April 8, 2005
Don't wait too long

By URIEL HEILMAN
JERUSALEM

When Ambassador Doron Grossman welcomed me into his Addis Ababa office a couple of weeks ago, plying me with sweet cake and tea, the first thing that struck me as odd was that his secretary was in tears.

Grossman gave her a quick hug before retreating into his office, and as we settled into a pair of comfortable chairs Grossman told me that he had just informed his staff that he would be leaving the embassy in Ethiopia to take up a new post as Israel's ambassador to South Africa. The staff, he said, was taking it hard.

What Grossman didn't tell me-or anyone else, for that matter-was that he had just learned that he had terminal cancer, or that he had begun contemplating taking his own life.

Just days after our meeting, Grossman was found unconscious in his room at the Addis Ababa Hilton with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He died earlier this week after being flown to Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.

Grossman showed no signs of this terrible ending at our meeting. Instead, he was all smiles, patiently explaining to me the origins of the decorations in his office, asking me about how I was getting along in Ethiopia, making sure I was taken care of and well fed.

I appreciated Grossman's kindnesses. I had been in Ethiopia for little more than 36 hours, and I was still intimidated by Africa-the Africa that had required no less than eight inoculations for various communicable diseases, the Africa of unstable autocracies and civil wars, the Africa of dust and dirt and poverty.

By contrast, the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, on a busy street not far from the shantytowns that house thousands of Falash Mura waiting to make aliya, seemed to me an oasis of calm and normalcy.

Unlike many other outposts of Israeliness around the world-where an obsession with security combined with the Israeli penchant for rudeness often makes for very unfriendly results-Grossman's embassy seemed to represent the best of what the State of Israel stood for: a refuge for Jews from around the world.

Once I got past the aggressive Ethiopian guards outside the embassy, I was warmly welcomed inside. Grossman's staff helped explain Ethiopia's eccentricities to me, gave me a place to check my email (which, at dial-up speed, was the fastest internet connection in Ethiopia), advised me about which hotels to stay at, even fed me.

This was the face of Israel the country's pioneers and founding fathers intended, I thought. I wasn't asked at the Israeli Embassy about my nationality, my political proclivities, or my religious beliefs. I simply was made to feel welcome, and taken care of. I believed that had I run into any kind of serious trouble in Ethiopia-illness, terrorism, crime-the Israeli Embassy would spare no expense or trouble to come to my aid.

Of course, this was not only because I was a Jew, but because I was a VIP, a journalist. But I saw that the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa was a place where even "regular Jews" were made to feel welcome.

During my visit there I saw the embassy compound filled with construction workers clearing ground and assembling buildings to process the hundreds of Ethiopians who pass through the embassy every month for a weeklong orientation before going to Israel.

For his part, Grossman did not just sit in his office and watch as his staff carried out the medical screenings, orientation courses and exit interviews required of the Falash Mura before they're put on a plane to Israel.

I found Grossman wandering into the wood-and-straw-roofed building where Ethiopians were learning how to use a toilet, what a refrigerator is for, and how to cross the street in Israel. I wanted to take Grossman's picture, but he demurred. He wasn't there for the photo-op.

When Grossman and I got to sit down the following day, it took a while before we got to Ethiopia-Israel diplomacy and the history of the Falash Mura.

I had caught Grossman in a reflective mood, and I listened as he talked about his two-plus years in Ethiopia and his relationship with his staff. He also talked about his regrets, and the cost of being a diplomat in far-flung places (before going to Ethiopia, Grossman was Israel's ambassador to Senegal).

His greatest regret, he said, was not having a family. Wistfully, he said foregoing a family was too dear a price to pay for a successful career as a diplomat. He asked me about my personal life and urged me to waste no time getting a family of my own. "Don't wait too long," he said.

Only later, after I had heard that he had committed suicide, did I realize that Grossman, 49, had spoken knowing he would never have the chance to make up for that missed opportunity.

His legacy, however, will not be soon forgotten in Ethiopia.