Fate of Yemenite babies lost in Israel still a mystery

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM -- It is a parent's nightmare: You trust your baby to a nursery, only to return and find the child gone. Nobody knows where, nobody knows how; someone shrugs and says maybe the baby died.

David Shuker lived with that nightmare for 42 years. His daughter Miriam disappeared from an Israeli hospital in the chaos of mass immigration of Yemenite Jews in 1949 and 1950.

One day, three years ago, a lawyer led him into an office to meet a woman, a mother of three, a woman who had been raised by European Jews whiter than she. The lawyer said, don't speak for a while, just look.

"I had to hide my eyes, I was crying so much. One glance and I knew it was my daughter," said Mr. Shuker, now 73.

The reunion of Mr. Shuker with his daughter is a rare story that has fueled Israel's most inextinguishable conspiracy theory: the mystery of the disappeared Yemenite children.

In the flush of Israel's creation in 1948, the fledgling government staged a spectacular airlift of 47,000 Jews from the southern Arabian country of Yemen, to help establish Israel as the homeland of Jews.

It was a daring but chaotic operation. Families were suddenly plucked from their traditional Arab culture and brought by airplanes -- which many had never seen -- to an unprepared infant state that could offer only tent camps as housing.

The tents were cold and overcrowded, and the winter of 1949 was frigid. Babies were often taken from their parents and put in warmer nurseries or hospitals. Somehow, hundreds of them vanished.

Dark rumors grew: That the babies were snatched and given to European Jews who had emerged from the Holocaust without children. That they were sold to American Jews to raise money for the government. That they were used for medical experiments.

Outlandish theories? Perhaps. But two government commissions -- one in 1967 and another that lasted from 1988 to 1994 -- failed to put the rumors to rest.

That gave Rabbi Uzi Meshulam ammunition. A bombastic, pistol-packing sect leader, Rabbi Meshulam cultivates a following among Yemenite Jews who feel mistreated by the European-stock "Ashkenazi" establishment.

The missing children became a central theme of Mr. Meshulam's railings against Ashkenazi "plots."

When police came to quiet a loud gathering of his followers at his suburban Tel Aviv headquarters in March 1994, he and 40 followers resisted with guns. The standoff ended weeks later when police finally stormed the place. One man was killed, Rabbi Meshulam got an eight-year prison term for illegal gun possession, and a succession of politicians promised to hold yet another inquiry into the missing children.

Now, three days a week, the old Yemenites come before a government panel to tell their tales. Most have related them many times -- to the prior commissions, to investigators, to journalists. The accounts are now stripped of ambiguities. They are stories of sorrow, most depressingly similar:

Naomi Ashwal left her 2-year-old in the infant nursery of her immigration camp. When she returned "they told me they don't know where she is. Then a nurse in the children's ward told me she was dead.

"I said, 'But she was healthy. There was nothing wrong with her!' My husband demanded her body for a burial. They said they didn't know where it was." When he protested loudly, they were evicted: "We were afraid of the policemen and the doctors," she related.

"I think they stole her. We were naive immigrants. What did we know?" she told the panel of two judges and a retired general.

Skeptical investigator

Ami Hovav is skeptical of such accusations. A former private investigator and a Yemenite, he was recruited by community leaders in 1966 to track down the stories of missing babies.

He spent years hunting though records in hospitals, immigration camps, nurseries and government archives. He got special approval to go through adoption records. He was a member of the first government commission, and investigator for the second.

In the end, he examined 505 cases of disappeared children, and said he could explain all but 50.

"People said their children were kidnapped, stolen, that the government sold children for $5,000 to get money. Terrible stories. All of them untrue," he said.

The explanation lay in the confusion of the time.

"In 1949, there still wasn't much of an administrative system. The war was just over. There was still hunger, and food was rationed," he said.

Some of the immigrant children were lost in the shuffle. Many were sickly and died. They were buried before the parents were told, or their corpses were taken so doctors could perform autopsies. And the paperwork failed to reach the families, he said.

"The women Yemenites didn't speak a word of Hebrew. I had many cases where the names were mixed up. Sometimes the name of the father was given, sometimes the grandfather. Sometimes the receptionist said the line on the form wasn't long enough, and just 'shortened' the name.

"When a child in a hospital died -- or recovered -- they sent someone out into a camp of 20,000 people, running barefoot through the tents with a megaphone to find the family. It was complete chaos," he said.

If no family answered, the overburdened hospitals quickly buried the dead and shuffled the living to welfare officials.

"A week or two later, the right family came to find out what happened, and nobody could tell them," he said.

Given away

But this description does not explain all the troubling stories.

Some witnesses said they saw affluent Ashkenazi visitors who seemed to be browsing among the children as though shopping -- then the prettiest babies disappeared.

Other parents were told their child had died. But they caused such a ruckus -- one woman said she clutched a hospital official for four hours -- that their "dead" baby was suddenly returned to them.

And what of the cases -- admittedly few -- like Mr. Shuker's, whose daughter reappeared decades later?

Avigdor Peer, a Welfare Ministry official in charge of the Yemenite immigration, intimated in 1986 testimony before the parliament's Interior Committee that children had been given away.

"People came to look for children for adoption. Not officially. They didn't say openly they were looking," he testified. "The social worker cared for the babies. . . . Somebody thought he would do something humane to give this child to a warm family that wants him. You can't blame the social worker for thinking that way."

Mr. Peer also provided some support for rumors that children were whisked to Jewish parents abroad.

"I know many guests came to visit the Welfare Ministry to see what we did with the children," he said. He recalled discussions that there were "Jewish guests from abroad, mainly America, who adopted these children. They didn't adopt them legally, but took them."

Dr. Dov Levitan, who has studied the Yemenites for almost two decades, said the Ashkenazi immigration camp managers and social workers often thought little of the Yemenite families.

"People who were taking care of the babies looked down on the parents. They thought the parents were 'primitives,' " he said. "Not very much was done to reunite children with their parents."

Dr. Levitan said most of the disappeared children did die. Infant mortality in Yemen at the time was greater than 50 percent, he said, and the Jews had walked for days or weeks from Yemen before they were flown to Israel from the British protectorate of Aden. Many were malnourished and ill.

But Dr. Levitan said of about 650 cases of disappeared children brought to authorities, some 87 cannot be explained. He thinks the present governmental commission should open graves, use genetic tests, and reveal adoption files to solve those cases.

Previous governments have wanted to cover up the issue, he said. The distrust of the Yemenites has festered; antagonism between Ashkenazi and "Sephardic" Jews from North Africa and the Middle East remains one of Israel's greatest social sores.

"The state has to prove itself now," Dr. Levitan said of the current commission. The Yemenite parents are old. "This is the last chance to really prove what happened."

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