Immigrants from Yemen at the Rosh Ha’ayin transit camp, 1949. Teddy Brauner/GPO

Israeli Doctors Did Take Yemenite Immigrants' Kids, but They Had No Other Choice, Documents Reveal

The circumstances under which the infants of Yemenite immigrants were taken are the true and unspoken tragedy of Israel's early years

The affair involving the children of immigrants from Yemen who disappeared from public institutions during the state’s early years has occupied Israeli society for decades, but has never been studied from the perspective of medicine. The current coronavirus period – during which we are coping with the consequences of a pandemic, a lockdown and medical quarantine – might allow the general public to look at those painful days in the nascent state in a new light. A re-reading of the copious testimonies taken from mothers and family members, and perusal of documents from the State Archives, the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archive, the Central Zionist Archives, the lay press and professional medical literature reveals quite a tragic picture. The disappearance of thousands of babies, almost all of them between 1949 and 1951, has haunted Israeli society for decades. Three official committees (in 1967, 1994 and 2001) investigated the disappearances of over 1,000 babies, almost all of them between 1949 and 1951. None has found evidence to support the widespread suspicion of illicit adoptions and large-scale trafficking in babies.

To better understand the tragedy, this article surveys infant and baby care in Israel and especially among new immigrants in the fateful years 1946-1953. Most scholars agreed that the 1952 Reparations Agreement with West Germany marked a significant turning point from austerity to economic growth. This ended both a harsh first chapter in the state’s history and the tragedy of the immigrant babies

At the time of Israel’s establishment, its Jewish community took pride in having one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world (3 percent) – far lower than the United Kingdom (5.4 percent), which had ruled Palestine for 30 years, and similar to that of the United States (2.9 percent). This was a singular achievement for any territory controlled by a colonial power, particularly in light of the infectious diseases that ravaged the region. Zionist society was also proud of having eradicated malaria, of installing electrical, water and sewage infrastructures around the country, and of making efficient health services available to the working class.

By contrast, at that time, the infant mortality rate among Palestinians was three times as high as that of the Jews, since the Palestinians did not have an organized health-care system, access to basic infrastructures or a functioning civil bureaucracy capable of organizing services at a national level.

These gaps are the main explanation for the success of the small and ostensibly weak Jewish community during the War of Independence. And the success helps account for the self-confidence evinced by the country’s leaders in the supremacy of Zionist society and its peculiar, paternalistic and socialist approach to baby care and public health.

Raising healthy babies

Most of the credit for the impressive achievement of reducing infant mortality in the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine – from about 10 percent in 1912, when the first Hadassah clinic opened, to 3 percent on the eve of the War of Independence – is due to the undertaking of “well-baby” clinics (tipat halav, in Hebrew) established by the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The principles guiding the project were imported from France and the United States, but it was only in the Yishuv that the institutionalized medical care of infants became accessible to all, in the clinics of the Hadassah medical organization and through the health maintenance organizations. All infants were monitored medically from birth, and all mothers were given guidance on how to raise healthy babies.

Whereas in France, England and America, the emphasis in such programs was on helping the “backward” women of the working class, in socialist-Zionist society, all women were seen as requiring guidance and supervision. In Israel the caregiving staffs – physicians, nurses and social workers – perceived Holocaust survivors as stubborn and neurotic, people from Mizrahi communities as ignorant, and Romanian and Moroccan immigrants as afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases. The personnel also employed many other labels and stereotypes that today no one would dare use, but which appear prominently in official documents of that period.

Baby and child care in the Jewish community was highly institutionalized. “Open institutions” were day-care facilities that allowed women to work out of their homes. “Closed institutions” were sleep-in facilities for orphans, children of single mothers, babies from “dysfunctional families” and “abandoned children.” Many widows or mothers whose husbands were away in the army chose this solution. Over 600 children lived in closed institutions, a very large number for a population of 600,000.

Teddy Brauner / GPO

Contraceptives were not available, and pregnancy-termination procedures were illegal at the time, and unmarried mothers were stigmatized and ostracized. Zionist society and its medical authorities believed that it was good for children to grown up in the company of other children, in hygienic facilities under the supervision of professionally trained care-givers. Most children who were adopted were taken in by other members of the same family, such as an uncle adopting his orphaned niece. Adoption was neither secret nor irreversible: Even after parents gave up a child, they had the legal right to demand its child’s return. Many couples offered to take in children – as an act of charity, often for a limited period of time.

