Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar 5762 - April 17, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Stolen Yemenite Children Affair Revisited

by M. Samsonowitz

The report of the National Commission of Inquiry Regarding the Missing Yemenite Children Affair was published six months ago, the result of six years of investigation.

The Immigrant Transit Camps

The vast majority of the 50,000 Yemenite Jews and their children arrived intact in Israel on 380 flights by British and American planes in Operation "Magic Carpet" which lasted from 1949-50.

The Jewish Agency placed the Yemenite (and other) immigrants in various camps surrounded by barbed wire, the most famous of which were Rosh Ha'Ayin, Ein Shemer, and Atlit. They lived in primitive lean-tos and tents.

The Yemenites, refined and acquiescent by nature, were trusting of the Zionist leaders who brought them home to Eretz Yisroel after so many centuries. They were given ration cards, basic furniture, jobs and small monthly stipends. Most Yemenites were impoverished, some having started out poor and others having lost their funds in the travel.

When the camp managers insisted that the families place babies and infants in Baby Clinics to safeguard the children's health, the Yemenites saw no reason to resist. They trustingly placed the children in the baby homes, and mothers came every few hours to nurse their children. Those families who insisted on keeping their infants with them, quickly felt the heavy hand of the administration. Ration cards were withheld from them and sometimes police were even sent to beat them.

From the beginning of the Yemenites' arrival in the immigrant camps, children began to disappear. A typical pattern was: the mother came to nurse her child, and a Baby Clinic nurse told her that the child had suddenly taken ill and had been transferred to a hospital. The parents were told a few days later by a Baby Clinic nurse that the child had died in the hospital. Those parents who had trekked to the hospital to seek their child, were often told that the child had already died. Sometimes the parents had seen the child just a few hours before, and the child had appeared healthy or with only minor symptoms.

Many parents were not given the bodies of their dead children and were instead told that the hospital had already buried the child.

Even then, some suspected the worst. It was rumored that guests from the U.S. had visited the Baby Clinics with medical personnel, and they had looked over the babies -- after which many of the babies had disappeared.

Yemenite parents began to resist giving up their children. They wrote hundreds of letters to the police, government ministries, and even the prime minister David Ben Gurion's office. The replies were laconic or evasive: "We'll check it up" and "Your request was filed and will be attended to."

The Yemenites who lost children eventually put their sorrow aside and struggled to get ahead with their lives. They moved out of the transit camps to permanent residences all over the country.

Penniless, disoriented and defenseless against a heartless establishment, most Yemenites gave up hope of ever seeing their children again. Many preferred to believe that their child was indeed dead.

Even after the immigrants were settled in their homes and the immigrant camps were closed, children continued to disappear from the hospitals. The disappearances continued to 1960, when a Knesset committee finally discussed the fact that children were being sold abroad for $5-10,000 a child.

Awareness Grows Among the Yemenites

In 1965, the Yemenite community began to publish the Afikim journal, which was devoted to issues of interest to them. The journal helped create increased awareness of the missing children affair among the community.

In 1966, Yemenites all over the country began to get letters calling their children for the draft. They suspiciously looked at the draft notices and asked themselves how the government offices could err in sending out draft calls for children who were long dead. Soon the community was calling for an investigation.

Adding fuel to their suspicions, Yemenite activists in the U.S. uncovered clippings in the foreign press indicating that babies had been sent abroad for adoption. An article headlined "Canadian is Seized in Baby Sale Racket" revealed that a Montreal attorney was arrested in a joint Canadian-New York police investigation into an alleged $3,000,000 black market in babies.

The agitation brought the Knesset to hold its first deliberation in the plenum on July 19, 1966, titled "Disappearance of Babies From the Immigrant Camps During 1949- 1951 and Their Fate."

The Establishment's Excuses

The Justice Minister Y. Shapiro claimed that the Knesset plenum was not the place for dealing with the issue. He proposed "pinpoint treatment," handing the investigation to the police. The deliberations passed to the Knesset Public Affairs Committee, where it formed its conclusions after seven meetings. Representatives of the Yemenite Committee were allowed to be present only during the fifth and sixth meetings. One of the appointees to this committee was Ami Chovav, a Yemenite investigator.

Several explanations of the disappearances were given:

* There was tremendous confusion reigning in the camps due to the huge numbers of immigrants and the primitive conditions of the State in its early years.

