As I write these words, and I am not a young man, I am filled with sorrow that my mother, God rest her soul, never had the chance to learn while she was still with us what had been the fate of her children, Ziona and Yehuda, who disappeared during her younger days. All throughout her life, my mother hoped that she will see them before she left this world and her soul was returned to the Creator. But it did not happen. From our conversations I know how often she prayed and that she believed with all her heart that the time will come when the miracle will occur. To only be permitted to see them, and if she could only embrace them just once and then let them be - that would have sufficed for her. After all, what would a Jewish mother say to her own children who grew up with other families, and who, over the years, have built their own homes and even become grandparents to grandchildren. Ziona and Yehuda were separated from their birth mother’s bosom for many years. Many thoughts went through my mother’s head, wondering what will happen if she did meet them. Would she whisper, somewhat ashamed and with her gaze lowered, and ask for their forgiveness for failing to protect them, and for their senseless disappearance from her side? Will she be able to persuade them that since the very moment of their disappearance, her world had been completely shattered? How will she convince them that she did not give them up for adoption? And what about my father and his frail health, his heart failing him in light of their disappearance, which took place under the watch of the country of which he believed he was a part. Time took its toll. My mother, who saw no joy during her lifetime, had aged. Her eyes darkened, her hair whitened with sorrow, and her face was wrought with the wrinkles of a tortured old woman. With time, I came to think that she was holding on to life solely in anticipation of the long-awaited miracle, so that she may close the circle of a miserable and agonising life – that of a mother full of love for her children.
My mother, Miriam, and my father, Shlomo Gamaliel, had four children: Ziona, Yehuda, Zadok and Ilana. Ziona, my older sister, was born in Yemen, in one of the stations along the journey to Israel. At four-months-old, she stumbled together with my parents across the dusty roads of Yemen, making her way to the Land of Israel, the place for which Yemenite Jews have been longing. The roads were filled with dangers, to say the least. During the wandering of the Jews, they were ambushed by bandits who stole their money and the few meagre possessions they could take with them. Those who survived the robbers had to deal with animal predators. But all of that did not weaken their as they made their way to Israel. They knew that the bells of redemption will be the driving force for the journey to Israel, and they themselves had yearned to take part in rebuilding the nation after two thousand years of exile. There was a feeling among Yemenite Jews that those who will not immigrate to Israel will miss the opportunity to be a part of the salvation thousands years of old. And who knows, one might have the honor of witnessing the arrival of the messiah. Many immigrants, including my family on both my father’s and my mother’s side, were wealthy. They did not want for anything in Yemen. They had a lot of property, and they had servants of the Islamic fate. But the messianic impulse to immigrate to Israel and take part in the building of the new state for the Jewish people led them to leave a lot of property in Yemen and to sell some of it for a great loss. The longing for Israel, however, did not prepare them to the tragedy that would befall them upon reaching the promised land.
For years I did not express interest in the disappearances of my two siblings, perhaps because I was raised in a reality that did not include them or my father. I, who was born the third child in the family, was compelled against my will to take the first place. Make no mistake, there was always someone reminding me of my true place - an uncle, or aunt, an acquaintance, a neighbour, and who else. Their words echo in my head to this very day, one at a time: "Oh, my son, Lord have mercy on your siblings who vanished and are no longer" What could a boy of about four or five years answer to that? In fact, I did not understand what they were saying. I heard and remained silent. When they spoke of my father, they would lament: "Your father, Suleiman (as father Shlomo was known by his Arabic name), was a scholar. You do not know who he was, God have mercy. What a shame that he is no longer with us." And so I grew up in the shadow of my siblings and of my father. With time, their cloud dissolved over my head and from there the path to forgetting was short. The memory of my siblings was stored in the cache of oblivion. For many years, my lips did not utter their names. It was actually convenient for me to carry on with my everyday life, free of the burdening obligation to do anything for their sake.
Strangely, it was the Uzi Meshulam affair in 1994, which dealt with the Yemenite children affair, that had led me to probe whether my siblings’ fate was the same as that of the other Yemenite children. I asked my mother what she thought of Uzi Meshulam’s actions. I assumed that she did not take the affair seriously. Yet she replied, with fire gleaming in her eyes and her mouth filled with anger, with the following words: "I am atonement for Meshulam. He is a righteous man and I wish to God he will succeed where we have failed". After hearing her speak these words, I asked to hear from her what had happened to my siblings.
My mother told me a little of the events that took place. My parents immigrated to Israel during the great immigration of the Jews of Yemen. Prior to their departure, they came, as many did, to the city of Aden. My parents were housed in a transit camp in the city, near the airport, where they waited in the sweltering heat for several days. A few days later, they were told that it was their turn to board the plane that will bring them to Israel. Like many of the immigrants, they cited the verse, "I carried you on eagles’ wings" - how symbolic that the plane, or the eagle of the verse, was a miracle happening before their eyes. But, diminishing the magnitude of the miracle were the representatives of the [Jewish] agency, who already in Aden made it clear to the unfortunate immigrants that the road to Israel will not be a rosy one. They brazenly ordered all immigrants to yield all their money and the little gold they had with them, "otherwise the plane could not take off," so they told them. Not having a choice, the immigrants did as they were told and walked a long distance to hide the money and gold near the camp, in the hope that one day they would return and retrieve the treasure that they had buried. These unfortunates did not realize they had been deceived. The agency officials followed them, and as soon as the plane took off to the promised land, they rushed to the hiding places and dug out the precious treasures. It turns out that many agency officials purchased land and property and became wealthy people on the bent backs of the unsuspecting immigrants, whose only crime was immigrating to Israel.