Throughout history, Jewish communities have always placed needy babies with willing families, but neither with the intention nor legal or practical capacity to hinder their return to their natural parents or relatives. The local rabbi and the rabbinic court were responsible for these children. As with marriage and divorce, the Ottoman and subsequent British law recognized adoption as being supervised by religious authorities. When the modern institution of adoption was introduced to Israel in 1959, it was a new concept. Until then, people were not aware of the differences between foster care (which came with monthly allowance and was routinely supervised by social workers) and adoption (no money, no supervision). Both were reversible and both referred to (outside strict legal language) by the same Hebrew word, immutz. Until 1955, every local magistrate or rabbinic judge could issue an adoption order, completely at their own discretion, without the involvement of either the state prosecution or social services. The religious politicians who controlled the ministries of health and social affairs, opposed the Western system of adoption, in particular its tendency to sever all ties to the biological parents.

Hosting children from outside the family without an adoption order authorizing it became quite difficult after the state’s establishment. To receive food ration coupons, to register a child for school or to receive any of a host of public services, one had to present an original birth certificate, and in the case of adoption, also a valid adoption order. It was not possible to hide a child’s presence in a home that was not his.

One of the first commissions of inquiry in Israel’s history was set up, in 1949, to examine grim stories of abuse at the Diskin Orphanage in Jerusalem. Other institutions for children and youth were also investigated, and the reports reflected a gloomy situation: There was virtually no demand to adopt children, and it was rare for children to be transferred out of the various facilities in which they lived. A survey of all adoption applications presented to the state during this period turned up only 30. All of the Ashkenazi couples asked for children who looked like them, because adoption was kept secret from the broader family and friends. The state strongly opposed adoption intended to “compensate” for children lost during the Holocaust.

Many of the births in the young country took place in small hospitals, some of which were privately owned. There were reports and rumors about “creative” solutions that were found in such institutions for girls and female soldiers with “unwanted pregnancies” – too often a euphemism pregnancies resulting from rape. In some cases the responsible officials at maternity hospitals “helped” these mothers who, quite often, had hidden the pregnancy from their family, by informing them that the newborn had died, but actually gave the infant to a childless couple.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction, or to know the scale of this latter phenomenon. We know that it was also widespread in Western countries, at any rate. Every war brings with it a high rate of rape, prostitution and casual relationships that do not evolve into family units. In the 1940s and 1950s, when pregnancy terminations were illegal and sometimes dangerous, and in the absence of contraceptives for women, unmarried adolescent mothers all over the world were compelled to put infants up for adoption, for lack of choice or under pressure. In Canada, for example, over 300,000 newborns were taken from their birth mothers during the years 1950-1970.

Such cases constitute a lasting public trauma in countries such as Canada and Australia, and over the years were investigated by journalists and legal authorities. These are the sort of cases people are referring to when they speak about “kidnapping children for adoption” in those years. At the same time, multiple investigations undertaken both in Israel and abroad have not yet turned up any documentation of the actual kidnapping of Israeli children or of a systematic trend of putting up for adoption any particular group of children, such as the offspring of single mothers.

In Israel, it was not until 1959 that taking payment for “making arrangements for children” was prohibited. A black market for this existed, for example, in the United States and England, but there is no evidence that children from Israel were involved. On the contrary: The percentage of children put up for adoption or foster care without their mother’s consent was radically lower in Israel than in the Western countries and the socialist states.

In 1943, a few hundred Jewish adolescents were brought to Israel from Europe via the Caucasus mountains (the “Tehran Children”) and from Yemen. Religious activists protested the socialist education that was imposed on youth coming from very traditional and religious families, even referring to the act as “kidnapping.” Two decades later, accusations of children being kidnapped from their traditional, immigrant families reappeared. This time the term was meant literally. Many Israelis remain convinced to this day that the young State of Israel orchestrated systematic uprooting of infants from “culturally incompetent” families and gave them to high-heeled, Ashkenazi couples, some of them in the United States, for adoption. All three investigatory committees concluded that almost all missing babies had died (today, fewer than 50 remain officially unaccounted for). But much of the public cannot comprehend either how so many babies died or the heartbreaking testimonies about health-care professionals separating – often by force – babies from their mothers. Many of those babies never returned.

