Files on Yemenite Kids Lost in Israel Describe Adoption 'Market' of Country's Early Days

Ethnicity was often key criterion for would-be adoptive parents.

Yemenite Jewish children at a transit camp in Aden await transferred to Israel, December 1949.
David Eldan/GPO

In the clause on an adoption application in 1946 describing the desired child, a woman from Petah Tikva who had come to this country from Germany wrote: “Ashkenazi or light Yemenite,” and also asked that the child have an “artistic sense.” A couple, the man from Poland and the woman from Austria, noted in their application that they sought “a healthy girl, an orphan,” adding, “if possible, from Western Europe.” In 1947 a carpenter from Rhodes and his locally born wife asked for a girl of Sephardic origin. A few years later, in 1955, a new immigrant from Austria who worked as a head nurse in a Tel Aviv hospital wrote: “a boy, not from the Mizrahi communities.” Her husband, however, wrote that he was “prepared to accept any offer.”

Did they get the child they wanted? This we will never know, but the forms they filled out are among the 200,000 documents that the State Archives posted on the web last month in connection with the disappearance of Yemenite children in the late-’40s and ‘50s.

The documents, found in the Zionist Archive, come from various agencies that dealt with adoption before the establishment of the state, such as welfare authorities in cities and organizations like Youth Aliyah. When the state was established, the Welfare Ministry entered the picture. The courts, based on British law, were also involved, authorizing adoptions based on a social worker’s testimony that there was no chance of finding a child’s biological family. However, according to the state committee investigating the disappearance of Yemenite children, the courts often became involved after the child had been in the adoptive family for some time.

According to the Ben-Asher private investigation agency, which was hired by the state committee, the documents “describe quite precisely the adoption ‘market’ at the time, including the specific individuals involved.”

The documents do not show an organized abduction industry, but they do reveal that the authorities were not strict when it came to adoption.

Illegal immigration

“Lately a number of cases have been discovered of children, given by our department for adoption, being wanted back by their [biological] parents or their mother, who remained alive, and this was not known to us at all,” Yona Langer, who was responsible for examining the lists of immigrant children who came to this country through Youth Aliyah, wrote in a report in 1949.

In one case, she described a mother seeking to be reunited with her 4-year-old son, who had come alone to Israel, while his mother had remained abroad. At first she was told there was no such boy. But, as Langer wrote: “She did not accept a negative answer and claimed that her little boy should be in Israel.” Luckily for the mother, Langer decided to take action. “I could not stand to see the mother’s sorrow. I began to look for a boy whose age and description matched the boy sought, without reference to the family name. Then I found the boy, who had indeed been adopted.”

It turned out that the boy had come to this country surreptitiously with the help of false documents and he was given another name. “By mistake it was stated that he was a full orphan,” Langer wrote, and so he was given up for adoption. “If at the time they would have given us a list of the names of the children, noting the name they immigrated under and their real name, this would have prevented many complications,” she wrote in her report.

The case was turned over the Hava Cohen, head of the Youth Aliyah social work department. Cohen “discussed the matter with the adoptive parents and the real mother and in the end, the boy was returned to his mother,” Langer reported. One can only wonder about the fate of other such children, whom Langer did not devote special efforts to find.

A letter sent to Cohen in 1949 by Hanoch Reinhold (Rinot), director of Youth Aliyah and eventually director general of the Education Ministry, raises the possibility that the answer to this question is murky. “I would appreciate an answer to the following questions: Did Youth Aliyah give up children for legal adoption” – and the word “legal” is underlined for emphasis. “Were there cases where the arrangement changed?” Reinhold asked Cohen, for example, “due to the appearance of the parents or relatives?” If he received a reply, it is not included in the Archive’s documents.

Illegal adoption

Another document was sent in 1948 by an official (the name is illegible due to the poor quality of the paper) under the heading: “Re: Adoption of Diaspora children.” The document was addressed to officials of various municipal committees, women’s organizations and immigrant associations. “It has recently come to our attention that among the families who have been candidates to adopt a child for years and who had so far received no response, there were some who received a child in some private way, without informing [us] of this in time.” This practice, the document stated, “prevented the possibility of public oversight of adoptions ” The document further stated that “our department has now announced to our representatives in the Diaspora that all necessary steps must be taken to avoid such undesirable actions.”

According to the document, there were many cases in which new immigrants “had brought with them from abroad young orphans and supposed orphans, and were prepared to give them directly to families known to them without any prior approval of public institutions.”

Another document, from May 7, 1948, indicates that Youth Aliyah was aware of illegal adoptions. “Emissaries [who had gone to Europe to send youngsters to this country] are to be prohibited from taking children and sending them to friends in Israel, as has already happened.”

What is worse, the letter indicates that in some cases, adoptive families paid money to Youth Aliyah or Keren Hayesod, which appeared as a donation, in exchange for a child.

The documents leave many unanswered questions. For instance, it is unclear what happened to the family about whom in 1950 it was stated “is especially suitable to adopt a small child, even from the Mizrahi communities.” Hava Cohen wrote that the father was an activist in Jewish immigration from North Africa and his wife was a physician from Hungary. “The worldviews of the husband, his culture and his knowledge, as well as the personalities of both, are suitable for the adoption of one of the orphans from the Arab countries, Iraq, Kurdistan or Bukhara.”

And what happened to the 4-year-old twin girls who came from Yemen and lived in the immigrant camp in Ein Shemer? A Welfare Ministry document from 1950 speaks of an “arrangement for Yemenite twins with ” (the name was redacted by the Archive). “We hereby inform you that in principle Mrs. [name redacted] is willing to accept them into her care for payment but she has asked to see them first.”

We may never know what happened to the twins, because the material documenting the activities of the Ein Shemer immigrant camp was destroyed before the state inquiry committee’s investigators could get to it. In a report the committee published, also based on documents mentioned in this article, the committee determined that the children were not abducted, but rather that: “There is a possibility that when the children were being maintained outside their families, in baby houses or hospitals – they were given to other families under circumstances in which those holding them believed that they had been abandoned by their families in the context of the break in communications with them.”