Missing babies: Israel's Yemenite children affair

  • Published
Leah Aharoni

In the years after the creation of the Israeli state hundreds of babies went missing. Their parents, mostly Jewish immigrants from Yemen, were told their children had died, but suspicions linger that they were secretly given away to childless families - and newly released documents have revealed some disturbing evidence.

When Leah Aharoni remembers losing her baby daughter five decades ago, she bursts into tears.

"I just saw her for a short time. She was pretty with fair skin. She opened her eyes and looked at me, as if she was saying: 'Don't let me go,'" she says.

Leah had given birth to premature twins in a hospital near her home in Kiryat Ekron, in central Israel, but the little girls were sent away to be cared for.

She was told they were being taken to a special clinic in Tel Aviv. But when Leah's husband visited soon afterwards, only one of the twins was there. The other, Hanna, had died, he was informed.

Leah was shocked not to be shown a body or a grave - a common feature of such stories - but she and her husband did not doubt the heart-breaking news.

It was only years later that she began asking questions, when her surviving daughter, Hagit, turned 18 and was called for national military service.

Two draft notices arrived in the post simultaneously. One for Hagit - and one for Hanna. This is another hallmark of missing baby stories.

Media caption,

'I want to know where my daughter went'

"It started to bother me. Something was not right. I couldn't sleep at night. I decided I had to know what happened," Leah says.

Leah had experienced many calamities long before the loss of her baby. As a child, she and her family had joined thousands of Jews fleeing violence in Yemen. They were robbed as they trekked from one end of the country to the other and Leah was reduced to begging for food. Then they were rescued in an airlift known as Operation Magic Carpet.

"It was the land I had always dreamed about," the 78-year-old recalls, remembering the flight to Israel.

"When we got off the plane everyone kissed the holy ground.

"Then we heard the bombs and grenades and saw the smoke."

They had arrived, malnourished and penniless, during the first Arab-Israeli war.

Image source, Leah Aharoni
Image caption,
Leah’s family (she is second from the left) before they left Aden

Many Yemenite Jews spent periods in transit camps before being settled in homes, and stories of babies going missing began to arise immediately.

Some reports talk of children disappearing after visits to the camps by wealthy American Jews.

In other cases children appeared to be recovering in hospitals from relatively minor ailments when the parents were suddenly told they had died.

On kibbutzes, where some of the Yemenites settled, it was typical for youngsters to be separated from their parents and looked after together, and here too it's said that some children vanished.

Image source, Spielberg Jewish Film Archive
Image caption,
Children were routinely separated from their parents on kibbutzes

Estimates of the number of missing children range from hundreds to thousands.

In many cases the parents believe their children were really kidnapped and given or sold to families of European Jews - occasionally Holocaust survivors who had lost their children - or Americans.

Over time, Leah, like many other parents, ceased to believe in the story of her child's death.

"I went to my father and told him, but he said I should never suspect another Jew stole my child," she says.

She went in search of documents that would reveal the truth about what happened to Hanna, and was deeply disturbed by what she found.

Image caption,
Leah shows a death certificate for her daughter from 1969 - she was also given one dated 1966

One document she obtained said the babies were moved to Tel Aviv after the date on Hanna's death certificate.

Another was a second death certificate, dated three years later than the first - long after Leah and her husband had been told their daughter had died.

Like Leah, most parents received no information about their child's grave. When they did, in some cases it transpired that the grave was empty, or DNA tests showed that the body was not theirs.

Three government inquiries have looked into the Yemenite Children Affair, as it is known, since the 1960s, and all have concluded that most children died of diseases and were buried without their parents being informed or involved.

But many of the families involved suspect a cover-up and continue to believe that there was an organised operation to snatch children, involving health workers and government officials.

So last year the government of Benjamin Netanyahu decided to open up most of the archives of the public inquiries and put them online.

Netanyahu said this marked a new era of transparency and would "right an historic wrong".

Last week it led to shocking revelations in a Knesset committee about medical experiments on Yemenite children. Testimony given under oath at one of the earlier inquiries revealed that four undernourished babies died after being given an experimental protein injection, and that many children died as a result of medical negligence.

Image source, Knesset Special Committee
Image caption,
Disturbing photographs of malnourished children in hospital with the word "spleen" marked on their body were shown in evidence to the Knesset special committee

Post-mortem examinations were carried out on children, who were then buried in mass graves in violation of Jewish tradition, the special Knesset committee on the disappearance of children heard. In some cases the children's hearts were removed for US doctors, who were studying why there was almost no heart disease in Yemen.