David Eldan / GPO

Alien notions

In the face of the waves of immigration to Israel in its early years, there was a shortage of infrastructure – everything from housing, to employment, to hospital beds – for hundreds of thousands of its Jewish newcomers. The immigrants, particularly Holocaust survivors and those from the North African countries, underwent a process of rehabilitation (for the survivors) and medical filtering before their actual immigration. But one group of immigrants was ingathered to Israel with great speed, from May to October 1949: the Jews of Yemen. Those from other parts of the Diaspora came from countries with public health services, functioning bureaucracies, even if rudimentary, and modern medicine, and thus knew how to negotiate various practices and institutions such as hospitals, ID cards, disinfection, quarantine, vaccinations and so forth. Not so Yemenite Jewry, to whom all these notions were alien.

The disparity between Yemenite immigrants and others was especially noticeable in connection with the profession of midwifery. Whereas immigrant midwives from European and other countries had undergone institutionalized training and were government licensed – thanks to which they could be integrated into the Israeli medical system – their Yemenite counterparts were illiterate and lacked both academic education and a license to practice. The State of Israel ignored them completely. The Yemenite mothers found their sole source of counsel, care, and support in matters of women’s and babies’ health – the traditional “wise women” and midwives, now deprived of status, often unable to help anymore. This situation led to communication problems and a lack of trust between Yemenite mothers – some of whom were minors – and the Israeli establishment.

It took two to three weeks for some 45,000 Jews – men, women, children and the elderly – to make the trek via a roundabout route from their homes in the mountains of Yemen to a transit camp in Aden. There the protectorate’s British rulers forced them to remain in quarantine due to the fear of the spread of typhoid and concern that the local population would attack them. Their health deteriorated in the broiling-hot, poorly equipped camp. Indeed, their situation was so dire that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered that they all be put on planes, without medical screening or prior registration of any sort, contrary to the procedures for other immigrants to Israel. This was Operation “On Wings of Eagles.”

Once in Israel, the medical checkups Yemenite immigrants underwent revealed a grim picture. There was an extremely high incidence of disease – malaria, tuberculosis, trachoma, schistosomiasis, typhoid and so on. This constituted an unprecedented burden for the young state’s meager health infrastructures. For example, in June 1950, the Yemenite immigrants collectively required a total of 16,000 days of hospitalization. The state covered all the expenses. A breakout of epidemics posed the greatest potential danger. A large number of the diseases the Yemenites had were infectious, particularly in light of the absence in the camps of basic conditions such as running water and a sewage system. The immigrants from the other countries also posed significant public health challenges, but not on the scale of the aliyah from Yemen. Whereas most immigrants were sent to temporary tent camps that hosted Jews from diverse countries of origin, the Yemenites were concentrated in Rosh Ha’ayin (two thirds) and Ein Shemer (one third). Hadassah built a small children’s hospital in Rosh Ha’ayin, thus upgrading a bit the basic level of health care offered to the immigrants from Yemen relative to all other immigrants. In those days, only new immigrants received free health care, funded by the combined efforts of the state and Jeiwsh charitable organizations.

Although the new state had a surplus of physicians, and some of them were unemployed, they refused to go to the transit camps housing the newcomers. There was also a shortage of trained nurses in the country, and relief workers were lacking. The difficult living conditions in those locales generated a second wave of diseases, from which the immigrants from Yemen suffered most.

The infant mortality rate in immigrant communities and camps soared to almost 15 percent, but among the immigrants in the Rosh Ha’ayin transit camp – all of whose residents were from Yemen – infant mortality between October 1949 and September 1950 surged to above 60 percent. That rate of death, immense as any known of in human history, is the true and unspoken tragedy of the state’s nascent years.

State Archives

The lockdown that wasn’t

The IDF Medical Corps recommended implementation of British Mandatory public health regulations and imposition of a quarantine on immigrant camps. The army also called for the emergency mobilization of all physicians up to the age of 40. An English expert on public health whom the corps consulted recommended that all the infants be removed from their transit camp tents and housed in structures with running water, proper sewage and medical supervision. However, the Ministry of Health did not accept the army’s recommendations, and health care in these communities was entrusted to a division in the ministry organization called the Medical Service for Immigrants, which had sparsely equipped rooms for the sick, going under the title “hospitals.”

All of the immigrant camps became a type of vast institution whose residents were dependent on the camp’s administration for everything. For long periods of time, the immigrants suffered from malnutrition and the absence of functioning toilets; people would relieve themselves outside the tents, where infants crawled on the ground and played.

