I just read a book about an expedition to Ethiopia, The Last of Free Africa, published 1928. The author Gordon MacCreagh writes:

An astounding fact which should be of absorbing interest to Jews the world over is that there exists today in Abyssinia a lost tribe of Jews known as the Falasha, who have been isolated for so many centuries that , while retaining the Jewish faith in practically all its ancient purity, they had actually no knowledge that any other Jews existed.

It was not until almost yesterday, 1906 in fact, that definite knowledge of brothers in the faith came to these Falasha through a letter written by a congregation of European rabbis. In reply to which they wrote: "... News of your existence was to us hitherto only fable. Now have we [through your letter] received knowledge and certainty. Therefore, do we rejoice..."

Is this true? Where can I read more? Reading the original letters would be cool, but I don't even know what language they were written in.

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    See edit at end of answer regarding the British Historian Tudor Parfitt who has dedicated most of his career to investigating and writing about the history of the Jews in Africa and Asia. His seminal work on the subject, "The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on the Ethiopian Jews" I don't have at my disposal - perhaps he discusses specifically the letter you are referring to. – user2590 Aug 31 '13 at 6:36

Here we have here a detailed history of the Ethiopian Jews: Ethiopian Jewry - History of the Community from a very well credentialed source, as you can see from their home page, etc.

There is no mention there of the 1906 letter you cite, but there is a reference there that may reflect it:

By 1864, almost all leading Jewish authorities, most notably Rabbi Azriel Hildsheimer of Eisenstadt, Germany, accepted the Beta Israel as true Jews. In 1908 the chief rabbis of forty-five countries had heeded Rabbi Hildsheimer's call and officially recognized the Beta Israel as fellow Jews.

Perhaps this "Official Recognition" in 1908 was the result of your 1906 letter. The timing seems right.

Be that as it may, the history of the Ethiopian Jews along the lines you mention is well documented and verifiable. Supra (just a few snippets - there is a great deal of material there):

Once they were kings. A half million strong, they matched their faith with fervor and out-matched the Moslem and Christian tribesmen around them to rule the mountain highlands around Lake Tana. They called themselves Beta Israel—the house of Israel—and used the Torah to guide their prayers and memories of the heights of Jerusalem as they lived in their thatched huts in Ethiopia.But their neighbors called them Falashas—the alien ones, the invaders. And even three hundred years of rule, even the black features that matched those of all the people around them did not make the Jews of Ethiopia secure governors of their destiny in Africa” (“Falashas: The Forgotten Jews,” Baltimore Jewish Times, 9 November 1979).

For centuries, the world Jewish community was not even aware of the existence of the Jewish community of Ethiopia in the northern province of Gondar. The miracle of Operation Solomon is only now being fully understood; an ancient Jewish community has been brought back from the edge of government-imposed exile and starvation.....

Relevant to the source and letter you cited and their intial contact with modern Jews:

The first modern contact with the now oppressed community came in 1769, when Scottish explorer James Bruce stumbled upon them while searching for the source of the Nile River. His estimates at the time placed the Beta Israel population at 100,000, already greatly decreased from an estimate from centuries before of a half-million.
Little additional contact was made with the community, but in 1935 their stability was greatly threatened as the Italian army marched into Ethiopia. Ethiopia's ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie fled his country and actually took refuge in Jerusalem for a short time. Selassie returned to power in 1941, but the situation for the Beta Israel improved little...

After taking office in 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was eager to facilitate the rescue of Ethiopia's Jews, and so Israel entered into a period of selling arms to the Mariam government in hopes that Ethiopia would allow Jews to leave for Israel. In 1977, Begin asked President Mengistu to allow 200 Ethiopian Jews to leave for Israel aboard an Israeli military jet that had emptied its military cargo and was returning to Israel. Mariam agreed, and that may have been the precursor to the mass exodus of Operation Moses began....

