Decades Later, Disappearance of 1,000 Children in Israel Remains a Mystery

Twenty years ago, Haaretz ran a series of reports about the disappearance hundreds of Mizrahi infants, most from Yemenite families, during Israel’s early years. Were they kidnapped and put up for adoption? Had they died and been buried without their parents’ knowledge? Or is there a third possibility?

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Jewish Agency representatives greet Yemenite immigrants upon arrival in Israel.
Jewish Agency representatives great Yemenite immigrants upon arrival in Israel.Credit: Teddy Brauner / GPO
Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil

One day, 20 years ago, I went to Rehovot to look for Beit Genazim, the archive in which – according to the report of the Shalgi Commission, established in 1988 to clarify the fate of the Yemenite children who disappeared in Israel’s early years – the records of the Tel Aviv-based “Mother and Child” hostel, a temporary orphanage run by the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) were being held. I had made the trip after Haaretz Magazine published a number of investigative reports on the “Yemenite children affair.”

According to the map, the archive was located in the industrial zone between Rehovot and Yavneh. Signs led me to the western edge of the zone, where the road ended in a small paved plaza surrounded by a few small factories and workshops. None of them bore a sign indicating that it was Beit Genazim. A guard at one of the factories pointed toward the nearby orchard, where a dirt path led to a one-story structure.

There was no sign on the building, whose entrance was blocked with a heavy metal sliding door. The door was not locked. Opening it, I found myself in a small space in which a counter stood, with rows of shelves behind it. Standing at the counter was an elderly clerk. I introduced myself as a journalist from Haaretz.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the man replied.

So the WIZO files are here?


Can I look through them?

“Do you have authorization from WIZO? We are a private company that is only safeguarding the material for them.”

Immigrants from Yemen at a transit camp in central Israel, 1950.Credit: Seymour Katcoff, GPO

But the files are still here?


Has anyone from the commission of inquiry been here?


No time to waste

The affair of the disappearance of more than 1,000 infants in the nascent Jewish state, during the years 1948-1954, refuses to die. According to continuing widespread accusations, the infants were kidnapped in a secret, well-organized “establishment” operation, so that they could be given (or sold) to childless Holocaust survivors. Three separate official commissions investigated the issue, and all reached the same conclusion: The great majority of the children died of disease and were buried. But none of the reports published by the commissions satisfied the parents and other members of the families of the infants who disappeared. In their eyes, the reports were establishment whitewashes.

The Shalgi Commission, created in 1988 and headed by Moshe Shalgi, a retired District Court judge, was the second of the investigating bodies. The third, a full-fledged state commission of inquiry, was established in 1995 under public pressure exerted by the families and by an organization called Mishkan Ohalim, headed by Uzi Meshulam, a religious leader from Yehud. They were not satisfied with the conclusions reached by the two previous commissions or by the fact that only 627 cases had been investigated to date.

In November 2001, after more than five years of work, the state commission published its report. However, its evidentiary materials, including the findings from the WIZO files stored in Beit Genazim in Rehovot, were sealed for 70 years, strengthening the suspicions that the establishment was hiding something.

This past April, two organizations, Amram (Spirit of the East) and Physicians for Human Rights, asked the attorney general to order the unsealing of the secret documents reviewed by the third investigative commission.

Because of the conditions in the transit camps, and specifically the crowding in the tents where families lived, infants were taken to the “babies’ house” – generally a building – to which their mothers would come every few hours to nurse them. According to the apologist version of the story, if a baby became ill, and the staff wasn’t free to track down its parents, the infant would be sent to the hospital. When the parents arrived at the babies’ house and their child wasn’t there, they would be referred to the hospital. If at the hospital they were told that the infant had died and been buried, or that the whereabouts of the baby were unknown – because, in the absence of proper identification, he or she had been sent for adoption or to a children’s home – from the parents’ point of view, the child had “disappeared,” or even been kidnapped.

In 1950, there was an epidemic of polio, and the disappearances became more frequent. Every child with even a high fever was immediately hospitalized, so as to avoid the possibility of the virus spreading, with time not being “wasted” on trying to find the parents first. When the mother showed up to nurse her baby, or the father just to see the child, they would be told that he or she was in the hospital.

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

The known facts are shocking, even according to the most conservative account: More than 1,000 children – three-quarters of them Yemenite, with the rest from other Middle Eastern, or North African and Balkan countries, known collectively as Mizrahim – disappeared from their parents’ custody, died of diseases and were buried without their families’ knowledge.

It’s essential to grasp the meaning of this number. Between 1948 and 1950, about 50,000 Jews from Yemen were flown to Israel from the city of Aden. This means that 1.5 percent of the community disappeared – 50 percent more, proportionally, than the number of Israelis killed in the War of Independence. In today’s terms, it’s as though 100,000 infants had vanished in Israel during the past five years – or died and were buried without their parents’ being informed.

Shortly after the state commission of inquiry began hearing testimony, Dov Alfon, then the editor of Haaretz Magazine, sent a reporter, Yigal Mashiach, to interview families whose children had disappeared. It was the start of a riveting journalistic saga that generated 12 investigative articles in less than two years and new revelations.

