After 48 years, DNA test reunites Yemenite Jews Hopes bolstered for others who lost children, siblings in immigrations to Israel


JERUSALEM -- Two years ago, Tsila Levine, a California teacher, saw a television program about the disappearance of Yemenite Jewish children during a 1940s wave of immigrations to Israel. Her search for her biological parents took a new turn.

It led her back to Israel, to the office of a Tel Aviv-area lawyer, who published her picture in local newspapers. Soon, 15 Yemenite families claimed her as their missing daughter.

But Margolit Amosi was certain.

"I don't care if 40 families say you are their daughter, I gave birth to you. Don't you ever forget it," she told her.

This week, the results of a DNA test proved Amosi right.

News of the reunion bolstered the hopes of other Yemenite Jews whose children or siblings were believed dead or missing.

It also refueled conspiracy theories that have circulated for decades in Israel over the disappearance of these children who came to Israel from Yemen a half-century ago. The most recent government inquiry put the number of missing at 687, but officials with a Yemenite Jewish federation believe it could exceed 2,000.

Levine's reunion with her mother "proves what we've been saying all along," said Yaacov Ben Shalom, 46, of Jerusalem, who says he has four brothers among the missing. "It gives me hope that my brothers will be found as well."

The disappearances, formally investigated twice, call attention to the discrimination and mistrust between the two main streams of ethnic Jews, those of European ancestry known as the Ashkenazi and their Sephardic countrymen who emigrated from Arab countries.

Many in the Yemenite community suspect that the children were whisked away from immigration camps or hospitals and offered for adoption. Allegations of baby-selling prevail, with claims of childless Ashkenazi couples paying $5,000 for a sick or needy Sephardic infant.

Levine knows nothing of these charges. In testimony yesterday before a state investigative panel, she told her story.

As a 6-year-old growing up on a kibbutz near the northern city of Haifa, she learned from a schoolteacher that she had been adopted. The parents she adored, Anda and Mordechai Rosenstock, were not her biological mother and father. Levine never discussed her adoption until her father's death in 1967.

Then her mother told Levine that a pediatrician offered she and her husband a chance to adopt a baby in 1948. He wanted a son. But as he walked past the cribs, a dark-skinned little girl smiled at him. Rosenstock chose the smiling baby and called her Tsila.

Her mother said she knew nothing of her daughter's birth: "The deal was, you got a baby and no questions asked."

When Israel opened adoption records in 1976, Levine's adoptive mother encouraged her to search for her birth mother. She went to a state welfare office, but a clerk found no records.

"Not even a document that confirms my existence. She advised me to go home and concentrate on my present family and not the past," said Levine, who has two grown children and lives in Sacramento, Calif., with her husband, Chaim.

Levine's search nearly ended there. She moved to the United States in 1979. Every so often, upon returning to Israel to visit her adoptive mother, Levine would inquire again about her past. She made no headway.

She wondered if she was born out of wedlock. Was she unwanted?

"I wanted to know who I am," said Levine, a cheerful woman with a warm smile. "All I wanted was my identity."

Levine said she had resigned herself to never finding the truth. Then she saw the television broadcast. The man being interviewed was Sampson Giat, the dark-haired, olive-skinned president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America.

Levine called to her husband. "I look like this person," she told him.

She wondered if she might be one of the missing Yemenite children. She called Giat in New York. He put her in touch with a lawyer in Israel, Rami Tsobri.

Levine's photograph appeared in Israeli newspapers. Tsobri received several calls. Levine decided to make one final trip to Israel to try to discover her family.

It was Margolit Amosi's other daughter, Yehudit, who made the connection after friends brought the newspaper photo to her because they thought Levine looked so much like her. Yehudit recalled the stories her mother would tell of her missing older sister.

Amosi arrived in Israel in 1949, among the first wave of immigrants from Yemen. She was an 18-year-old, Arab-speaking mother with a baby girl. She remembers getting off the plane that had come from Israel to bring the Jews of Yemen to their new homeland. Buses took them to an immigration camp in the north. At the camp, nurses lined up to take the children, many of whom were sick or malnourished.

Amosi went to the camp hospital twice daily to feed her daughter. One evening, the nurse told her that her baby had disappeared.

"I never forgot about my daughter," said the petite Amosi, her hair covered with a scarf in the style of religious women. "I looked for her for two years until I was eight months' pregnant, and then I was too big to look. But I didn't give up in my heart. My heart told me that she was still alive. I didn't doubt it. I always dreamed about her."

When Amosi learned that Levine might be her lost daughter, she said: "Leave me alone. I don't have the heart to go through this again."

But she did. Last week, the two women met.

"How are we going to learn to love each other?" Levine asked.

"Learn?" Amosi asked incredulously. "We don't need to learn."

This story of a missing Yemenite child may have a happy ending, but niggling questions remain.

While documents and dates surrounding the case conflict, the DNA tests confirm to a 99.9 percent certainty that Amosi and Levine are mother and daughter. The state panel of inquiry has asked them to undergo a second DNA test.

"I don't have a shadow of a doubt this is my family," said Levine. "When I hugged my sister, I knew I was home."

Pub Date: 8/28/97

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