* The immigrants mixed up the personal and family names of their children when speaking to authorities. Since the names were strange to Ashkenazi ears, and since many of the first and second names were the same, this compounded the confusion.

* The parents often left the children in the hospitals while they took care of other needs. By the time they went to look for the children, the children had been placed in other homes.

* The parents often didn't even recognize their children because they were used to seeing them sick and emaciated.

* Yemenite parents were apathetic about their own children after generations of living with Moslems who seized their children or bought them outright.

* Yemenite parents had many children and were happy to lessen their burden by giving up some of them.

Bahalul-Minkovsky Commission (1967- 1968)

Unsatisfied citizens demanded a further investigation and Y. Bahalul, the Haifa district attorney, was appointed by the Justice Ministry, and Superintendent Minkovsky, from the National Police Division, who was appointed by the Police Minister. Helping the committee was the Yemenite Committee's lawyer, Atty. Kahan, and private Yemenite investigator Ami Chovav.

The Bahalul-Minkovsky Commission was given its mandate in January 3, 1967 to bring its conclusions by February 15, 1967. It quickly reached the conclusion it would be unable to complete its work in time and it asked for an unspecified extension of time.

Conclusions of the Bahalul-Minkovsky Commission

The Commission worked for a year and a half. In their report they explain that they investigated 3,000 adoption files from the years 1949-1956. They reiterate the difficult conditions of those years and complained that many archives had disappeared.

The Committee said that of the 342 children who had disappeared according to the complaints submitted, 316 had passed away, four had been found, and 22 had disappeared without leaving any trace. The Police Minister ignored the Bahalul-Minkovsky Commission's recommendation to search for the missing 22 children abroad.

The conclusions of the Bahalul-Minkovsky Commission did not satisfy the Yemenites and their agitation continued.

Reports of Kidnapped Children are Published

In 1985 the disappeared Yemenite children were discussed again in five meetings of the Knesset Interior Committee, from May 22 to November 18.

On November 27, 1985, Agudas Yisroel MK Menachem Porush gave testimony about the need to stop the conspiracy of silence. He said, "Children were taken and [parents] were told that the children were dead. Where were they buried? No one could say. Afterwards, it was found out that documents had been falsified. I hereby determine with clear knowledge that in various places they fabricated documents."

The last meeting held by the Knesset Interior Committee on December 31, 1985, provided one of the most stunning revelations about the affair. Avigdor Pe'er, a Poalei Agudas Yisroel representative who was Deputy Director of the Department in Charge of Immigrants during the relevant time, came to speak to the Interior Committee because "his conscience was troubled."

Pe'er admitted that the children had been transferred to institutions run by women's organizations, and the children had been distributed according to a party quota. Most of the children went to the Working Mothers (Mapai) because they had the most seats in the Knesset. Children were also sent to the institutions of Mizrachi Women and the General Zionists. Some children were sent to Agudas Yisroel homes because the Minister of Welfare was from Agudas Yisroel. Pe'er claimed that orderly lists had been made of the children who had been taken to these institutions. He himself, as part of his job, had prepared these lists and updated them according to which children were present in each institution.

Pe'er also said that the children were not given up for adoption, since there was no Adoption Law at that time, but he knew that people had come looking for children to adopt. The social workers, deciding that it was for the child's welfare to be raised in another family, fully cooperated. There was no interference by the Welfare Ministry, nor were there criteria for adoption. Pe'er testified to the committee, "Many guests came from abroad, particularly from America, and adopted the children. They didn't adopt them according to law, they just took them."

When Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister the Yemenites hoped that their affair would receive a more sympathetic response.

Only after continued pressure by the Yemenite community did Shamir agree to found another "Clarification Committee" with limited authority.

Shelgi Commission 1988-1994

The Shelgi Commission received its mandate from Prime Minister Shamir in September 1988. The chairman of the Commission was Justice (ret.) Moshe Shelgi, who 19 years before had participated in the discussions of the Knesset Public Affairs Committee. The Commission also included representatives from the Police, Interior and Justice ministries, a spectator on behalf of the Prime Minister, and Yigal Yosef, the head of Rosh Ha'ayin's Local Council, who was a Yemenite with the added status of having lost a sister.

Two and a half years after it received its mandate, Shelgi complained in a Knesset Interior Committee meeting that his investigators had only perused 22 of the 400 files they were supposed to check.

