‘We were not fleeing Yemen’

60 years ago, the two-year-old state conducted Operation Magic Carpet to bring tens of thousands of Yemenite Jews to Israel. Sara Eden was there.

sara eden 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sara eden 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sara Eden remembers most of her childhood in Yemen fondly.
Born sometime in 1927 or 1928 to Yosef and Sa’ida Eden, Sara Eden spent the first five years of her life in a beautiful valley beside Jabal Bani Hajaj, south Yemen.
“It was a happy childhood,” she remembers. “Economically it was hard but there was a happiness to life there, even if you had nothing you were happy... My dad loved to sing and dance and I remember we would hold each other’s hands and spin around.”
After five years the family moved north to a small village called Hesnayin about 19 kilometers, or as Eden says “five hours walk,” east of Sana’a, today the capital of Yemen.
“The mountain was very pretty,” she remembers. “We could see lots of villages and the wadi was full of water.
“By age five I was already helping my mother and we would help my father to make bricks,” Eden says. “My father, Yosef, was a talented architect of sorts and also dug cisterns.
“One day my dad went to the market and a very rich sheikh was asking around if anyone knew of a Jew who could build,” she tells. “The sheikh wanted to renovate a 100-year-old palace to preserve it, but no Arab was willing to go in because it was such an old building.
“My dad wasn’t scared and took the job,” she continues.
“It was beautiful, and in the end the sheikh just let us live in the palace for six or seven years.
“When I was about nine or 10 my parents got the fever,” Eden says. “One day I was waiting for my mom to come home, as she was late for the Sabbath.
“Eventually she came home and said, ‘I’m sick, I’m going to die.’ “It was five months after my youngest brother was born, and the baby eventually died because my mother couldn’t breast feed him,” she remembers.
“My mother died and it was very hard to deal with the entire house myself.”
When Eden turned 16 she married Yechieh on Purim.
“I married my cousin and his sister married my older brother,” she says.
Contrary to the dominant narrative of Yemeni-Israeli Jews, Eden says the family’s relations with their Arab neighbors were warm.
“We had good relations with the Arabs,” she says. “No problems at all. They never did anything wrong to us. On the contrary, they always battled to protect and defend the Jews.
“For example, when my grandmother was widowed with four young kids, she worried that they would ‘Islamize’ her kids,” Eden remembers. “But everywhere she went she asked her neighbors to protect her kids and they did.”
Eden says that for most of her childhood, going to the Land of Israel was a distant dream.
“My mom had family in Palestine and they would send letters,” she says, showing a few of the letters she still has saved in an extensive album of memorabilia. “A letter would come and 15 people would crowd around.
“We were not fleeing Yemen and it was not about potential wealth,” Eden continues.
“The pull to Palestine was about religious ideology. We heard about Israel only through prayers. We had no idea what was there.
“People wanted to go to Palestine but they had no money, so it was really mostly rich people,” she says. “My mother used to travel to Sana’a and ask the rabbi, ‘When can we go to Israel?’ He would tell her ‘This is the door, and your day will come.’ “In 1942, my mom’s cousin arrived and told us all our relatives were at the airport, and that my grandmother was taking all her kids to Palestine,” Eden tells. “We had to pay to get to Aden and my rich uncle who was going was supposed to pay. But he said he would only give over the money if my father agreed to marry me off to his 25-year-old cousin.
There was a fight and in the end we didn’t go to Palestine.
“We never forgot what they did to us then,” she says. “My grandmother and entire family left us alone in Yemen.
There is tension that continues between us to this day.”
Five years later, after the United Nations proposed a partition of Palestine, a number of attacks against Jews took place in Yemen. Days after the UN plan was announced, Jews in Aden were accused of murdering two girls and Yemen’s principal port city erupted in anti- Jewish violence. An estimated 82 Jews were killed, 106 of the 170 Jewish shops in the city were robbed, four synagogues were burnt to the ground and more than 200 Jewish homes were burned or looted.
“There was no radio or newspaper telling you about any problems or pogroms,” Eden says. “We didn’t even know about it, so for us everything seemed quiet. But people who came to Sana’a would bring news, so a year later we heard that there was a State of Israel.”
Following the Aden riots and the formation of the state, Israel quickly mobilized to facilitate the immediate emigration of Yemen’s entire Jewish community.
“One day we heard that some Jews had gotten into Israel and everyone is leaving,” Eden remembers. “We went back to the village to sell our house, pack food for the journey and had to wait for my sister-in-law to give birth.
