Between the years 1948 and 1952, thousands of babies, children of mostly Yemenite immigrants to the newly-founded State of Israel, were allegedly taken away from their parents and given up for adoption to Ashkenazi families. Now a group of activists is telling the stories of the traumatized families who vow never to forget.
(Translated from Hebrew by Maayan Goldman)
The baby in the photo is younger than my Abigail. His name is Rafael – a tiny baby, seen here in his mother’s arms. She wandered from Damascus to Beirut and onto the shores of the promised land, before being placed in a tent in the Beit Lyd transit camp. Rafael is my mother’s younger brother. She traveled this long route along with him in a sailboat when she was one-and-a-half years old. Grandfather Mordecai wrote in his diary about what had happened to them when they arrived at the immigrant camp:
“One of the nights a horrible wind was blowing, and rain came pouring from the sky. The small children who slept with us in the tents became sick with colds, diarrhea and fever. The smallest one, five-month-old Rafael, got stomach poisoning, and so we went to Tel Aviv and took him to the government hospital in Jaffa, where he returned his pure and innocent spirit to God in the morning light of Tuesday, 13/9/49.”
In Donolo Hospital they wouldn’t let my grandfather see his son’s body nor his place of burial. They also refused to provide him a death certificate.
The three languages they spoke didn’t help my grandfather and grandmother who were religious and educated. They believed the doctors and sat shiva (a week-long mourning period in Judaism) in mourning. They couldn’t imagine being lied to; who could believe that in Israel of all places, Jews will kidnap the child of other Jews.
Years later, when similar, horrific stories began coming to the fore, they understood. Since then they have not stopped tormenting themselves over how naive they were. They spoke about Rafael and looked for him until their very last day. Every conversation with my grandmother Jenia would always come to Rafi. “We didn’t think ya binti (“my daughter” in Arabic) we didn’t think,” she would say to me, her eyes filling up with tears.
After some time, Uncle Ezra, may he rest in peace, leafed through the documents and found the listing at the hospital, where he found the truth. Rafael Mishan: left/gone.
Where are you today uncle Rafi? Who knows? My grandfather and grandmother, your parents, are gone. And we couldn’t ease their pain.
At least we will let their story be heard.
* * *
In 1949 my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Kammi, gave birth to a healthy baby girl who was taken to the nursery on the same night. In the morning they told her that the baby had died. Aunt Kammi didn’t speak a word of Hebrew and used hand gestures in order to feed her baby. Again they told her that the baby was dead. She asked to see her daughter but they didn’t let her.
A few days later she returned home without her baby. She met a Yemenite neighbor who said the same thing had happened to her. Aunt Kammi never found peace in her life, and was overcome with great sadness.
On the other side of the family, when my father was three weeks old, he had a fever and my grandmother took him to the hospital. Once he was admitted to the hospital, they told his mother, Mas’uda, to go home. My grandmother knew that babies were being stolen and asked to stay by his side. When they didn’t agree, she offered to work there for the time of his hospitalization, washing dishes, cleaning and folding laundry. They finally agreed. She remained nearby and visited him from time to time. Three weeks later they were released from the hospital.
* * *
A baby disappeared from one out of every eight Yemenite families. One out of eight.
Almost every family experienced an attempted kidnapping or witnessed such a tragedy happening to friends and relatives. I only heard my grandmother’s story a year ago!
A short time after their arrival in Israel, my uncle was born in the transit camp. At the same time, four other women from the same Yemenite community gave birth. Nurses recommended that the babies be taken to the nursery, since the conditions in the transit camp conditions were unsuitable for children. The women complied, of course, and were promised to be able to visit their babies a few times a day as well as breastfeed them.
At that time there were already rumors spreading about babies disappearing, and indeed, a day or two later the babies disappeared from the nursery. The mothers were informed that they were sick and delivered to the hospital. My grandmother, a very strong-minded and stubborn woman who was way above average (yes even the Yemenite average) decided to search for her child. She went to the hospital and looked in all of the different rooms until she found my uncle, took him in her hands and left the hospital. The other four children were never found. The parents were told they passed away.
