Yemenite-Jewish Israelis Outraged After Israeli Burial Society Covers Graves of Missing Children

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A protest demanding the recognition of the kidnapping of Yemenite children, Jerusalem June 21, 2017.
A protest demanding the recognition of the kidnapping of Yemenite children, Jerusalem June 21, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

A few months ago, Dorit Gaon walked up the hill at Har Hamenuchot, Jerusalem’s main cemetery, carrying all the documents showing where her baby brother Yisrael had been buried in 1953. Finally she would get to see the spot. But when a worker there pointed to a group of graves she was aghast: Her brother’s name didn’t appear on any of them, and they were from an entirely different period.

When she made inquiries she couldn’t believe what she heard. In the 1980s the local burial society covered the area containing the graves of 400 children, including her brother and other babies and aborted fetuses. New graves were dug above them. “I was in shock,” Gaon told Haaretz. “It’s unbelievable.”

This story is but another in the disappearance of Jewish children whose parents had emigrated from Yemen shortly after the State of Israel was founded in 1948. The affair including Gaon’s brother is now under consideration in a class-action suit filed against a Jerusalem burial society.

“The memory of hundreds of children was wiped off the face of the earth after the area was covered in soil, with new graves covering the ones underneath,” says attorney Liron Preminger, who filed the petition. In addition to financial compensation, Gaon aims to find out exactly where her brother was buried so that a proper gravestone can be put up.

Her brother, Yisrael Karwa, was the oldest child of Yehudit and Yehuda Karwa, who immigrated to Israel from Yemen. Yehudit was 17 when she gave birth to Yisrael. When the boy was a year and a half old he felt unwell and his mother took him to a baby clinic in the village of Eshtaol, where they lived. From there she was sent with the boy to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

“My baby was not disabled or chronically ill,” Yehudit Gaon said in an affidavit presented in court. “He just didn’t feel well and I asked for some medicine so I could take care of him at home, but the doctor insisted that I leave him at the hospital.”

Dorit Gaon at Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot cemetery.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovich

She went home and the baby remained in the hospital. “The next day, when she returned to visit him, she was turned away and told that she had no child, that she never had one and that she was insane,” Dorit says.

A week later a nurse told the mother that her son was dead. “I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Yehudit says. “I cried and fell on my knees.” The hospital didn’t let her see the body or take part in his funeral. She was later told he was buried in Jerusalem, but she wasn’t told the location.

The family eventually learned that this tragic story repeated many times among families that had arrived from Yemen and other places in those years when babies were hospitalized. Yehudit testified before the Kedmi Commission that investigated the disappearance of Yemenite children.

The panel found no evidence of systematic and state-sanctioned kidnapping of children, a claim made by some families to this day, but it did determine that more than 1,000 children had disappeared. Most of these children died, with the fate of dozens of others unknown. Various agencies harshly criticized the commission and its findings.

No place to mourn

Yosef Gamliel, whose brother was registered as buried in Har Hamenuchot but the grave is not there. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitch

Last year, when the state archives published the minutes of the commission’s meetings, the Gaon family obtained the file on the investigation into their son’s death. The file said their son had been diagnosed with polio and was suffering from severe paralysis. It said he died a week after being hospitalized at Shaare Zedek and was buried at Har Hamenuchot.

One document in the dossier was a burial order, written under the letterhead of the Kehilat Yerushalayim burial society. The exact location of the grave is mentioned there. This was the document Dorit Gaon carried to the cemetery a few months ago when she found the new graves covering the site.

“By what right did they do this? Why didn’t they ask us? My mother didn’t even perform the seven-day mourning ritual for him. She has no place to mourn him,” Gaon says. “If we had known he was buried there we would have set up a dignified memorial there, a place we could come to.”

Her mother Yehudit adds: “For me this wasn’t just a terrible insult to my and my family’s dignity, it was an insult to my son’s dignity, to the dignity of the dead.”

Preminger, the attorney, says the burial society simply decided on its own. It didn’t search for the families, and it didn’t even tell the families of the people buried above the children that children were buried underneath.

The Gaon family is now demanding 150,000 shekels ($42,340) compensation. The class-action suit also includes families of people who were buried above the children’s graves; they each want the amount they paid for the burial returned and 100,000 shekels in compensation.

The burial society says the second layer of burials was done to make room for additional graves given the scarcity of plots, not to make a profit. The society says that for decades hardly anyone came to visit the original graves before they were covered. This gave the impression that “there was no connection between the families and the deceased; it was as if these were empty plots.”