The "investigation" continued on for a total of six years. The conclusions of the Shelgi Commission were published in December, 1994. They investigated 505 cases of disappeared children, including 301 cases that had not been investigated by the Bahalul-Minkovsky Commission (a total of 643 disappeared children). Their conclusion was that of the 301 new cases that arose, 222 of the children had died, of which 51 lacked death certificates. 14 of the children had disappeared in Aden, for which evidence existed that 3 of them had died. There was no information concerning 65 of the other children. The Commission claimed that not one adopted child had been found.

The Commission also reported the surprising finding that since the Bahalul-Minkovsky Commission had been active, several important sources of information had disappeared which the new Commission could not examine. For instance, the medical files of the hospitals, and the Health Ministry records concerning burial licenses "which had been cleared out with the passage of time according to the Archives Law - 1955."

The one member of the Shelgi Commission who refused to sign its conclusions was the Yemenite representative, Yigal Yosef.

Shelgi's personal conclusion, as he told a Ma'ariv reporter (April 29, 1995) was, "We didn't find a kernel of evidence that could support the claim that children were stolen . . . Does anybody believe that if we would have found any material whatsoever, we would have left it without examination?"

Uzi Meshullam and Mishkan Ohelim

At this time arose a colorful figure who made the missing Yemenite children affair his cause celebre: Uzi Meshullam.

Through the early 1990s, he organized rallies and exhibitions in towns throughout Israel with large Yemenite populations. For the first time, the Yemenite community felt they had someone they revered and trusted to seek the truth and resolution of their painful affair.

The "Yehud Event"

Under murky circumstances police converged on Meshullam's house in huge numbers and began beating his students.

Thus began the siege and police assault. Meshullam and his disciples suddenly found themselves, three days before Pesach, surrounded by a barrage of security forces, including the "Terror-Fighting Unit", the "Emergency Intervention Force", the Border Police, the "Regional Command Patrol", sharpshooters, dogs, and horses.

The press claimed that Meshullam's group were barricading themselves with a large supply of weapons in his house.

The siege continued throughout and after Pesach. On the night of Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5754 (May 10,1995), Meshullam gave himself up to the police. After he was taken into custody, the police stormed his home and arrested his disciples. One of his disciples, Shlomo Assulin, was shot by a police sniper from a helicopter. He died of his wound.

Over 10 of Meshullam's disciples, including Nathan Shifris, were arrested and accused of illegal possession of weapons and forming a private militia. They were given sentences ranging from 1 to 3 years. Meshullam, who was accused of instigating an insurrection and illegal firearms possession, was given 4 years in solitary confinement.

Meshullam claimed that only 70 percent of the missing children were Yemenite. 28 percent of the children were of Sephardic and Balkan origin, and 2 percent from Ashkenazic homes.

The (Third) Commission of Inquiry

In the wake of the Yehud events, 64 Knesset members signed a petition supporting the appointment of a National Commission of Inquiry with wide powers. The Interior Committee decided on July 25, 1994, to appoint a National Commission of Inquiry to review the Shelgi Report.

The National Commission of Inquiry was appointed on January 23, 1995 by High Court president Meir Shamgar. He appointed former High Court justice Yehuda Cohen as the chairman, and Maj. Gen. David Maimon and Justice Dahlia Kubel as members. The Commission began to hear testimony in June, 1995.

The Commission plodded on. It issued an Interim Report in August 1997 announcing they had opened 687 files on missing children, 247 of them seen by previous commissions. Although 27 percent of the parents of missing children were not of Yemenite extraction, and their mandate only involved Yemenite families, the Commission nevertheless decided to accept their complaints.

The National Commission of Inquiry's Failings

Yigal Meshiach, a Ha'aretz reporter who had written a series of articles about how the children had disappeared, reported on July 5, 1996 and September 5, 1997 on the performance of the Commission of Inquiry.

Yigal Meshiach mentions that he managed after carrying out an energetic search to locate the WIZO archives in a storage room in Rechovot's industrial zone, a feat which the Commission of Inquiry, with all its authority and funds, had been unable to do due to sundry excuses provided by the archives clerk.

In the middle of 1999, Judge Cohen retired and Judge Kedmi, a former police investigator and High Court judge, was appointed in his place.

Important Testimonies of the Commission

Despite all its failings, the Investigative Committee did discover extremely important information from key figures involved in the affair.

* Yehudit Chivner, in charge of the Interior Population Registry for several decades, reported how she casually added and removed names to the Registry.