I didn’t hear this story from my father, but rather from my Ashkenazi mother. The silence surrounding this affair teaches us not only of the denial of the Israeli public, but also of the terrible injustice caused to these families who weren’t even allowed to grieve over these crimes, and had no way of receiving recognition or legitimization for their infinite suffering. Crazy people, they call them, delusional. So much so that even their children’s generation didn’t speak up. Imagine living your life after having your child snatched away from you – disappearing. Imagine five minutes of that. Can you?
When I asked my father why they never told me, he said “grandmother didn’t forget, she keeps every piece of information she finds on the subject in a special bag.”
Maybe, just maybe our grandmothers and grandfathers will find a little comfort in the fact that their grandchildren are no longer willing to keep quiet.
* * *
They tried to kidnap two of my relatives: an aunt on my mother’s side and an uncle on my father’s side.
They tried to kidnap my uncle right after he was born. The nurse came in to tell my grandmother that her baby didn’t survive. My grandfather, who had the ability to be very scary when he wanted to, was not convinced. He went over to her and yelled: “Where is my son?!” and was both mad and loud enough to make the Ashkenazi nurse return his son.
The State of Israel never recognized what had happened to my family, nor did it ever apologize, express remorse or stop to think and ask: how the hell did we reach the point where someone considers the kidnapping of children legitimate?
I will walk in Jerusalem’s gay parade as part of the LGBTQ community who has recently been embraced by the state and has received recognition and the attention of a lively debate taking place in the Israeli society. Of course our battle isn’t over, but there is no doubt about the road ahead of us, about our great efforts and hard work and about the very existence of that road.
After the parade I will go to an event with my caring, sensitive and empathetic partner. I will see many black and beautiful faces carrying their pain and that of their relatives for over 50 years now. I’ll cry with them, I’ll sing with them, I’ll listen to what is on their hearts and minds. I’ll be a part of this community – one that never received recognition, and whose path has never been carved out by others. One that can only see, but is itself invisible.
* * *
This is my main source of power. This whole story. My grandmother.
When she gave birth to twin girls in the hospital, a nurse she knew asked her if she would be willing to give up one of her babies for adoption: “You already have Ben-Zion and Mazal” (my mother, in the photo with her).
According to my uncle’s wife, my grandmother was so stunned by the question that she sought out her help. Her naivety, along with the fact that she was facing a nurse who had given her so much in her eyes, made her too ashamed to answer her right away and refuse.
When she returned to the hospital a few days later, the nurse informed her that one of the baby girls had passed away. That was that. No body, no grave.
What went on in her heart and mind, I can only guess. This is the hard part. I don’t believe that my grandmother, the way I have come to know her for all of her integrity and innocence, could comprehend the possibility of someone doing such a thing. It was beyond her grasp. But she could not grasp the opposite situation either. You just know whether some things are true or not – it’s an obvious gut feeling. Power relations didn’t allow that generation’s voice to be heard, but slowly, the grandchildren are rising up and demanding answers. And if not answers, then at the very least we demand memories. We have our own awareness day, since the state still denies the fact that this holocaust took place. In the end they’ll understand that we don’t really need them. The voice, the memory and the truth are only up to us.
* * *
It’s 1951. A young woman, maybe 19, a newcomer from Iran, gives birth to her first daughter. The daughter is taken away and the woman is told she had died.
“Where is the dead daughter?” asks the young woman.
“There is no daughter, go home.”
She went home with no daughter. She went home with no funeral and no grave.
A year goes by, the same young woman gives birth to a son at the same hospital. The son is taken. Where is my son, the woman asked. He’s dead, they say to her. Your son in dead, there is no son.
“Give him to me dead,” the woman said.
“There is no dead, go home.”
She went home with no son, she went home with no funeral, with no grave.
She had no more children. They remained alone, just she and her husband. Three years ago her husband died and she was left all alone – no husband and no children, 82 years old, sick and lonely, with family or friends left.
I met this woman an hour ago. She was sitting on a bench on Zamenhof Street in Tel Aviv asking for help. She held a hospital bill of 909 shekels for calling for an ambulance for her husband over three years ago. Not only she does she lack the ability to pay, she doesn’t know how to do it. When I offered her something, she determinedly said no, saying she only wanted to find out what she can do, before bursting into tears. Then she spoke of her children who may be alive today, and cried again. One woman, two children.
God, how efficient they were back then, in 1951.
