Jerusalem.

So the Israeli government camouflaged Operation Ezra and Nehemiah as Near East Transport Company. In reality, El Al and the flight headings were for Cyprus. The Greek island was never a real destination, just a decoy to leave Iraqi airspace. Once over Cyprus, they made a sharp left turn to Tel Aviv. Maintaining this secret was the key to the operation's success, and it rested entirely on two pilots. The process ended by early 1952, and most of the 2,800-year-old Jewish community of 120,000 emigrated.

The success of Operation Ezra & Nehemiah helped pave the way for future Israeli airlifts of Jews from 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's Secret

Lou and Al flew two flights per day, flying C 46's, and two conditions had to be met to fly. The first was that all Jews had to leave their possessions behind. The second was that the plane could only hold 147 passengers crowded like cattle based on the payload the aircraft was designed to take for liftoff. That number plays a decisive role in the history of the Baghdad airlift.

The crowded conditions were the only way to get people with their families and children. For them, it would mean the difference between life and freedom, and persecution or perhaps death. The Iraqi guards would stop the line at precisely the passenger count of 147.

Al Cunningham and Israeli Air Force (El AL pilot in the background is Mendy Vons)

After each landing in Baghdad, either Lou or my father would fly the following route, and while the passengers boarded, each took turns going to the lavatory. At the same time, the other waited with the Iraqi police guard did nothing to harm the plane.

One can only imagine the passengers' condition. 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 they would survive.

In the early days of Operation Ezra, Lou was leaving the bathroom when he saw a problem. A mother with her infant child and a small boy was next in line, but the passenger count ended before the young boy could board. The guard was adamant. The eight-year-old would go on the next flight out. The mother knew if they separated, she would never see him. She begged. The guard warned her. She begged louder. He pushed. She got down on her knees and held his boots, begging and sobbing.

This was what Lou saw when he was heading back to the plane. As the woman knelt, the guard kicked her with his high boots, and the baby flew into midair and fell on the ground screaming. Hysteria was about to break out, and it brought back memories of Lou's youth when anti-Semitic gangs attacked him. It didn't take much to light Lou's fuse, and he broke into a run. When he would get to the guard, he would teach him a lesson he would never forget.

Lou Ran Late

As Lou tells the story, it is fortunate that he never got near the guard. Because if he had, the entire airport would turn into a shooting gallery, the passengers would be killed, and Lou and my father would have been arrested and hanged. The fallout would not have ended there. Operation Ezra would be over. The Iraqi government was looking the other way on the Cyprus flight plan, probably knowing the planes were headed for Israel. Once this news got out, the program would be shut down, and Jews in Iraq would 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 told me that my father stepped up and picked up the baby, handed the baby to the mother, and then approached the guard with a big Texan grin. He said to him in broken Arabic, I'll take care of this, and we thank you for your patience. With that, he slipped a $20 bill into the guard's front shirt pocket. Let's call it $200 in today's money—a month's salary at the time. The guard shook my father's hand and waved the woman onto the plane. He was smiling. This time, the eight-year-old followed.

That was the real story of Operation Ezra. If it had not been for Lou and Al, the entire operation might have collapsed and thousands stranded or killed.

Lou Lenart with General Arik Sharon

Aftermath

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 spying for Israel.

Coda

After the war, Lenart served as a pilot for El Al and flew aerial mapping missions over the jungles of Central America. He became a Hollywood filmmaker, 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 retired from the airline in the 1970s, became an artist, a chef, a rancher (not really, he had one cow), and a grandfather. He loved life enormously and saw the humor in nearly everything. I can still remember him laughing as he had a funny story going on in his head at all times.

My father, Al Cunningham, died on May 22, 1994, near his home in Waco, Texas, where he grew up.

On July 20, 2015, Lou Lenart died at his home in Ra'anana, Israel.

Saul Bellow once said of a friend's life that he met the terms of his contract. Today, 65-year-olds of Iraqi birth are with their families because Lou Lenart and Al Cunningham met the terms of their contract.

Lou Lenart 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.”

“Your country will always be Israel and because your mother is Jewish, so will you be.” — Al Cunningham to his children

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2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes

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Jeff Cunningham

Jeff Cunningham

2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes

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