These revelations included the following: the testimony of an ambulance driver who transported dozens of Yemenite babies from transit camps to hospitals; the first publication of the story of Yehuda Kantor, who was adopted as a child and was looking for his biological mother; testimony about “dozens, perhaps hundreds” (in the words of an investigator who worked with the first two committees) of children whose connection with their parents had been severed and who had been transferred to the WIZO residence in Jerusalem and thence put up for adoption; a girl who had been given for adoption to a Jewish couple from England; and numerous flaws in the then-ongoing work of the commission, which for some reason employed only one investigator, although it was not underfunded.

Following the publication of the commission’s final report, Haaretz Magazine ran three additional articles that uncovered many problems in the panel’s work and in the manner in which it presented its findings and grounded its conclusions. For example, another reporter for the magazine, Aviva Lori, located Saada Awawi, whose daughter, the commission stated “with certainty,” had died in the hospital at Tzrifin – except that Awawi told Lori she had given birth to a son.

‘Gray-area kidnapping’

The Haaretz Magazine investigations did not turn up indisputable evidence of organized kidnapping of children for adoption. But the facts that were uncovered presented a grim picture in themselves, which Yigal Mashiach termed “gray-area kidnapping”: racist behavior by establishment officials, which led to criminally negligent treatment of children, particularly infants. As a consequence, dozens, possibly hundreds of children were separated from their parents and sent to hospitals without their details and identity being recorded, so that when they recovered, the authorities didn’t know where to send them. Instead of efforts being made to find the parents, the children were put up for adoption. Many children died and were buried, without an attempt being made to locate their parents before the funeral, or at least to inform them about the child’s death and his or her place of burial.

Gray is not a color favored by the Israeli society. Many prefer a clear division: black or white. As no smoking gun was found pointing to out-and-out, organized kidnapping for the purpose of offering the children for adoption, the representatives of the establishment and its advocates viewed the findings as proof that the “libel” had been refuted. The evidence of racism and criminal negligence, and indeed the very fact of the disappearance of hundreds of infants, was summarily dismissed on the grounds that it was all the result of chaos in a fledgling state that took in masses of new immigrants, and had both good intentions and a shortage of manpower.

It goes without saying what the public response would be today if one infant disappeared from a hospital: The police would mobilize all their resources to find the baby, and the distraught parents would be bathed in a vast outpouring of public sympathy.

A Yemenite Jewish boy at a transit camp in Aden, December 1949.Credit: David Eldan, GPO

Still, some people were appalled even under the conditions of that time. Here, for example, is the reaction, in 1952, of a senior police officer, Yeshurun Schiff, in a document classified “secret,” which reported on the failure of the police to locate six infants whose whereabouts were unknown: “Wherever the investigation was conducted, the investigators encountered an absence of orderly registration in the hospitals, clinics, baby houses and so forth, a situation that made it impossible to conduct an efficient, orderly investigation. I am not of course ignoring the fact that all these cases occurred in the period of the extensive immigration from the countries of the East, at a time when the hospitals and medical institutions were under great pressure. Still, it seems to me that this gloomy affair cannot be ignored, given that it involves the disappearance of infants whose fate remains unknown. I believe that the case will make waves among the public.”

The other side, too, with its all-or-nothing approach, dismisses the findings of those crimes that were proved, because they are not sufficiently sweeping in their eyes: Many people continue to espouse the theory of organized, establishment kidnapping, and thereby prevent discussion and recognition of facts that are not in dispute. This allows broad segments of the public to cling to the view that the talk about organized kidnapping is itself a racist conspiracy aimed at stigmatizing all Ashkenazim.

The state commission of inquiry “rejected out of hand” the allegation of “establishment kidnapping,” but the Haaretz Magazine reporters demonstrated that its conclusions could not be taken as the final word on the matter. That panel itself heightened suspicions that it was hiding incriminating findings by ending its work without leaving instructions on what to do with the material it collected and the transcripts of its hearings – both those held openly and those held in camera. The immediate consequence was that all the material was deposited in the State Archives and remained classified.

In April 2002, the investigative files of individual cases of children who disappeared were opened for the perusal of the families. In December 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed a directive allowing access to the transcripts of the open hearings. The rest of the material, and the transcripts of the closed-door sessions, were sealed for 70 years, in part for reasons of “personal privacy.”

Perhaps a commission of inquiry was not the right way to uncover the truth from the outset. The term “inquiry” – which in Hebrew also means “interrogation” – does not encourage witnesses to tell the truth, lest they incriminate themselves or others or stir the wrath of the families. Under the impression of what they had seen of the ongoing work of the commission of inquiry, some witnesses who were interviewed by Yigal Mashiach also took refuge in the words “I don’t remember,” or simply lied. Shimon Shershevsky, who ran WIZO’s Mother and Child center in Tel Aviv in the years when the children disappeared, told Haaretz Magazine, “I never saw a Yemenite child there, I never heard about adoption.”

Perhaps the South African model of “truth and reconciliation” might have helped uncover the truth here as well. Those who told the truth would be guaranteed amnesty, while the victims, and society as a whole, would be willing to forgive the criminals if they expressed contrition and apologized for what they did. Now, though, it’s probably too late.

Ehud Ein-Gil was deputy editor of Haaretz Magazine and took part in the investigations of the Yemenite children affair.

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