The consequences were devastating. For example, according to a detailed record of infant mortality in the Netanya district in October 1949, all 14 of the dead on the list were new-immigrant Yemenite babies from the nearby Beit Lid camp. Nine died in the children’s hospital there, five of them “at home” – in tents. A year later, in October 1950, the population of Rosh Ha’ayin stood at 5,909, all of the Yemenite. Of 30 births there that month, seven newborns died, and another seven were stillborn. The majority of the births took place in tents. There were no physicians on call at night, and there were also no ambulances. According to a report of the welfare bureau from this period, “The vehicle of the government hospital refuses to transport sick people or women in labor.”

Three-hundred children in Rosh Ha’ayin were dependent on government food programs; only infants received powdered whole milk (which was provided by the United Nations), whereas mothers who were breastfeeding and toddlers were given skim milk. Older children with distended stomachs were a common sight in the camps. The adult men were only qualified for jobs involving tough physical labor, even though they were constantly hungry. There were reports of men who, out of desperation, ate the food earmarked for babies and breastfeeding mothers.

Hospitalization by night

On the eve of mass immigration, the government officials delineated their plan for “child placement.” Infants and toddlers of working mothers around the country, and all infants and toddlers in the camps, were to be placed in day-care facilities. Those with the “slightest suspicion” of an infectious disease should be transferred to “closed institutions” locally. Seriously ill babies were to be moved to hospitals outside the camps.

In the face of outbreaks of diseases (with all immigrants), the medical teams acted according to a policy that had been introduced earlier, in the DP camps in Cyprus: All infants were hospitalized in special houses, children of working mothers were “organized” in day-care centers, and sick youngsters were sent to the makeshift hospitals in the camps. Camp personnel often clashed with parents, who refused to comply.

In the camps in Israel, this policy of “child placement” created a situation of discrimination between immigrant children and other Israeli children. If the latter needed hospitalization, proper facilities were available for them. Only in serious cases, however, were immigrant children transferred to regular hospitals such as Hadassah, in Jerusalem, and Beilinson, in Petah Tikva. Frequently, these children were moved there at night, as no physicians were available in the camps then. Each transit camp generally had only one van, which was not available to transport women in labor or patients during the day.

It was not easy to coordinate the transfer of a sick child from a camp to the hospital. The Rosh Ha’ayin transit camp had just one telephone, and in the Ein Shemer camp there was only one staff member who knew Hebrew, and who had to serve as the clerk for the whole hospital Repeated requested for reinforcement were not answered.

Veteran physicians and experts from Beilinson and other hospitals, as well as army medical officers who visited the camps, were unsparing in their criticism of the admissions procedures, the treatment and the human relations there. Nevertheless, not one of these learned critics actually undertook to work in the immigrant camps. The condescension of the country’s longtime residents toward the newcomers was as nothing compared to the patronizing attitude of experienced physicians and academics toward the handful of doctors in the immigrant camps. The Israel Medical Association and the organization of medical students even torpedoed a Health Ministry initiative to obligate the students to do clinical internships in the camps. The socialist government refrained from any infringement on the independence of the health-care profession.

David Eldan / GPO

Health-care policy called for the isolation of children in the camps, including from their parents, for fear of infection. Surveys among adults showed that they had a very high incidence of bacteria causing diarrheal diseases – the leading cause of death among babies. The parents in the camps – especially the Yemenites, who were completely unaccustomed to institutional treatment – were frustrated because access to their children was blocked, whereas advisers, UN officials, rabbis, and philanthropists from abroad, who were not carriers of infectious bugs wandered about unhindered in the hospital’s rooms. Physicians in the camps tried to put a stop to this custom, but in vain; it was hard to keep a foreign philanthropist from having his picture taken with a baby.

In the background, the medical teams fought to hospitalize every ill infant. Many parents felt the teams were “kidnapping” their offspring, while the physicians complained that parents would “steal” the hospitalized babies back, thus endangering their lives, even though it was only in the hospitals that the children were guaranteed medical treatment, nourishment and proper supervision.