Over 8,000 Beta Israel came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. But these efforts pale in comparison with the modern exodus that took place during 1984's Operation Moses...

I personally lived in Israel throughout the 70's and 80's and met many Ethiopian Jews, who, unlike most modern Jews, are black, but today they are accepted in Israel as Jews without reservation. At the time of their initial influx in the '70's, there was some discussion about the legitimacy of their claim to being Jews that did not require conversion, but the conclusion was reached that they were authentic Jews and had rights under The Law of Return:

In 1975, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren wrote to the Beta Israel telling them, “You are our brothers, you are our blood and our flesh. You are true Jews.” Later that same year the Israeli Interministerial Commission officially recognized the Beta Israel as Jews under Israel's Law of Return, a law designed to aid in Jewish immigration to Israel. The Beta Israel were ready to come home.

Because much of the Beta Israel's history is passed orally from generation to generation, we may never truly know their origins. Four main theories exist concerning the beginnings of the Beta Israel community:

1) The Beta Israel may be the lost Israelite tribe of Dan.
2) They may be descendants of Menelik I, son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.
3) They may be descendants of Ethiopian Christians and pagans who converted to Judaism centuries ago.
4) They may be descendants of Jews who fled Israel for Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and settled in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Jews in Israel today:

More than 36,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel and despite both economic and social hardships, their community has an integral part in Israeli society. In 1999, Avraham Yitzhak became the first Ethiopian immigrant to earn an MD degree from an Israeli medical school. In 2011, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Rachamim Elazar as Israel's Ambassador to Ethiopia, making him the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to ever serve as an ambassador for the State of Israel. There are still many problems within the Ethiopian community in Israel - poverty, lack of education, etc - but large strides are being made every day.

Most interestingly, Miss Israel is currently an Ethiopian Jew: Yityish Aynaw: The first black Miss Israel

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For some serious historical scholarship, you should investigate the works of The British Historian Tudor Parfitt, Books by Tudor Parfitt,who has dedicated most of his career to investigating and writing about the history of the Jews in Africa and Asia. In particular, see: The Beta Israel in Ethiopia and Israel: Studies on the Ethiopian Jews, his important collection on this subject. I don't have it at my disposal unfortunately - perhaps there you can find discussion specifically about the letter you are referring to.

Update: Upon reading Parfitt's The Lost Ark of the Covenant, written in 2008, I found that he mentions that genetic testing has shown that the Beta Israel (Falasha) lack a genetic marker that all other known Jews in the world possess, while remarkably, The Lembas, of Zimbabwe and South Africa, do possess this marker.

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  • Why does the answer on History.SE mention both Lembas and Gondor? – DVK Oct 16 '13 at 13:29
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    More on topic: -1 for a wall of text and images that is relevant to Falasha but in no way, shape or form relevant to OP's question ("How did the Falasha make contact with Jews outside Ethiopia?"). I will reverse that if you remove the filler that ends up drowning out useful parts of the answer. – DVK Oct 16 '13 at 13:32
  • @DVK - -1 is unwarranted IMO: In the question see: "Is this true?" and "Where can I read more". Obviously the question showed interest in more than just what was stated in the title. Therefore I went into some detail regarding the subject at large. – user2590 Oct 16 '13 at 15:52
  • Re-reading OP, "Where can I read more?" was very specific to the letter. NOT to Falasha in general. The subject at large has no place here (feel free to ask your own question matching the content and posting the general info as the answer - my beef isn't with content but with mismatch between Q&A) – DVK Oct 16 '13 at 15:53
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    @DVK: To prefer your narrow and unsubstantiated reading to downvote an accepted answer is your prerogative. "Where can I read more" can just as well mean about the Falasha in general, and such was my understanding: the question showed interest and curiosity about a subject at which is not very well known. Perhaps the OP will let us know... As for Gondar, see your own reference: Gondor - Not to be confused with Gondar – user2590 Oct 16 '13 at 16:15

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