* * *
I sat down to drink my morning coffee with A, my friend from the neighborhood. I told him that today is the day of awareness for the Yemenite children’s affair. He is a proud Moroccan, 73 years old, level-headed, precise, sharp and smart. This what he told me: one winter in Zarnuka transit camp, my two little brothers were sick. My father worked in the orchards and couldn’t go to the hospital with my mother. My mother and two brothers arrived there with the boys running a high fever, and after some general check-ups my mother was sent home. My father, who was a clever man, convinced her to go back there with him to watch over the children. When they returned, one of the nurses came over and told them that the children are gone. Until this day their place of burial is unknown, as is the cause of death.
A’s mother was informed that they had died of gastroenteritis that turned very severe in less than a day. A’s family, Moroccan farmers – proud Zionists – didn’t ask questions or demand answers. They only mourned, believing that the two had gone to a better place.
* * *
Miriam Bunker, 80, was born in Pakistan. She immigrated to Israel with her late husband, Abraham, and their only daughter at 1948. Abraham worked in the department of public service and Miriam worked in the Kanaf 6 IDF base until she retired. In 1959, after having given birth to five children already, she became pregnant again and gave birth to triplets. After two days in the hospital she was told that two of the three babies had died. She neither saw their bodies nor got a chance to bury them. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion awarded her a house with a 70 square meter yard in Dalet neighborhood in Beersheba. She still lives there paying 450 shekels a month to this day.
When the children reached the age of 17, they all received IDF draft orders – the two dead ones included – which were delivered to her house.
* * *
“For the sin we have committed before you openly or secretly.”
As a grandson to a grandfather and grandmother who experienced this terrible crime – committed in secret and backed up by the country’s elite – I felt the need to take part in the evening to honor of the memory of the Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan children affair. At the end of the evening, I felt very strongly about how important it is to speak up and tell my story – to my children and to anyone else whose heart and ears are not sealed. I’m allowing myself to “steal” some of your time in order to cry out in the name of the parents and their stolen daughter.
I am the grandson of Ezer and Sara Zarum, who immigrated to Israel in the 1950’s from Sana’a with their two sons (Eli and Mati) and reached the Atlit transit camp, where my grandmother gave birth to her daughter Ziona.
I won’t go into detail, but Ziona was staying at the hospital, and a few days later my grandmother was told that she died and had been buried. After some time my grandmother gave birth to my father, Zion, and years later to Yinon. At the end of the 60’s, thanks to a relative working in the Central Bureau of Statistics, who cross-referenced some details, a suspicion arose over the possibility that Ziona was alive, and that she was adopted by a well-known family (who was close to the political elite) from Haifa.
The story explodes and reaches the headlines. Both my grandmother and “Ziona” are interviewed by the press. The story ends with her refusing to meet my grandparents.
As a child, the story stayed with me for my entire life. Of course it was forbidden to speak about it with my grandparents. In fact, I don’t remember it ever coming up in their presence. They have accepted the verdict.
This week I asked my father, who did not know that he had a sister until the story went public, how come his parents didn’t suspect anything – never asked or investigated the subject. He answered: “Grandfather Ezer couldn’t believe that there are thieves in Israel.” And suddenly I understood their silence very clearly. It is not just about accepting the verdict, it is also a fear of holding this disappointment of their “land of milk and honey,” which they yearned for and dreamed of in their prayers and songs.
But I have no one to ask about it now.
* * *
My sister Rachel was three months old. She had a fever, so my mother took her from Nahariya to Rambam Hospital in Haifa. We lived in a shack in the transit camp and my parents didn’t speak any Hebrew. There was transportation only once a day. My mother went to visit her after a week and found her healthy. She wanted to take her home, but she was told to come back in two weeks. A week later she received a letter saying that the baby died. She asked to see a body, but there was no body. Eighteen years later an army draft notice arrived.
