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

Israel’s Missing Yemenite Children: A Tale of Neglect and Disdain

Released documents on a decades-long controversy betray the contempt shown by Jews with European roots. But sometimes even Yemenite parents didn't want anything to do with their children.

Yosef Avraham made aliyah from Yemen on September 16, 1949, with his wife Ketzia, their daughter Mazal and their son Tov, who was just a week old. From Lod Airport they were sent to the Pardesiya camp for new immigrants, where the whole family was hospitalized for medical care. A week later, Yosef had recovered. He found his daughter Mazal but could not find his wife and son.

In his testimony to a commission of inquiry in 1995, now released from the state archives, he told a remarkable story. “I went to one of the guards in the immigrant camp and told him of my problem, and he told me, ‘No one will help you here. Everyone will laugh at you,’” Avraham said.

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“The guard gave me a piece of paper with the address of the Prime Minister’s Office in Tel Aviv written on it. The guard advised me to go to the Prime Minister’s Office and tell Ben-Gurion about my problem.”

Avraham took the guard’s advice and went to Tel Aviv. “After a lot of persuasion, the guards agreed to let me into the office to talk with Ben-Gurion,” he said. “In my presence he phoned a number of people and asked them to urgently find out where my wife and son were.”

The next day three policemen came with a jeep. The four of them searched the various hospitals, but Avraham’s son Tov and wife Ketzia were not to be found.

The commission found that Tov, whose name was not recorded when he was put in the hospital, had died on September 29, 1949. Ketzia’s fate remained a mystery, but material in the file shows that she also died but was misidentified, so her husband was not informed.

Teddy Bronner / GPO

Another tragic case is that of the Sinwanis, who made aliyah from Yemen on October 10, 1949. The parents and their three children were housed in the Ein Shemer immigrant camp. One day, when the parents were away from the tent, their 3-year-old son Yehuda was taken to be hospitalized and disappeared.

On December 10, 1949, another child was born to the family, a son named David, at the hospital in Pardes Hannah. His mother Shoshana would come to visit and nurse him at the children’s house in the Ein Shemer camp. But one day when she arrived he was gone.

The documents show that Shoshana contacted the interior minister, who passed the matter on to the police. Israel Shochat, a founder of the Hashomer defense group in 1909 who became police chief, replied to Shoshana that the two children had died. But she wasn’t convinced and later approached the commission of inquiry.

Eventually it was learned that her son Yehuda had died in the hospital and was buried in a Haifa cemetery as “Yehuda ben Avraham Shlomo” without any surname. Her son David also died in the hospital and was buried near Karkur, but the exact location was never recorded.

The family’s descendants gave the state archive permission to tell their story, despite the privacy restrictions that until now kept many facts under wraps.

“Our family’s sad and tragic story occurred in 1949. My grandfather, who had dreamed of aliyah to the Holy Land – it was his greatest wish – suffered an emotional collapse. After his sons’ disappearance, he lost his mind for the rest of his life,” his granddaughter Vered wrote to the archive.

“It’s an open wound because my family never saw these precious children die. They were only told after the fact that they were dead and buried, and so they always clung to the hope that maybe someone along the way had made a mistake.”

Teddy Brauner / GPO

Sick children

The documents now being released also contain testimony from the medical staff. Decades later, one Dr. Amster (no first name appears in the documents) could not forget one night when she was working in the children’s ward of Rambam Hospital in Haifa. Amster, who worked in the hospital from its opening in 1949 to 1953, testified in 1996.

Amster said the children who arrived in the ward were in very bad shape. “They would call me to the emergency room and there were 10 or eight or six or five,” she said.

“They all arrived at the same time. Very sick. The children were dehydrated and very skinny. One night six children died on me. Not all were from Yemen, but most were from Yemen. I’ll never forget that night.”

Amster also testified about the chaos in the hospital when it came to registering and treating the children. “Names were a big problem Every [Yemenite] child had lots of names,” she said. “We had no idea what was the family name and what was the first name.”

Another testimony is that of Tamar Weinstein (née Shapira), a nurse in the children’s ward of Tel Hashomer Hospital from 1954 to 1964. “Among the children there were also Yemenite children hospitalized . Nobody took an interest in them. Nobody came to visit them from the family,” she said.

Weinstein said that at a certain point the hospital “began to think about what to do with them,” because they “took up a bed of a sick child after they recovered. There was no telephone to inform the parents ‘Come to take your child, he’s already well.’ There was no contact with the parents.”

From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center

So the hospital tried to find the parents. “Then someone had the idea of taking a nurse with an ambulance and a driver and driving to the transit camp based on the addresses, and bringing the children home,” Weinstein said. “I rode with children several times, but remember one day in particular.”

Rejected by parents

The incident took place in the Pardes Hannah transit camp, where she rode in an ambulance with six babies. She found the parents of one boy, but they refused to accept him.