* Uri Avneri, the editor of Olam Hazeh, and a Knesset member for decades, testified that the claim of "total confusion" in the immigrant camps which was blamed for the disappearance of the children was false since everything was recorded and registered properly in the camps.

* 30 families reported that when they went to the hospitals where their children were taken, and were told that they were dead, they reacted so violently and threateningly, that the frightened hospital staff gave them their children back alive.

* Many doctors and nurses who had worked in the hospitals and baby homes displayed selective memory recall.

* A nurse gave testimony in a videotape:"I must say this because it's the right thing. I would take 2-3 babies with an ambulance to Afula, healthy and perfect babies, and the next day I would ask 'Where are the babies?' and they told me they died. 'What do you mean they died --? They were healthy and nothing was wrong with them; I took them'. When they said that they had died, it wasn't true, they gave them up for adoption... just as the day is light, I am telling you the truth... most of them were sent to the U.S."

1997 - 1999: More Rallies, Meetings, and Articles

On December 12, 1997, Makor Rishon printed the recorded testimony of a man who was an ambulance driver for the immigrant camps, given before he had passed away. The ambulance driver admitted that he had adopted one of the children he used to transport regularly from Tel Aviv hospitals to a WIZO home for the purpose of adoption. He testified that in 1953, he was sent a letter by Attorney Shlomo Perles offering him the opportunity to acquire normal birth certificates from the government which would show him and his wife as the birth parents of their adopted son.

In June, 2000, Judge Kedmi published a summary of his conclusions in Yediot Achronot in which he announced that the committee didn't find any proof of intentional wrongdoing in the disappearance of the missing children, and planned to issue the final report in the winter. He issued a final call to families to come forth with information before the Commission finished its work.

The Cohen Commission's Report - November 4, 2001

On November 4, 2001, the National Commission of Inquiry finally released its report: Accusations that State of Israel institutions kidnapped Yemenite children for adoption purposes were not true. The committee looked into close to 1,000 cases of missing children, and found proof that over 750 children had died. 56 cases were still a "mystery." It mentioned it is likely that some children were in fact given up for adoption by social workers, according to the committee's findings. The committee blamed the Jewish Agency for not establishing a body that would coordinate between parents and hospitals, to pass information between them.

The findings of the third commission met with strong criticism by the range of activists who had been involved in the affair.

Where are the Missing Children Today?

The past 50 years has turned up in Israel a dozen people who discovered that they were stolen Yemenite children. What has happened to the others?

Activists in the affair mention that many children were never told that they were adopted, and therefore never suspect their true origin. Others are afraid to uncover their roots, afraid of the impact it might have on their present lives. Others were told they were abandoned by their parents and therefore are uninterested in meeting the family who abandoned them.

The Korach and Chovera Children

Here are some stories that are told by families that suffered through those difficult times.

Rabbi Shlomo Korach was the scion of a wealthy, distinguished Yemenite family who had transferred its vast fortune to Israel through London banks. He was 16 when he arrived in Israel with his family. His parents, Rabbi Ichia and Naama, immigrated to Israel and arrived in Rosh Ha'Ayin in 1949. They were pressured by nurses to hand over their daughter, who was then only nine months old, so they could examine her in the baby ward. They didn't want to part from their daughter, but the nurses forcefully took her and assured them that the baby would be returned to them soon. A day later they were told the child died. The parents demanded and begged to see the grave, but their request was treated with contempt. They never saw the baby again.

His sister, Yona Chovera, also lost her daughter. On the plane to Israel, a Jewish Agency nurse called Masha was enamored of the newborn, fussed over her, and asked the parents to call the baby by her name. When they arrived in Israel, they were settled in the Ein Shemer transit camp and Masha was taken to the baby ward. One day Yona arrived to nurse her child and was told, 'You can't nurse her today. She has pneumonia.' Although the child appeared completely normal, the nurses said they would send her to the Pardes Chana Hospital for three days. Since she lived five meters away from the baby ward, Yona told them she would go consult her husband and would be right back. She returned with her husband three minutes later, but were told that the baby had already been sent. Three days later, a man arrived, announcing that Masha Chovera had died.

When Yona's husband asked to bury her he was told, "You are her father? She died. Sign here."

He said, "I'm not signing. I want to see a body and bury it."

They told him: "They buried her yesterday, along with another five children."