It was difficult for immigrant parents to visit a child who was sent to a general hospital outside a camp (children from the Ein Shemer camp, for example, who were sent to the Bat Galim hospital in Haifa, today’s Rambam Medical Center). The parents, usually unemployed and poor and suffering from hunger, also cared for additional children. For their part, Yemenites were unaccustomed to public transportation and unable to communicate with relevant authorities. Because there were no public hospitals in Yemen at all, they were unaccustomed to the very idea of visiting relatives in a hospital; some were unaware this was even an option. Moreover, many parents who did make it to the hospital found that their children had been moved to a special isolation ward for infectious diseases or to one of the rehabilitation and convalescent facilities of the WIZO women’s organization.

Because of a shortage of available hospital beds, an infant might be transferred to a distant place, such as Safed. When this happened, though, there were no orderly procedures for identifying these very young patients or ascertaining the identity of their parents. There was also much pressure to discharge these patients to make room for more serious cases, but no set protocol and no official responsible for returning them to their parents.

A wealth of documentation exists about infants who died at home – that is, in the tents and shacks of their transit camps – after being discharged from a medical institution. Often, these institutions documented cases of children whose parents were allegedly no longer interested in them. However, there is no knowing whether this was due to lack of information, lack of means or actual abandonment by parents hoping their offspring would receive high-quality food, and proper shelter of the kind that did not exist in the camps.

According to the records, such children would be “arranged in institutions” and not put on an adoption track, as per the official policy of the welfare authorities. After all, few individuals were likely to adopt a sick child whose parents might show up and ask to get him back in the future, when there were healthy orphans available who had no one to take them in. Rarely, institutionalized children with special needs, such as asthma or epilepsy were placed with families. There is no indication whether they came from immigrants’ families and whether the placement was “adoption” or merely long-term care.

The records of various convalescent facilitiesdetail the case of each child meticulously. The names were subsequently blacked out for the sake of privacy, but based on the date of birth, weight and medical diagnoses it is clear that the very young new immigrant patients who were sent there were still in extremely serious condition in terms of nutrition and health. Sometimes their condition improved, but complications could set in later and they would die. If there had not been a shortage of beds, these young children would have remained hospitalized for a longer period and would not have been sent for “recovery.” They were not candidates for adoption; the sad truth is that many of them eventually died, particularly the preemies. In fact, the rate of premature births among young malnourished mothers was very high. Such births were a serious, indeed deadly problem among Yemenite newcomers in particular. When a two-kilogram baby died suddenly, the health-care team was not surprised, because one third of such babies did not survive even in the best of hospitals. Nor were they troubled when a baby was buried without the presence of the family in a common grave, as this was a traditional Jewish way of burying deceased neonates, many of whom had not even been given names. But many parents were incredulous.

The Israeli authorities were baffled by the many mothers who were legally minors. Some were second wives, as the Jews of Yemen were the only Jewish community that still practiced polygamy.

Criminal neglect

Teddy Brauner/GPO

Isolation of the sick became critical in Israel when a polio epidemic broke out in 1950. Serious flare-ups were reported on kibbutzim that made light of quarantine guidelines. Some parents found it difficult to accept the warnings of physicians to the effect that every minor symptom – mild diarrhea or fever – could be an early sign of polio or some other lethal disease such as diphtheria. On Kibbutz Gvaram in the south, for example, the refusal to isolate one child who was running a fever led to the infection of 12 children with polio, a huge proportion in such a small community.

Polio did not break out in the immigrant camps at first; the disease was totally unknown among the Yemenite immigrants. But when it did strike it rampaged, easily spreading in the cramped conditions and in the absence of proper sewage systems. In the spring of 1950, more than 100 children from Yemen were diagnosed with polio in Rosh Ha’ayin alone, a staggering infection rate of 1.5 percent of the population. Some were not hospitalized owing to lack of room or parental refusal. The disease often erupted suddenly with mild symptoms and was particularly deadly. Some 20 percent of the Israeli children died, and a similar number suffered irreversible paralysis. Epidemiological investigations showed that new immigrants transmitted the disease to a Bnei Brak transit camp where it sparked a high mortality rate.

There was panic in the country, and citizens appealed to the authorities to impose a quarantine on the immigrant camps – which did not happen. While the epidemic was raging, and pressure mounted for imposition of a lockdown on the camp, workers from Petah Tikva imposed a siege of their own on the Rosh Ha’ayin camp to prevent competition from immigrants who were willing to work for a pittance. The police dispersed the workers from Petah Tikva, and made sure that the entry and exit to the camp was free for all.

