The lost Yemenite children and I

The word of abduction spread like wildfire throughout more than two hundred transit camps, including our camp, and reached my father, Baba.

Yemenite immigrants on a plane flying to Lod Airport from Aden on October 23, 1949 (photo credit: TEDDY BRAUNER/GPO)
Yemenite immigrants on a plane flying to Lod Airport from Aden on October 23, 1949
(photo credit: TEDDY BRAUNER/GPO)
Late in 1951, when I was seven years old and living in the Pardes Chana transit camp, I was admitted to the local hospital. This made me a good candidate for abduction, like the many Yemenite children reportedly abducted while hospitalized. I was Sephardi, from Iraq, young, male, sick and in a hospital, away from my parents’ watchful eyes. I could have been given up for adoption by hospital staff and reported dead to my parents.
But I was fortunate. I avoided the fate of as many as 4,500 Sephardi children, disproportionately Yemenite, who’d disappeared from Israeli hospitals from 1950-1952. By 1951 the word was out: Sick Sephardi children were disappearing in the middle of the night from hospitals near transit camps all over Israel. When their parents came to the hospitals to visit them, the staff – sometimes doctors, sometimes nurses, and sometimes clerks or cleaning ladies – told them that their children had died and had been buried. When asked, they were unable to provide additional details, such as cause of death or the grave’s location.
This word of abduction spread like wildfire throughout more than two hundred transit camps, including our camp, and reached my father, Baba. 
Earlier that year, in spring 1951, I had arrived with my parents and seven siblings to our transit camp tent. Thousands of other newly arrived immigrants like us lived in the camp. There was no electricity, no work and no schools, but there was constant, devastating hunger and aimless life. There were several portable toilets and a few stations with running water for camp residents to use. Standing in long lines to use these facilities was the norm. These conditions were much worse than those facing today’s refugees from Syria and Africa now living in Europe.
On summer days the tents were oven-hot, and in winter they were ice boxes. But kids like me didn’t mind. We played in the mud, produced by the sand and running sewage, and one by one became sick. Really sick.
ONE RAINY NIGHT, our tent collapsed on us. I became disoriented, swirling in total darkness, and fell from the wet mattress onto the soaking-wet dirt floor. A few days later, I was diagnosed with typhoid fever and was hospitalized. There, I heard Baba speaking to the doctor with a raised voice. I was surprised by Baba’s behavior, and imagined it wasn’t real. But his voice kept resonating. “I want to see my son now,” he kept saying to the doctor in his biblical Hebrew.
Much later, when my fever subsided, my mother, Nana, told me that Baba did not leave the hospital that day until he saw me with his own eyes. Satisfied, he then looked the doctor in the eye and said: “I’ll be back tomorrow and every day to make sure my son isn’t given away.” Nana said the reason for Baba’s behavior was because he had heard from other fathers at the camp that some children had disappeared from the hospital and had been given up for adoption to childless Ashkenazi (Eastern European) couples.
I stayed in the hospital for more than three months, guarded by my parents every day. I’d like to think that Baba’s efforts thwarted any potential kidnapping of me. But there may be other explanations.
One is that I had a potentially deadly disease, which made my abduction too risky. Who’d want to adopt a child who could die from typhoid fever?!
But an obvious explanation is that no kidnapping of any kid had ever taken place. Indeed, three government inquiries, however imperfect, suggested so.
Yet another explanation is that all the children who disappeared – as many as 4,500 – had indeed died, just as the staff in the many hospitals had told the inquiring parents. But this can’t be totally correct in view of emerging DNA evidence by which an adopted child can find his identical unadopted twin. This suggests that at least some children were abducted from their parents and illegally given up for adoption.
Two-thirds of the abducted were children of Yemenite parents – gentle, trusting and peaceful people, who were unlikely to ask too many questions when told that their children had died. If true, this indicates the use of a calculated and sinister strategy to abduct children from easier targets, akin to the biblical story of the poor man’s lamb.
Finally, recently released minutes of the Jewish Agency and Israel’s government show that the Sephardi population was regarded as subhuman – “animals” and “monkeys” in the words of David Ben-Gurion. This attitude was shared by many Ashkenazim. As a result, Ashkenazi doctors and nurses might have felt it was OK to treat Sephardim as chattel and give their sick children a better chance by giving them up for adoption.
There’s too much smoke in this affair for there not to be any fire.
The writer is a professor of international business at the University of New Mexico. This opinion is based in part on his memoirs Finding Home: An Immigrant’s Journey, available on Amazon.