The father was shocked. He asked, "Are we in Israel or in Germany?' He asked and pleaded to see the grave, but they refused. He kept insisting, "I won't sign, or mourn."

Every day, Yona went to the manager's office, and begged to be shown where her daughter was buried. A few days later, the manager told her: "Go to the room downstairs. They will give you your child wrapped up, but do not touch her. We will then return her to the grave."

Yona went into the room, and saw a strange package that didn't look to her like a dead child. Feeling they were deceiving her, she told herself, "I'll open it, maybe it's a dead cat." She removed a rag, and another rag, until she reached the last one, and found nothing. Only rags.

She started to cry, "Why did you give me rags?" The manager told her, "We wanted to calm you down, we didn't know you were so smart."

Years later, Yona discovered that the kindhearted nurse Masha lived in Savyon, and went to visit her. Once Masha showed her picture albums of her family, and suddenly Yona spotted a child in it who looked very much like her own missing child. Yona asked her, "Who is that child?" Masha told her it was her sister's daughter, and then grabbed the album and ran to a different room." (published in Yom L'Yom)

Masha's brother, Dr. Amnon Chover, decided in 1986 to investigate his older sister's disappearance. He located the nurse Masha, and the last nurse who had seen his sister. With details they gave him, he went to the Interior Ministry and discovered that his sister had left the country. He wasn't given a death certificate since her name didn't appear in the Death Registry.

He reached Uzi Meshullam in 1992, and was told that his sister was adopted by an American family who had threatened to disinherit her if she returns to her family in Israel.

When the National Commission of Inquiry published its findings, Chover was told that the Commission had found the death book from Ein Shemer, and his sister appeared there. He refused to accept the findings for several reasons:

One, the report doesn't relate the reason for death, or the burial plot, but merely mentions "great likelihood" that she died.

Second, The name that appears in the book of deaths doesn't match the name on his sister's immigrant card. The immigrant card lists her as "Moshe Chubara" while the death book lists her as "Masha Chubara."

Third, the book was written by the camp's administration and not by a funeral worker or Chevra Kadisha. The administration may have been creating an alibi for its illegal activities. Chover asked the Commission for permission to view the death book himself and so far has not been answered.

Kidnapped: The Two Sons of Yosef Aharon Hammami

Hammami came to Israel with two wives, Kadia and Mazal, each of which had one child taken from her. The family lived in Bet Dagon, when Mazal gave birth at the Kaplan Hospital. The son weighed 2.5 kilo, was healthy, and the entire staff in the delivery room congratulated her. They told her they would return the son the next day so she could nurse him. The next day, the nurse in charge whose name was Leah, told her, "You can't get your child. He's in treatment. But don't worry."

Two more days went by, during which time Mazal begged to see her son. Suddenly, the nurse told her angrily , "You will never see him. He is in treatment."

Mazal asked her, "What do you mean `in treatment'? If he died, tell me he died."

Mazal had seen other women who had given birth to dead children, and they were permitted to see their children and accompany them to burial. But Leah did not let her see her son, and kept on saying: "You will never see him. He is in treatment."

Leah also tried to "calm her down", by saying, "Calm down, calm down. You have two children at home. Raise your other children."

Mazal told her, "If someone would take your child, what would you do? Why do you cause me sorrow? If my son is alive, sick, or dead, I want to see him. Let me see my son, just for a moment."

But she answered again, "You will never see him, he is in treatment."

Mazal left the hospital in great sorrow, and spent two years crying, unable to sleep, and suffering terrible depression.

She said years later, "If this would happen to me today, I would fight. . . But then, we only cried. Up to this very day, I cannot forget my son. I saw him for only half an hour, after birth. And I feel he is alive."

Yosef Aharon Hammami's second wife Kadia had a one-year- old son stolen from her. The family was then living in the immigration camp in Znoach. The nurses found that the infant would suck two fingers in a "strange" way, so they told the family that they were taking him for treatment. He was sent far away, and they brought him to his parents only on occasion.

His sister Shosh Philo from Tel Aviv recalls, "One day, they told us he had died. My parents could not understand how such a healthy child could just die, and they told them that, since he wanted to suck his fingers, but could not (because of the bandages), the frustration caused him to die." The family was not given the body.

"My parents were naive and could not believe they were being lied to. But a few years later, when other cases of kidnapping became known, my mother would say sadly: `Too bad we were naive. If it would happen today, I would go with him, and stay by him all the time.' " (published in Yom L'Yom)


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