The society also cites the statute of limitations and says the issue cannot be viewed using today’s criteria. It says “the practice of burials for babies and children was different in those days.” The society also claims that the families are trying to make money out of this affair, “riding the wave” of the Yemenite children saga while “employing emotional manipulation.”

The two sides have agreed on arbitration. The appellants’ chances may be foreshadowed by a ruling this month in another case involving the same burial society. The Gamliel family from Ashkelon had a son Yohanan who was registered as being buried at Har Hamenuchot. They too discovered that he had no grave there. The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court granted their petition and awarded them 180,000 shekels in compensation.

Yohanan, born in 1954, was the fourth child of Yehudit Gamliel, who had immigrated from Yemen six years earlier. When Yohanan was 9 months old he felt unwell and was hospitalized at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot. After a few days Yehudit was told that her son’s condition had deteriorated and that he had been transferred to a Jerusalem hospital, where he died.

As in many other cases, the family never saw a death certificate and never received any information about the burial. For years the family refused to believe that their son was dead, claiming that he had been kidnapped and given up for adoption.

In 2001, with the publication of the commission of inquiry’s report, the family learned that their son had been buried at Har Hamenuchot. The report even mentioned the plot, row numbers and grave site. When the family went to visit they discovered that it didn’t exist and had disappeared under the same circumstances described in the class-action suit. “The area is now completely changed,” the burial society told the family.

“We were expecting to go there, find the grave and then ask that it be opened so a DNA test could be conducted, finally putting our minds to rest,” says attorney Yosef Gamliel, Yohanan’s brother. Then they discovered there was no grave.

“We were confused, finding ourselves in limbo,” says Gamliel, who heads a forum of families of the missing children. “We don’t know if Yohanan is dead or alive. I know there’s a chance, although a remote one, that he’s alive. I still hope that one day he’ll show up saying ‘hello, I’m back.’”

The ruling by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court this month harshly criticizes the local burial society, which accused the Gamliel family of greed and not visiting the grave for decades. The society even blamed the family for not covering the burial expenses, even though for years it didn’t know where the grave was located.

“It’s needless to elaborate on how much pain and anguish the mother and brothers were subjected to under such circumstances,” wrote Judge David Gideoni. “This pain will accompany the appellants for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to quantify such pain. The financial compensation cannot heal their pain and agony.”

Ashkenazi families too

Rachel Ben-Shimol from Dimona faces a similar legal ordeal. She knows the alleged burial place of her younger brother, but is having a hard time verifying that he’s indeed the one buried there. Her brother Zvi was born in 1948 in a displaced persons’ camp in Marseille, France. The parents were Shmuel and Lisa Rettig, Polish Jews who had fled the Nazis. Zvi fell ill in 1950 and was hospitalized in Jaffa. His parents never saw him again.

As in the case of the Yemenite families, the Rettig family and many other Ashkenazi families whose children were hospitalized and died in the years after 1948 received no information about a funeral or grave, and received no death certificate. They later found out that he was registered as someone who had died and been buried in the children’s section of the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in Tel Aviv.

The family located the plot and has for years been undertaking legal action against the state in order to have the grave opened, followed by DNA tests. The state objects, arguing that there is no justification for doing so after the Interior Ministry recognized the child’s death.

“We tried explaining to them that we’re not there without reason, that we’re part of a saga consisting of many similar cases,” says Idit Ben-Shimol, Rachel’s daughter. The trial is being held behind closed doors at a family court in Tel Aviv.

The state does not consider these various suits part of a historical, national event that needs to be addressed on a state level. Even after years of suffering, families must visit different courts to contend with a complex issue; after all, Israel has 600 burial societies.

If that weren’t enough, local bureaucracies are so cumbersome that even after the Kedmi Commission’s finding that some of the missing children had died, the Population and Immigration Authority has not acknowledged this because “there is no official relevant document.”

MK Nurit Koren (Likud), who heads a committee to investigate the disappearance of the Yemenite children, has been trying to secure this acknowledgement. She submitted a bill last week that will make it easier for families to identify their loved ones’ graves by opening them and conducting DNA tests.

Attorney Rami Zubery, a leader of the protest movement by the Yemenite families, has overseen the opening of some of the graves. Twenty years ago some graves were opened in a Petah Tikva cemetery.

“Twenty-two skeletons were found in 10 graves. You can’t believe the registries,” he told Haaretz in the past. There was no correlation between the families whose children were supposedly buried there and the remains. For him, this proves that the whole affair is still ridden with confusion and disarray.