Then we walked five hours to Sana’a, and waited there three months for a ride on a cargo truck to Aden.
“On the way to Aden we would be stopped and they would check how much money everyone had,” she continues. “My sister had an eye patch and they even checked inside the eye patch for money! Each checkpoint would take 10 percent of whatever you had, and there were a few checkpoints along the way.
“When we got to Aden we were registered,” she says, referring to those on the ground running the emigration operation. “They took a picture of each of us. It’s the first photo I have of myself.”
The international operation, officially dubbed Operation On Wings of Eagles, but more commonly known by the nickname Operation Magic Carpet, became the first mass aliya after the foundation of the State of Israel.
In a period of 15 months about 49,000 Yemenite Jews were airlifted over in 380 flights in American and British planes from Aden to Israel.
Many Yemeni Jews who came to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet speak of the moment they first saw an airplane.
“We looked at the plane and just said, ‘God help us,’” Eden remembers. “In the past there were some people who said throw out your money and jewels because otherwise the plane won’t be able to fly, so some of them threw their money away as they got on the plane.
“When we flew over Israel and saw all these little tiny houses from high in the air we said, ‘What’s this, the houses here are tiny! How will we live?’ “We arrived in Israel in the evening of October 16, 1949,” she continues.
“Before we left, people back home warned us that they were going to do to you what they did to the Germans in Europe. When we got off the plane they told all the women to go to one place and all the men to another and we thought, ‘Oh god, they were right, we’re going to die!’” Eden was taken to an immigration camp in Kibbutz Ein Shemer near Hadera, and her husband was taken to Sha’ar Hagai, west of Jerusalem, to plant trees.
“In Yemen the men went to school and studied Hebrew, but we didn’t understand one thing of what they were saying,” she says. “But they laid down mattresses for us in long rows.
“I was five months pregnant when I got to Israel,” she says.
“After my daughter Mazal was born, they required that the babies stay in the nursery, and I would come to breastfeed her in the morning.”
“One evening they told me that my baby was sick and had been taken to the doctor,” Eden remembers. “Later they told me that she died.
“They stole her right in front of my eyes,” she says.
“They stole lots of our babies, including mine and my sisterin- law’s. We knew something was wrong because it’s not possible they all died.
“A few months later someone in the nursery said the babies had not died and they had been told not to say anything, but we still didn’t know who took them,” she continues.
“The woman said, ‘We don’t know who took them, we just know they were well dressed, took the healthy and pretty ones and sold them or took them outside the country.”
In 2001, Eden testified before one of three national commissions of inquiry into the disappearance of Yemenite children during the early years of the state. The commission, which worked for almost seven years, determined that there was not “an all-inclusive establishment plot” to kidnap Yemenite immigrants’ babies and pass them on to other families.
Yemenite immigrants bitterly dispute the commissions’ findings.
Eden spent two years at the immigration camp, then another two years at a transit camp in Binyamina before finally settling in what would become the city of Kfar Saba.
“We lived here in this house, one big house with the whole family together exactly like we did in Yemen,” she says, giving a tour of her humble two-story home. “There were about 25 of us spread out over eight rooms, including the kitchen and living room.
“We lived like that for at least 20 years all on the same budget, which helped us to acclimatize and make it here,” Eden continues. “All the food, culture, family and occupations – it just moved here.
“My entire childhood no one knew who was my brother and who was this person’s sister,” says Eden’s son Rahamim Eden. “It was just one big huge family and outsiders were very confused. All our life was a closed Yemenite community.
“As we went to school it started to change, but back in the neighborhood everyone was Yemenite,” he says. “Only after 10 years or so did we start to feel discrimination.”
Eden says there are pluses and minuses to life in Israel.
“It’s good in Israel economically but socially it has been hard,” she begins. “Especially for the kids in school because they wanted to separate the Ashkenazi kids from the Yemenite kids.
“It wasn’t so bad in Yemen,” Eden says. “Every evening we would all eat together, sing and dance. It was a wedding every night and our relations with Arabs was good.
“The Arabs cried when we left,” she remembers. “I loved our neighbors and if there had been telephones I would have been in contact with them every day.
“I’d love to go back to visit,” Eden adds. “If I could I’d be on the plane tomorrow.
“If there were peace we could go back to Yemen,” says Eden’s son Rahamim, a retired IDF lieutenant-colonel.
“First we need to enjoy the Holy Land,” answers Eden.
“Then we can worry about peace and trips to Yemen.”