* * *
All of my mother’s brothers and sisters are sitting in the living room when I come back from the army on Thursday. Something important must have happened. Etti is wiping a tear from her eye, Isaac looks upset. A stranger is sitting with them, holding a tape recorder in one hand, writing in a yellow pad in the other. They think they found her. I will have to postpone my enthusiasm over the army-sponsored car I got for the weekend. She was one year old, he was an immigrant, and he took her to the hospital. In the evening the doctors convinced him to go home – sleeping in the hospital was forbidden. When he came back early the next day, an Israeli, Jewish doctor put his arm on his shoulder and told him the worst of all had happened:”She died.” “She died? What do you mean died? Of what?” even then he didn’t raise his voice, and was only filled with quiet sadness. “Pneumonia. there was nobody here, we didn’t know what to do, she was buried in a nameless grave, a proper Jewish burial, don’t worry.” He couldn’t find the Hebrew words to say body, or death certificate, just as he couldn’t find ones to express his anger and pain. The deputy director of the ward walked him out of the hospital, gave him some vague, general explanations, and finally asked how many children he has. Grandfather didn’t understand what that has to do with anything. The most important thing is having people to go back home to, the deputy director said.
At home, when he was asked where the baby is, he didn’t answer. My grandmother insisted, there’s no way that children will just disappear like that, here in Israel. “If a Jewish doctor in Israel said the girl died then she is dead… this isn’t a foreign country over here.” For him, a Jewish doctor in the Land of Israel was almost a divine entity. And even the deputy director was called in to help explain the situation when he had a hard time understanding it, my grandfather Zion tried to convince himself.
A while later he lost his innocence, spoke of her as if she were alive, mentioned her at every opportunity and counted her among his seven children. Before he died, 40 years after leaving her in the hospital, his oldest son intravenously inherited the mystery of the missing daughter. Ten years after his father died, Uncle Isaac began searching. In the age of computers and technology, it seemed like there was hope in the office Internal Affairs Ministry. Someone working there found a listing of a woman whose personal details were identical to the ones of the lost sister – name, I.D number, date of birth, year of immigration, even the name of the ship in which she had arrived to Israel – in which they had all arrived, together. But now what? That was the purpose of this gathering. They consulted with a reporter from Ma’ariv who was investigating the affair. She thought they only kidnapped Yemenite children, but was happy to further expand the subject and the unequivocal testimonies. In her opinion there was only one thing to do: there was an address in Jerusalem, and we needed to go and check it out. This should be done very carefully, very gently, she should not be involved at this stage.
“I can go,” I volunteered immediately. Even before I understood what was in question exactly, it sounded like a great adventure. The adults were less excited about it.
“What will you say to her? What will you do? You can’t pressure her, you can’t just go there and knock on her door, we have to find out more details.” I had an answer ready for every question, almost without thinking: “I’ll pretend I’m a fundraiser or doing a survey about television, what’s the problem? It’s all about going in there and looking to see if there is any resemblance right?”
I guess I managed to gain the trust of six brothers and sisters. Etti suggested that Ravit will go with me, so there will be someone who’s “a bit older, after all…”
Sunday afternoon, Ravit and I in the car that I got from the army, a Renault 5 that can barely make it up the roads leading to Jerusalem. We prepared questions, printed out a survey on wide, perforated computer papers, and after briefly getting lost in the city’s alleyways we stop in front of the house. A three-story building, surrounded by a stone wall and a lot of vegetation. Ravit said it would be better if she waits in the car, one pollster is more believable. I didn’t argue. I need to go in, take a quick look and leave. Filled with a historic sense of mission I stand in front of the door on the first floor, staring at the sign which confirms my kidnapped aunt’s name. A small butterfly flutters its wings under my diaphragm. I knocked a soft knock on the door followed by another one. Only after three very careful, hesitant knocks did the door open. A girl eight or nine years old stood before me. A sigh of relief – a girl I can handle. “Hello, where’s mommy?” I ask. “Sleeping.” Excellent, I think to myself, but then I remember that I’m supposed to actually see the aunt, find out if there’s any resemblance. “I’m from cable television and we’re doing a survey about television viewing habits. Would you be willing to answer a few questions?” “Yes, but I’m small,” says the girl who could easily be my cousin, and goes back to her drawings on the dining room table as if I were some relative who just walked in.
I sit down beside her, realizing my good fortune. “Okay, we’ll start with a few personal details.” Name of the mother, name of the father. Between names of television shows I plant questions about their country of origin and year of immigration – of her mother, of her father. “Did you complete your family tree project?” I ask. The girl, immersed in her drawings, occasionally lifts up her head and mutters a reply. She seems indifferent, a bit suspicious. “Mother doesn’t have any brothers.” Her head is almost touching the drawing. I take advantage of her lack of attention to observe her. She looks like Ravit or Meirav in the 8 mm film, with Kiko the donkey on the boulevards of Nordia.
