Nurse Sheds New Light on Israel's Enduring Mystery: Disappearance of Yemenite Children in 1950s

A trainee nurse who helped Yemenite babies and children recover from illnesses in the early 1950s says now that a chaotic registration system at hospitals meant that not all the infants were successfully reunited with their families.

Nurses from the Hadassah Medical Organization at the Rosh Ha'ayin hospital for children, in the 1950s.
From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center

Sixty-five years have passed since H. was a nursing student at Tel Hashomer Hospital. This week, at 83, she recalled a moment from the early years of the state. “They asked one woman, ‘Is this your baby?’ And she said no. They went to another woman. ‘Is it yours?’ ‘No, it’s hers.’ And she pointed to another woman,” said H., speaking on condition of anonymity.

That incident happened in the early 1950s at an immigrant camp in Rosh Ha’ayin, east of Tel Aviv. Nurses from nearby Tel Hashomer were dispatched there to help return babies who had recovered from illnesses to their Yemenite families.

“There were children whose parents really were found, but there were others who were not,” recounts H., speaking at her apartment in an assisted-living facility in northern Israel.

“After the children got well, the hospital put an ambulance or a truck at the disposal of the pediatrics department. The nurses went with the children to the immigrant camp at Rosh Ha’ayin. They had a loudspeaker and began to call out, ‘Whose child is this?’”

Not all the parents identified their children. “Sometimes, two or three months would go by after a baby was admitted to the department, and they had changed and looked different,” explains H, adding that poor registration of the children at the hospital was part of the problem. “It was a big mess, confusion in the names. There were no identity cards, no information that child ‘X’ belonged to family ‘X1.’ We didn’t know who the children were,” she admits.

In some cases, the nurses knew the last name of the family that a certain child belonged to, but not their first name or the first names of the parents. And sometimes, there were large families sharing the same last name. Children whose parents were not located were sent back to Tel Hashomer, says H.

“The hospital couldn’t keep a healthy baby, so they turned them over to WIZO,” adds H., referring to the Women’s International Zionist Organization, which provided childcare services at the time. “That’s what I know. What happened after that, I have no idea.”

The Hadassah Medical Organization site at the Rosh Ha'ayin immigrant transit camp, in the 1950s.
From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center

Questions remain

H.’s testimony, together with similar reports previously published in Haaretz, provides a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the disappearance of the children, which is once again causing a stir. That controversy is set to peak in the coming months, with the long-awaited release of confidential state documents.

During the years H. was a nurse at Tel Hashomer (now known as Sheba Medical Center), it’s claimed that somewhere between hundreds to thousands of children of Yemenite families disappeared. The circumstances were similar. At first the children got sick and were hospitalized. Their parents were then told they had died — in many cases without giving them a death certificate or showing them a grave.

In 2001, a state commission of inquiry found that most of the children who had disappeared had indeed died of sickness. In a few dozen cases, questions remained. But the panel’s work was harshly criticized by historians, legal experts and families whose children had disappeared.

H. is from a German-Jewish family from Berlin and moved to Israel in the 1930s. Between 1950 and 1954, she took a military nurse’s course at the army base at Tel Litwinsky (whose name was changed to Tel Hashomer in 1953). “I remember clearly. They brought children to the pediatrics department and the procedure was that when they brought a sick child to the hospital, the parents didn’t come in. That was the procedure in those days both in Israel and abroad,” says H.

Hundreds of parents’ testimonies confirm H.’s description. They had to leave their children in the hospital or the clinic overnight, and sometimes for a week or longer. “Many times, the parents were not the ones to bring the children. They came in another way, I don’t know how. In any case, we didn’t see the parents,” says H.

One of those ways was through doctors or nurses who were sent to the immigrant and transit camps to find sick children and hospitalize them. In 1995, an ambulance driver told Haaretz about taking sick children from the Ein Shemer immigrant transit camp to Rambam Medical Center, Haifa. “The nurse would go into a tent, take a child, and from there [go] to Rambam,” he said.

Illnesses for which children were hospitalized when H. worked at Tel Hashomer included diarrhea, dehydration, tuberculosis and jaundice. “There were children who came in serious condition. Some of them really died, but I don’t know what happened with them afterward. I didn’t see the dead children. We came to work, and the baby was gone,” says H.

According to H., the hospital always tried to locate the parents. “I feel that at least they tried to return the children to the parents. They didn’t always succeed,” she says, adding, “I was a young student, and I had no criticism of this conduct. That was what we learned and that was what was accepted.”

Yemenite immigrants at the Rosh Ha'ayin absorption camp in the 1950s.
From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center

The Haaretz archives contain additional eyewitness accounts. In a 1997 article, investigative reporter Yigal Mashiah related what he had heard from an ambulance driver. The driver related how he “would come to the camp [with the children] and turn on the siren. The parents would then gather around the ambulance and he would show them the children, one by one.”

Mashiah also mentioned the change in the children’s appearance. “Many had grown and fattened up, and the parents had trouble identifying them.” When parents were not found, the children were returned to the hospital, Mashiah reported. “The driver said it was very probable that parents took children who were not theirs, and others lost their sons and daughters,” Mashiah wrote.

In 1995, another ambulance driver told Haaretz: “They took them [the babies] without any checking, without any documents, without a name, without the names of the parents. Who would they give them back to? They didn’t know who to return them to. I even saw a time where they brought a boy back to a family and the mother said ‘This is not mine.’ I returned him to Rambam [in Haifa]. What was to be done? I brought back a child and there was no one to give him to.”

The state commission’s 2001 report also noted the confusion around the treatment of the children and monitoring of the return to their families, including the lack of an identity card. “As a result, babies may have remained without any contact [with the parents],” the panel concluded.

'Identification problems'

The panel also recognized that there were hospitalized children who recovered but were not returned to their parents because of “identification problems.”

These children “were sent to children’s homes, without any real attempt to find their parents. The fate of a baby who had recovered and was not returned to the parents remained, in fact, unknown. The baby was taken off the records of the pediatrics department as having been ‘released,’” the report stated.

According to many families who immigrated from Yemen, this was the point at which the institutionalized abduction of their children and their sale to adoptive parents occurred.

Yemenite families arriving at the Rosh Ha'ayin immigrant transit camp in the 1950s.
From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center

H. remembers no hints of such incidents at the time. As for the state commission’s take on such a possibility: “Not even [a case of] a single baby was found who was given up for adoption against the background of non-return to parents after recovering in the hospital.”

The report also stated that “there are no grounds for the claim that WIZO institutions were transit points for babies of Yemenite immigrants given up for adoption due to the severing of contact with their families.”

However, the members of the panel conceded that not all the WIZO archival material was made available to them.

So what did happen to the children whose parents H. and her colleagues were unable to find and were subsequently given to WIZO?

“I don’t know,” says H. “I have no proof either way.” Perhaps the answer is hiding in one of the archives somewhere in Israel. Then again, perhaps we may never know the answer to this enduring mystery.