Despite the pressure, the state never curtailed the freedom of movement of the adult immigrants in their search for work, housing and social integration. Apparently, to balance this unprecedented risk to public health during epidemics, the medical teams and the camp administrations made every effort to institutionalize, hospitalize and isolate every child with the slightest symptom, exactly as had been done in the transit camps in Cyprus and every other immigrant facility, even at the price of unpleasant confrontations with parents. Those who refused to comply were sometimes deprived of their food coupons, and other means of pressure were also brought to bear – even forcibly taking away their children to be hospitalized. A huge gap existed between the nonchalant policy regarding adults and the very rigid and confrontational measures taken in relation to babies, and which lacked any legal backing. It is evident from the records that had the teams had sufficient beds in day-care and closed facilities, even more intense efforts would have been made to round up all babies.

These occurrences are the hard core of the testimonies about the “kidnapping” phenomenon. The families were under relentless pressure, sometimes of a violent nature, to hand over their sick offspring to various institutions including hospitals, convalescent homes and the like. In many cases, a child may not have been sick in the eyes of the parents, who were convinced it was just suffering from “teething diarrhea,” and similarly benign conditions of normal childhood.

From the physicians’ viewpoint, healthy children also needed a medical and institutional framework during the day, and any minor symptom justified hospitalization and isolation, at least in a special sick room. Doctors and nurses saw themselves as fighting bravely for the life of each child; in circumstances in which a large proportion of youngsters died even during hospitalization, the removal of those young patients from the home, not to mention their death, could be very traumatic for the family. For a community such as the Yemenites, which, though accustomed to infant mortality, had no experience of a baby dying outside the home – the tragedy was especially painful and frustrating.

Years later, the “kidnapping” allegation became commonplace. But if the authentic testimonies point to “kidnapping,” the parents’ refusal to hospitalize youngsters suspected of having polio, typhoid fever or diphtheria needs to be characterized as “parental neglect.” That was also the sort of language used by the immigrants’ leaders and rabbis in the camps in the summer of 1951, when protesting a government decision to shut down the children’s hospital in Rosh Ha’ayin. The immigrant leaders knew that many infants had been hospitalized and had not returned home, but they also noted that the hospital’s closure would lead to a mass refusal by parents to hospitalize their young children and to needless deaths: “Most are stubborn. They will not send them [to the hospital] and will endanger the children,” they warned. Even though the country’s second-largest hospital was 10 miles away, and even though most “missing children” were already missing, the leadership of the immigrants was no less judgmental vis-a-vis the populace than the Israeli establishment was. The government kept the hospital running for one additional year.

In Rosh Ha’ayin and in all the other immigrant camps, in most cases, infants were not hospitalized by coercion or various ploys. But there were parents who of their own accord discharged their children from the hospital, including some children who had been diagnosed with infectious diseases and life-threatening conditions; there is even some documentation of parental violence aimed at medical teams trying to hospitalize sick infants, who later died at home in their tents. Nevertheless, investigations of the death of these young patients showed that in many cases the reason was lack of hospital beds in or the inability to evacuate them to the hospital – not parental refusal. Because of the shortage of beds, many children were discharged early from hospitals and the WIZO convalescent facilities, but for some reason they were not monitored medically in their camp’s clinic, and died within a short time. Others, who were able to get to the institutions, died during treatment.

Even before the wave of immigration, it was not unusual to find babies staying in institutions for weeks on end, enjoying very sparse visits by their parents.

Teddy Brauner/GPO

As the files show, this complicated system of “baby placements,” financed by elaborate financial agreements among different government offices, the Joint Distribution Committee and Hadassah, tracked every child in every institution. However, there were no uniform and standardized methods for identification and tracking of minors. As immigrants from a non-bureaucratic society, Yemenite Jews did not even have a consistent method for spelling personal and family names. Errors piled up – babies announced dead were found in good shape, parents who came to visit their children could not find them. As early as April 1950, a top official in the Health Ministry issued instructions regarding the discharge of infants from medical facilities with the explicit intent of curbing the troubling reports of disappearing children. He also was the first to suggest that missing babies had been taken illegally for adoption. The hypothesis has never been substantiated by any direct evidence, but it has died hard.