"It's a big scandal that the doctors didn't tell the parents they were doing experiments and research on their children," says Nurit Koren, the chair of the committee.

"And even worse there are healthy babies who died from an experimental treatment. It's a crime, it was on purpose, and it let to their death."

Koren is herself the child of parents from Yemen. One of her cousins and her mother-in-law's sister were among the children who disappeared. So one of her objectives, on being elected, was to reopen the subject, which she describes as "an open wound in the heart of the Israeli nation".

One of the disturbing aspects of the Yemenite Children Affair is the way the darker-skinned immigrants appear to have been treated as second-class citizens. The founders of Israel were mostly Ashkenazi Jews, of European descent, some of whom expressed fears that Mizrahi (literally "Eastern") Jews brought with them a backwards "Oriental" culture that might damage the new state.

"Zionism - what is it really about?" asks Rafi Shubeli, a Yemenite-Israeli historian and activist from the group Our Brothers Do Exist.

"What were its intentions towards Mediterranean Jews, the Jews of the Islamic world?

"There are very many elements in Israeli society who want to avoid this kind of discussion."

Image caption,
Rafi Shubeli, Yemenite-Israeli historian and activist from the group Our Brothers Exist, giving evidence in the Knesset

Whether there was an organised conspiracy to snatch Yemenite babies and give them away for adoption remains unproven though, according to historian Tom Segev, who has written books on Israel's early years and served as an expert witness for one government inquiry.

He points out that hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived in Israel at a time of war, and in the years immediately afterwards, when the country was still reeling.

"All these people came in very, very difficult conditions and it's a story of chaos," Segev says.

Media caption,

Tom Segev: "I don't think there was a conspiracy"

Yemenites were housed in tents and had to endure heavy winters. There were child mortality rates of 50%, he points out.

Some children may have been given away, he accepts.

"In some cases this might have happened: one, two, three, four, 10 - I don't know how many," he says.

But in most cases the children just died, he believes.

"It's probably the most tragic story of the return of Jews to Israel."

Working with Nurit Koren, MyHeritage, a company that researches family ancestry, recently began offering help to Yemenite Jews who have a missing child, or who think they were secretly adopted.

Leah Aharoni, who has long been convinced that her daughter, Hanna, could be alive and searching for her biological family, gave a DNA sample - samples of cells from the inside of her cheek - to be checked against others in a new database for Yemenite-Israelis.

"I want to find out where my daughter went. I want her to know that I didn't abandon her, that I love her," Leah says. "I was tricked."

She is encouraged by a few cases in which adults in Israel and abroad found out they had been adopted, and managed to trace their Yemenite parents. She is still waiting to find out if there is a match for her.

At a beachside cafe in Haifa, I meet a physicist who is philosophical about how his life was shaped by this time of turmoil.

Image caption,
Yehuda Kantor found his biological family through DNA testing

A few months ago, Yehuda Kantor became the first person to be reunited with his biological family through the MyHeritage testing programme.

He had spent more than 20 years searching for his biological mother - making regular appearances in the media to publicise his case.

"I got hundreds of telephone numbers and lots of information but none quite fitted my story. I tried some DNA tests but it was in vain," Yehuda says.

Yehuda had a happy childhood, raised in nearby Afula by Batia and Asher Kantor, an Ashkenazi Jewish couple originally from Eastern Europe.

Image caption,
Yehuda as a child with his adoptive family

Photographs show he had a darker complexion than his relatives and school friends.

However, it was not until he reached his twenties that he discovered what much of his close-knit community already knew: he was adopted.

His mother, who had been unable to conceive, revealed she had brought him home from a small orphanage, aged three.

She always feared losing him and so, out of respect for his adoptive parents, it was only after they died that Yehuda opened his adoption file.

This showed no signature of consent from his Yemenite biological mother and gave only her first name, Zahara.

MyHeritage was able to use that to trace a grave for a woman who had died 17 years ago.

They then approached her five children asking them to do DNA tests. These showed they are the half-brother and half-sisters of Yehuda.

"Wow, there are a lot," remarked Yehuda, as he was told the news ahead of an emotional first meeting filmed by Israeli television.

His biological siblings had never been told of the existence of an older brother and were unable to explain the circumstances of his adoption.

However, they were able to give some information on his roots and Yehuda is delighted to be getting to know them better.

"I'm happy the circle was completed and I now know the history, the origin and I know which family [I'm from] from a genetic point of view," he says.

"You cannot regret what happened in the past. This is my life. I accept it as it is."

Additional reporting by Erica Chernofsky

Join the conversation - find us on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.