Yemenite and Ashkenazi Families Could Find Common Cause in Israel's Missing-babies Affair

The news is not in noting that Ashkenazi children disappeared in the same period as the children of immigrants from Yemen, the Balkans and the Middle East - rather, the great drama is in exposing the scope of the phenomenon.

Ofer Aderet
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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
Ofer Aderet

In the five days since the publication of my report on the disappearance of Ashkenazi babies in the early years of the state, not a day has passed without someone bringing me another personal story, shockingly similar to its predecessors. “My brother disappeared.” “My sister never came home from the hospital.” “My father had a brother we never met.” “My sister had a twin we never saw.” Some cannot conceal their emotion; they cry, shout and ask for help.

You’ve opened a Pandora’s box, they say. The dam has been breached and the flow cannot be stopped, they threaten. The stories repeat themselves, with small changes. Families that emigrated from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Romania, before and after the Holocaust. They settled in Dimona, Kfar Sava, Petah Tikva, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa. They had a baby, but in the hospital or the clinic, someone took it away, saying the newborn was ill or needed to be “monitored.” After a day or two, a week or two, the family was told their infant had died. No grave, no death certificate. Go home, you’ll have other children, they were told. Each story is a world, complete. Each disappearance is a tragedy that follows the family and is passed on to the next generation.

Until recently, the public heard such stories mainly from Yemenite immigrants. And now a torrent of accounts from European immigrant families shows that an additional, and growing, group is part of the affair. “Who should I contact?” many ask. Others simply want a sympathetic ear.

The news is not in noting that Ashkenazi children disappeared in the same period as the children of immigrants from Yemen, the Balkans and the Middle East. The great drama is in exposing the scope of the phenomenon, which had previously been thought to be marginal. One need only consider the following to understand the significance of the discovery: The government commission that investigated the matter of the Yemenite over several years documented only 30 cases of missing children from families who came from Europe or from America, yet within a few days Haaretz document seven times that number of cases.

There’s more news: A few of the families relate that their children disappeared during the British Mandate, in the 1930s and ‘40s, before the state was established, and in some cases beyond its borders — in British internment camps in Cyprus.

Where were these families all this time? We kept quiet, just as our parents did about the Holocaust, they say. We believed the doctor who said the baby died, even without a grave or a death certificate. A few had a shocking explanation: “We had already lost one child in the Holocaust and we didn’t react strongly when another one died.” But now, with the Yemenite babies again in the headlines, they feel that they too had a child stolen from them. They too want answers, and are finding out that no one has them to give.

The disclosure of additional victims ought to unite everyone who has been affected by this tragedy. The tears of a mother from Yemen are not in competition with the tears of her sister from Poland. The agony of a 95-year-old man from Eastern Europe who has been searching for decades for his infant son and the anger of a 60-year-old Yemenite man who has a sister he has never even met cut across ethnic lines. There is no certainty that the mystery will ever be solved, but if the people who have been hurt by it join forces that might at least help to heal some of the fissures in Israeli society.