Bloody victory

There was in general much misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding medical institutions and health regulations during the state’s early years. Advanced medical tests ostensibly carried out for the immigrants’ benefit were sometimes interpreted by later critics as being “human experiments” and referred to in offensive language. According to the medical doctrine that prevailed at the time, the body of a dead infant was not shown to his or her parents, for fear of causing psychological trauma. The law did not obligate the attending physician to issue a death certificate, and there were no organized procedures or rules relating to keeping medical records, discharge of patients, registration of the deceased and burial. Many parents did not ask for a death certificate from the district health bureaus, as this entailed relinquishing the deceased’s food coupons. Others did not do so simply because they had no knowledge of the procedure or were unable to pay the required fee. In some cases, pressure was exerted on medical staff not to report a stillbirth so as not to deprive the family of the post-natal grant.

Also, in the absence of refrigerated rooms to store the dead, and in some cases also for fear of epidemics – it was necessary in many cases to bury the deceased before the family was located. For the Yemenites, care for a child away from the parents, his or her death and burial before the parents were even informed was unheard of; but for all other immigrants, this was the reality of modern life, especially in the chaotic occident, following the social instability of the world wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and the communist revolutions.

The Health Ministry tried to introduce uniform and detailed “death announcements” that included demographic details and information relating to cause of death, but the medical establishment refused to cooperate, claiming that the paperwork constituted an unremunerated workload. Moreover, many difficulties arose when it came to informing families of the condition of their loved ones or their death. When in July 1950, the authorities tried to follow up on the fate of 103 Yemenite children who had been diagnosed with polio two months earlier, a third of them could not be located because of defective records and the fact that the families moved around a lot. Thus over 30 stricken children wandered about the Rosh Ha’ayin camp, which lacked a proper sewage system, putting the entire population there at risk of infection. Some of those children would also have been denied medical treatment even if they had needed it. If the motivated public health authorities failed to track so many children and families within a time range of a few months, no wonder it was even more difficult to trace many “missing children” years later.

Is it possible that the English consultant who recommended evacuating all the infants to closed children’s facilities outside the transit camps was correct? Could it be that if the physicians had “kidnapped” more infants, mortality would have been less extreme and disabilities less severe?

It is worthwhile to note that alongside many testimonies of devoted work by health care officials on behalf of the immigrants, there was also harsh evidence of condescension and discrimination. But attitudes like those did not kill infants or “kidnap” them from their parents. Undoubtedly, had more doctors and competent administrators accepted work in the camps, many more children would have survived, there would have been many fewer conflicts with the immigrants, and many missing babies would have been reunited with their families.

There is no telling the disaster that would have occurred had it not been for the tremendous efforts of the Health Ministry and the Medical Service for Immigrants, together with the staff of Hadassah, who all contributed mightily to reducing infant mortality in new immigrant locales to 6 percent by 1954. Isolation and mass hospitalization, and also improved availability of the latest medical technology for the benefit of the newcomers, could not solve problems rooted in social helplessness, unemployment, hunger and substandard living conditions.

The government did not discuss the morbidity and mortality in the camps, but dealt, rather, with struggles (sometimes violent) over the immigrants’ education (ultra-Orthodox secular or “Mizrahi”). Indeed, the only inquiry launched to examine the situation in immigrant camps (the Frumkin Commission) dealt with the controversy over religious education. Three commissions of inquiry established years later in order to clarify the fate of the “children of Yemen, the Orient, the Balkans and others,” did not examine the medical situation or the causes of mass deaths among those communities.

Israel’s victory in the War of Independence cost the lives of some 6,000 soldiers and civilians. The victory over medical epidemics was achieved in a situation of relatively high personal freedom for adults, but at the cost of the lives of thousands of very young children. Monuments were erected to the fighters in the war, but we must also remember the heroes of the aliyah, heroes by force of circumstance, as well as the infants who died, many with no orderly documentation or known graves.

Specifically, we should honor the memory of Dr. Avraham Sternberg, head of the Medical Service for Immigrants, and Dr. George Mundel, director of the Hadassah children’s hospital in Rosh Ha’ayin; and the personnel of the WIZO convalescent facilities and their tiny staffs: Repressed bereavement led to the stigmatizing of their memory as kidnappers of infants and to the erasure from the national memory of their tremendous contribution to public health and the absorption of new immigrants.

Prof. Yechiel Michael Barilan is a specialist in internal medicine who teaches ethics, health law and the social history of medicine at Tel Aviv University’s school of medicine. His book “Jewish Bioethics” (Cambridge, 2014) explores other aspects of the social history of medicine in Jewish communities and Israel. A longer version of this article appeared in the journal Health Law and Bioethics, published by Ono Academic College.

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