Something in her eyes and in her cheeks resembles the family. Half an hour goes by. We’ve gone through all of the programs we had prepared, as well as those we hadn’t prepared. What do you think about Sesame Street, and would you prefer cartoons, and maybe you’d like to have news for children. After spending more than three years in the army, I don’t know any television programs. She can sense I’m buying time. I ask her about her grandfather and grandmother on her mother’s side, and the uncles as well. All of the answers are correct. She was born in 48, immigrated in 49, came from Libya, she’s adopted but her adoptive parents are also from Libya (I thought they only kidnapped children for Ashkenazi families), her parents died but she knows there were some problems with the adoption. An only child.
I look at the clock on the wall. 40 long minutes. Ravit is dehydrating in the car. Six brothers and sisters and one reporter are eagerly waiting by the phone to hear the fatal answer. “When will mommy wake up?” “I have to wake her up at 5” “It’s 5 now.” She takes a look at the clock and scolds me “there are 5 more minutes.” Five minutes later she disappears into the apartment and returns after a minute, sits down in silence and goes back to her drawing. A few minutes go by and I hear a rustle. Then the rustle turns into footsteps. I turn my head in the direction of the footsteps and she appears. A women of around 50, sleep wrinkles on her face, black hair, wide hips, there’s a hint of of Sara in her, a little bit of Rivka. She notices me staring at her, now she seems angry. “Hello,” she says in a voice which sounds almost aggressive. “He-llo,” I mumble, excited, agitated. “I, uh, we’re doing a television survey, will you be willing to answer a few questions?” she looks at me suspiciously, approaches the papers and asks me to leave. She doesn’t have time for this sort of thing. I walk out to the stairway, distracted, excited, alert, confused, trying to keep all of the details in my memory, not to lose even a fragment of information, organize my thoughts, not to forget how she looked, her facial features, the whole experience.
It takes 60 minutes before we get home. On the way I practice on Ravit, driving really fast so as to not forget. As if I’m moving an egg on a spoon to the other side of the room – quickly but carefully. She doesn’t resemble them but doesn’t not resemble them either. There is some resemblance. The narrow face, the wide hips. She looks a little like Sara and a little like Rivka, but I do not know. She also looks a little bit like my father’s family. Actually, not really. Do you think she could tell? I don’t know. In any case, the details are correct – an only child, adopted, immigrated from Libya, 1949.
At our home in Yavne, the phone is ringing long before I get there. Six brothers and sisters, again and again. Everybody wants to know how it went. Why did it take so long? The story passes from brother to sister, long and detailed, no word is left out, no detail is forgotten. “The little girl looks like Ravit and Meirav…. in the films with Kiko the donkey… she asked her about news for children… and then she heard steps and she walked out… doesn’t resemble and doesn’t not resemble… a little bit of Sara and a little bit of Rivka…she doesn’t know.”
We have to talk to her, there’s no other choice, we have to confront her with the facts. Of course there’s always the possibility that some sort of mistake was made in the personal details – that she was mixed-up with someone else. But if there was no mistake, then it’s Miriam.
Uncle Isaac finds a “distinguished man” – someone whom she would know, respect and will agree to meet with and listen to. Someone who would talk to her, who would tell her. They want nothing from her, just to know that it’s her, that Miriam is alive, that our grandfather may rest in peace. He talked to her. She doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to check, doesn’t want anything to do with it, doesn’t want to discover lost brothers and sisters at the age of 50. She has her own life, her own family, she doesn’t need this shock now. It has been 50 years. Six brothers and sisters won’t give up. Isaac calls her, tries to set up a meeting with her. She won’t do it – they want nothing, that isn’t the point. No money, no family events, no genetic tests. Just cooperation.
She doesn’t have time for this sort of thing.
Aunt Miriam’s daughter is a young Jeruslamite today, around the age of 30. After long hours of conversation about the right to know vs. the right not to know, we will not search for her, but will be happy to be found.
Gali Sembira (Thirty Months of Love, Xargol, 2005).
This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.
More on the Yemenite children’s affair:
The tragedy of the lost Yemenite children: In the footsteps of the adoptees
The Yemenite Baby Affair: What if this was your child?