Healing a 70-year-old wound: On the disappearance of the Yemenite children

The Knesset’s Special Committee on the Disappearance of Yemenite and Balkan Children has reunited three families, and urges adopted Jewish children outside of Israel to make contact

Jewish immigrants from Yemen in a tent encampment in 1949 as they are visited by Israeli nurses. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish immigrants from Yemen in a tent encampment in 1949 as they are visited by Israeli nurses.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The “Yemenite Children’s Affair,” the disappearance of babies and toddlers from Yemeni and other immigrant families in the early years of the state, has been an open wound for many Israelis for the past 70 years. Families were told their child died, in many cases without seeing the body or a place of burial and without receiving a death certificate, and some came to believe the children were, in fact, kidnapped and adopted by Ashkenazi families.
After government inquiries in 1967, 1988 and 1995, the government concluded that there was no illicit adoption plot, and in the majority of cases children really did die, though some were victims of gross medical negligence, and bureaucratic abuses – such as having children buried before parents were informed – were rampant. Still, many questions remain, and Likud MK Nurit Koren has been on the case since she entered the Knesset in 2015.
In 2016, the government decided to release the inquiries’ protocols, and Koren pushed for the establishment of the Knesset Special Committee on the Disappearance of Yemenite and Balkan Children, which she leads, in order to bring information and comfort to families and help them find out what really happened to their children or siblings.
Koren came to the Yemenite Children’s Affair on a personal level. She understood the pain of the families who lost children, because she grew up hearing about them, and married into one of those families.
“I was born in Jerusalem to parents who came from Yemen,” she said in the Knesset last week. “Throughout my childhood, we heard stories about children being taken from the birthing ward, or kids who were sick and disappeared, and the parents didn’t see a body, but were told they’re dead and buried.
“After I was married, I heard more difficult stories. My mother-in-law was 16 years old when she came from Yemen, and her baby sister was put in a children’s home,” open facilities to which many immigrant children were sent, to provide them with food and medical care.
“My mother-in-law would visit and play with her sister every day, until one day the doctor said she can’t, because her sister is dead.
But my mother-in-law saw her sister through the window! Then, she came back with her father, and there was no sign of the baby. They were told she died, and no one would show them a body.... She always talked about it,” Koren said.
When Koren ran for the Knesset before the 2015 election, she made a commitment to an audience of Likud activists that, if she becomes a lawmaker, she would deal with the issue. She subsequently brought it up in her first meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
KOREN’S FIRST move was to convince Netanyahu to open up the archives, so families could see documents pertaining to their relatives.
The MK brought the prime minister an example of a document that said a child had been sent “home,” but the family never saw him again. The family then found out, decades later, there was a grave for their child in Jerusalem, but when they tried to visit the site, it turned out to be the grave site of someone who had died as an adult – someone who, as it turns out, was buried on top of their child.
“The prime minister was shocked by this. He said he has nothing to hide, and opened all the protocols and information files. He appointed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who didn’t have a portfolio at the time” – and is also of Yemenite descent on the side of his mother, former MK Geula Cohen – “and he made the brave decision to open it all,” Koren said.
At that point Koren drew two conclusions. Firstly, she had to move fast. All of the relatives of the lost children would soon die, making it much harder to find DNA matches. To that end, Koren partnered with genealogy website MyHeritage, which donated DNA kits to 1,500 families.
The second conclusion was that a Knesset committee had to be named, with enough staff to help wade through all of the information.
“All the documents raise so much uncertainty and questions. The details don’t make sense.... I wanted a committee to research the documents and give answers to the families,” Koren said.
After an extended political battle, which included her not voting for the 2017-2018 budget, the committee was formed, and celebrated its first anniversary in February.
Among the committee’s achievements is a law passed last month to allow families to exhume bodies for the purpose of DNA testing.
Perhaps the most exciting thing the committee has done is putting to use the DNA she helped gather. “We’ve united three adopted children with their families here in Israel,” Koren said.
She told the story of a man named Ami, who found out he had been adopted only as a result of a 1995 government inquiry. His adoption file listed only his mother’s first name.
“He tried DNA matches with three families and was disappointed. Someone told the committee about him, but he refused to take another test. I said to him, try one last time; it’s been over 20 years and there’s new technology. If it doesn’t work, I’ll leave you alone,” the MK recounted. “He gave a sample, and the company found his biological family.”
Ami’s mother was still alive, in her 90s. It turned out that Ami had been put in a children’s home, and a woman who took care of him in the home kidnapped him.
“Now the family is in touch, and we held an event for them in Afula, where he lives,” Koren said.
Koren helped connect another Israeli man, who had been living in Cleveland for 30 years, with his brother.
“They sent each other photos, and they looked so much alike. The brother went to the US and met him and his children, they talked, and took DNA tests,” she said.
The committee is also looking into the matter, first reported in Ha’olam Hazeh in 1967, of a Rabbi Bernard Bergman who sold
Yemenite children for $5,000 to Jewish families in New York. Koren reviewed protocols of prior inquiries that confirmed and discussed the reports, which said the adoption authorities were not aware of what Bergman was doing.
“We assume there are many adopted children in the US,” Koren said. “I call on them to come and identify themselves, and at least tell us you’re alive and well. They have loving families who didn’t give them up, are looking for them, and want to meet them.”
As for Koren’s own family, she has yet to find conclusive information, and only has a death certificate with information that doesn’t make sense.
KOREN IS not sure there was a conspiracy to take children from their parents, but the cover-up had to be organized in some way, she posited.
Pointing at the 1995 Kedmi Commission, which published its findings in 2001, Koren said: “The committee picked 1,053 cases. They found five adoptions, 69 kids that they don’t know what happened to, and the rest died.... Why isn’t everyone shocked by those 69 children?”
At the time of the disappearances, Koren said, “there was a hegemonic thought that the immigrants came from the third world, and are uneducated, don’t speak the language. They thought it would be better for the kids to live in dormitories and get food and live with electricity and running water.
“There were good intentions, but there’s a long way from that to making kids disappear with no explanation,” she added. “If children repeatedly disappear and the parents are told they died, there had to be some kind of organized network. If not, it wouldn’t happen.
According to Koren, former Supreme Court justice Mishael Cheshin “said he received adoption papers and just signed them, because he had no choice. He didn’t know if the parents agreed or not. A lot of parents were illiterate and just signed with a fingerprint. They were told they were signing burial papers, but they were really adoption papers.”
Koren pointed to cases of indigenous children in Canada and Australia taken from their families.
“I’m sorry we were part of this international trend. It’s unforgivable. But at least now we can reunite the adopted children with their families,” she said.
Whether the disappearances were planned or not, Koren plans to keep pushing for answers.
“As an MK, I can push the government to give answers. I hope the state will take responsibility. I want there to be a Memorial Day, for this to be taught in schools, so it won’t happen again. This is a deep wound in the nation, and now it has to heal, and the way to do that is to give the families answers,” she said.