Arieh Oz was a child survivor of the Holocaust who was saved by a Dutch family who hid him and his sister for three years. He later became a Lt. Col. in the Israeli Air Force who flew a rescue plane at Entebbe and piloted 1,122 Ethiopian Jews to safety in Operation Solomon.
Arieh was born Harry Klausner to a non-religious Jewish family in Wuppertal, Germany in 1936. The Klausners, like many other Jewish families, were thoroughly assimilated and proud Germans, identifying strongly with German culture and with minimal interest in Judaism. After the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938, when Jews were murdered and synagogues destroyed throughout Germany and Austria, the Klausners realized there was no future for them in their beloved Germany, and they relocated to Holland, which seemed to be a more tolerant place, although life was far from normal. Harry and his sister Ruth were not allowed to attend school, and they had to wear the yellow star marking them as Jewish wherever they went. Still, life was bearable, until 1942, when the Nazis began arresting Jews and deporting them to concentration camps.
Harry’s parents hurriedly made plans to keep the family safe. With the help of their friend Nel van der Spek, a teacher and leader in the Dutch Resistance, they were introduced to Oepke and Jitske Haitsma, Dutch farmers with three young children, who agreed to take the two Klausner children into their home. Harry’s mother Rosa found a hiding place with another non-Jew, Petronella Ketel, and his father managed to escape Europe and flee to Palestine, then under British rule.
At only six years old, Harry and his sister Ruth, aged twelve, moved in with the Dutch farm family, who were complete strangers and didn’t even speak the same language. The Klausner children learned Dutch, did farmwork, and attended church with their hosts. The Haitsmas barely had enough money to feed their own family, but they shared what little they had with the two Jewish children, and the Hitsma kids were forbidden to have playdates with other children for fear the secret would come out. Once a year, Harry and Ruth were dressed in disguise and taken to visit their mother in her hiding place.
The Nazis were ruthless in searching out Jews, and the Klausner kids hid in a cramped attic during multiple raids by Nazi storm troopers and were never found. For three years they stayed with the heroic Haitsma family, living in constant fear of discovery. In September 1944, Allied forces began to liberate Holland. Eight-year-old Harry, hiding in the attic, heard fighter planes overhead each night, and listened so closely that he was able to distinguish which were German and which belonged to the Allies. As he lay there in the darkness, Harry decided that if he were fortunate enough to survive the war and reach adulthood, he would become a pilot.
The war ended in 1945, and the children’s nightmare came to an end when their mother, who had stayed safe and sound in her hiding place, showed up to retrieve them. In 1946 they traveled to Palestine to reunite with their father, which was nothing short of a miracle considering the fate of most German Jews. Harry later remembered how strange it was to see his father, who felt like a total stranger to him.
Anxious to leave behind all traces of the country that had so cruelly betrayed them, the Klausners changed their name to Oz, and Harry Klausner became Arieh Oz. Once again he had to learn a new language, and started school for the first time at age eleven. It was extremely difficult, but Arieh was strong and resilient, and graduated from high school the third in his class. Now it was time to fulfill his childhood dream, and he was accepted into the elite Israel Air Force Flight School. Arieh proudly earned his pilot’s wings in 1956 and excelled at his chosen career, soon becoming a flight instructor and then a young captain.
In the late 1950’s, the IDF began purchasing jumbo planes to fly long routes, carrying weapons from Europe and providing humanitarian aid to African countries facing famine. They needed someone to command this new fleet, and despite his young age, Arieh was the best man for the job. He was promoted to Lt. Col. Oz, founder of the Israeli Air Force’s International Squadron. He recruited the best pilots in Israel to join his team, and later explained, “We completed many intricate, complex and difficult missions. We had three planes operating every week, two of which flew to France to bring weapons and one of which flew to countries in Africa for aid and assistance.”
After the Six Day War in 1967, Arieh left the IDF and became a pilot for El Al, Israel’s largest airline. In 1972, thirty years after he and Ruth had moved in with the kind-hearted Haitsmas’, Arieh flew the Dutch family to Israel to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah, and to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem.
Although not on active military duty, Arieh continued to participate in many top-secret and specialized missions. In 1976, terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139 and forced the pilot to land in Entebbe, Uganda. The 248 passengers were held hostage for two days, after which the non-Jewish hostages were released, leaving 94 Jews stuck on board the plane, repeatedly threatened with death by the vicious terrorists.
To end the crisis, the IDF worked with Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to plan a bold rescue operation. An expert on delicate, dangerous missions, Arieh was chosen as one of four pilots to take down the terrorists and save the hostages. For seven hours, Arieh flew under radar to Entebbe, where the terrorists had cut the lights on the runway and he had to land the aircraft in the darkness. His bravery and calmness under pressure helped save 102 hostages and kill the terrorists. Sadly, three hostages lost their lives, along with an IDF commander, Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the current Israeli prime minister.
In 1991, Arieh was selected to lead another, very different, mission of heroism. He was a pilot of Operation Solomon, a covert Israeli military operation to airlift thousands of Ethiopian Jews, suffering from grinding poverty and religious persecution, to the Jewish homeland. He later recalled, “I flew a Jumbo 747 aircraft – the first 747 ever to land in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. You won’t believe it but I brought, on one plane, 1,087 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.” The number was later revised to 1,122, because some of the Ethiopian mothers, still wary of the Israelis and not knowing what to expect, hid young children in their clothing and bags. The flight holds the Guinness World Record for most passengers ever carried by a commercial airline.
Arieh retired from El Al in 2001 with 28,000 flight hours, andd then served as aviation consultant and accident investigator for the Israeli Ministry of Transport. He published his autobiography, “Quest for Freedom,” in 2014. Arieh lives in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, with his wife of over sixty years, Bat-sheva. They have three children and seven grandchildren.
For their heroic actions in saving persecuted Jews, we honor Arieh Oz and Oepke & Jitske Haitsma as this week’s Thursday Heroes.
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Photo credit (Ethiopians): Gadi Cavallo