“I said: ‘Great, I’ve brought your child home healthy.’ I took out their baby,” Weinstein said. “They looked at me and said, ‘That’s not mine.’ I said, ‘Sir, everything is in order, he’s yours. You haven’t seen him for a long time. The child has recovered, he’s grown and gotten fat, so it’s hard to recognize him. He’s your child, not mine.”

In the end she returned to the hospital with four of the six babies whose parents she had hoped to find.

Sarah Meller (née Weinroch), a nurse at Tel Hashomer in 1950, also described children whose parents weren’t found. “In many cases, when the ambulance would arrive at the transit camp boys who were running around and playing outside ran ahead to tell the parents so they would leave the house,” Meller said.

“We saw this from the ambulance so as not to accept the child. We would arrive at the house when no parents were there. We went around the camp for an entire day and didn’t find anyone who would accept the children.”

From the album of Hadassah International, Israel Comes Into View (Yad Ben Zvi), Rosh Ha'ayin Documentation Center

At the end of the day, Meller returned the children to the hospital, and a social worker later took them to nurseries or day care centers. “What happened to them next I don’t know,” Meller said.

Illegal adoption or kidnapping?

The commission of inquiry determined that there was no evidence of institutionalized kidnapping of Yemenite children. But in papers now being released, a result of the commission’s work, there is a gray area between illegal adoption and kidnapping.

One of these documents is a letter sent in 1952 from a legal adviser at a government ministry. “This is not the first case in which my attention has been called to unsuitable treatment by public hospitals in giving up children who were raised within their walls to all kinds of people for the purpose of adoption,” he writes. Such complaints were common at the time; hospitals gave up children whose parents weren’t found.

The papers at the state archives include the testimony of Miriam Adani; she mentioned a nurse who had immigrated from Yemen and worked at a hospital in the early 1950s. The nurse told her about things she had heard from a doctor, who reportedly said he had transferred children from their poor families in the transit camps to wealthy families on the grounds that it would be better to grow up in a wealthy home than a poor one.

“Why are they making a big deal about the Yemenite children?” he was quoted as saying. “The Yemenites are ingrates; they lack feeling and don’t appreciate what has been done for them.”

The documents also include the harsh testimony by Yehudit Durani (née Karnan), who immigrated from Yemen in 1948 when she was 17 and worked in the nursery at the Ein Shemer transit camp. She told the commission that sometimes when she arrived she would discover that one of the children was gone; she would be told that the boy or girl had been sent to Rambam Hospital in Haifa.

Zvi Glaser / GPO

Durani said the disappearances would happen when strangers were visiting. “A number of people from America came to the camp played with the children brought dolls .... At the time each child was given a bed .... They didn’t say where they had come from, nothing,” Durani said.

A female investigator for the commission named only as Nahmani asked her: “And during that period when they came, did children also disappear from the ward?” Durani replied: “Many disappeared every day a child was missing.” She said that each time she was told that the child was sick. “And they sent him to Haifa. [But] he was healthy and ate supper and there was nothing wrong with him when he was with me.”

Polish or Yemenite?

The documents also include files of adopted children who suspected that they were the children of Yemenite parents and wanted to check who their biological parents were, without success. One of them, born in 1952, said he was the adopted son of Holocaust survivors from Poland who took him from the WIZO House day care center in Tel Aviv when he was a baby.

He said he discovered this when he was a teenager. “I had a lot of harassment when I was small. ‘Your father is white, why are you black? They bought you, they stole you,’” he said. Later his mother told him he was adopted and that his biological parents, who were of Yemenite origin, were killed in a traffic accident.

Israel State Archives  

Eventually, when the affair of the Yemenite children began, he read articles on the subject and asked to see his adoption file, because he suspected he was connected to the affair. But the clerks told him that the archive holding his adoption file had burned down. Later he was told that the authorities had managed to locate his mother, who really did immigrate from Yemen, but was not killed in an accident and was still alive. But she wasn’t interested in seeing him, he was told.

Additional evidence was provided by Ruth Baruch, a social worker born in 1944 who launched the Kibbutz movement’s adoption department. Baruch told about a nurse from Afula who on her deathbed called to her and said: “Look, I have to go to the next world clean. Things were done, I know that things were done. I can’t tell you names at the moment because I simply don’t remember anymore. The numbers aren’t as high as they say.”

Baruch said the same nurse told her about a boy from a Yemenite family “who was very, very sick and lay alone for a month in the children’s ward at Afula Hospital. Nobody came. I myself went around to search who this child belonged to. After a month when nobody came, we gave him up for adoption.”

Baruch also told about a man who in 1951 received a request from an orphanage: “They told him there were two Yemenite children [and asked] if they were willing to adopt them . [He] was a very enlightened person and asked whose children they were, so they told him that nobody had any idea whose children they were, and he said, ‘In that case, I’ll take them.’”

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