When they arrived in Israel, they came to the immigrants’ camp in Ein Shemer. It was customary to separate the children from their parents in the camp. The children were put in a special children’s room (the nursery), where they were treated by nurses and trained caregivers. The parents were allowed to take their children for a few hours and would then have to return the children to the nursery. The facility intended for the infants was supposed to benefit them, because the conditions in the camp were unfit to accommodate babies with their parents. Immigrants from multiple families were housed in one tent. There was no intimacy in the camp, let alone housing fit for living with infants. But under the guise of improving the conditions for the babies, a dark trading business proliferated in the nursery, with the babies passed around as goods from hand to hand, given to the highest bidder.
This, my mother continued her story, similarly to cases of other immigrants, was the situation with my sister Ziona. My parents lived in a tent and their daughter in the nursery. My father traveled one day to Ramat Gan, to visit his family who had arrived earlier in Israel. My mother, who stayed in the camp, brought my sister from nursery at 10:00 to breastfeed her and be by her side for the permitted time, as was customary in the camp. My mother was a young girl aged 17 in those days, and, as usual, was very happy during the time she spent with her daughter each day. She returned my baby sister to the nursery, and around 14:00 [2pm] or so, my mother asked to breastfeed Ziona again. As she made her way to the nursery, it did not cross her mind that she would soon face the beginning of a horror show; that it would be revealed to her with time that, against her will, she is confronting a series of tragic dramas befitting for soap operas in her own life. With composed steps she approached her daughter's bed. How my mother’s eyes opened in horror: The bed was empty, barren, and her daughter Ziona was gone. When she asked the persons responsible, where is Ziona?, she was told that she had died and was even given for burial. They couldn’t be bothered to invite my mother, who was in the camp, merely a few minutes away from the nursery, to see the "body." Apparently, the hands of the camp directors were "filled" with so much hard work, that they couldn’t pay attention to such a trivial detail of no importance as calling the mother to identify the body of her infant daughter, as would be expected. It is this kind of human gesture which may have dispelled my mother’s doubts, and which she was crudely denied.
The Ein Shemer immigrant camp had one of the highest rates of infants’ disappearances. It was one of the main camps where thousands of immigrants were housed in tents. This camp, which had the capacity to house around five thousand people, housed twenty thousand immigrants in appalling conditions. It is no wonder that the immigrants suffered from terrible sanitary conditions. Many immigrants were forced to relieve themselves outdoors with no toilets available. Women gave birth outdoors like animals. No wonder the workers in the camp despised the immigrants and regarded them as animals, pure and simple. If only they had remembered how the Nazis, only some eight years beforehand, crammed five hundred thousand Jews into the Warsaw Ghetto, which could only hold a quarter of that. The horrific images of Jews who lost all human form elicited disgust and revulsion in all of us. Thousands died from diseases due to the difficult conditions in the ghetto. If only the officials in the Ein Shemer camp had remembered the images from the Warsaw Ghetto, perhaps they would have softened a little. The immigrants living in Ein Shemer suffered quietly and did not complain of the harsh conditions because they understood that the country could only do so much for them under the conditions then. That was understandable and forgivable. But there is no forgiving for stealing babies. The wound left by those responsible for the terrible act remains open, and it still bleeds in the hearts of the desolate parents. Not less so, it continues to invoke rage in the hearts of those siblings who have remained orphaned.
Needless to say, my mother was in utter shock. She could not accept the things that she was told. She asked to see the "body" but they refused, and in order to show her that they stood by their word they forced my mother out and pushed her out the door. My mother was hysterical. It was difficult to calm her down. My father, who arrived from Ramat Gan, asked to see the body and bury it according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Without a body it is not possible to sit shiva. My father, who was an observant Jew, could not accept the fact that his daughter was no longer alive. It is unimaginable that a daughter of about seven months is healthy and smiling, and within several hours is suddenly dead. What is worse, the officials in the immigrant camp did not allow the parents the "right" to identify the body, as is expected at a time of death. It sufficed for them simply to tell the details of the event to the parents, and thus they considered themselves exempt from providing evidence for their claims. From what my mother told me, it was clear that those in charge of the camp treated the immigrants with an iron fist. There was no one to talk to. What they said was the law and there was no room for debate. Once they had spoken, it was impossible to question their words.
My father took it very hard that his eldest daughter was "not alive." A God-fearing man, he could understand his daughter's death as an unquestionable fate, "God giveth and God taketh away, may the Lord name be blessed." As he was denied the right to see his daughter’s body, he could not fulfil the mitzvah of mourning and this saddened him deeply.
My mother grew very bitter. She stopped believing in people. It seemed to her that the whole world was against her. She could not believe that Jews would behave so wickedly to her family. In Yemen, it would never have happened, she said to me in sadness. The Muslims knew how to respect the Jews. True, the authorities would convert orphaned children to Muslims. But the Yemenite Jewish community knew how to protect the orphans and did everything to make sure the child could remain and grow up as a Jew.
After a while, my mother gave birth to her son, Yehuda. This time they did all they could to watch over the baby so that what happened to Ziona would not happen to him. They left the Ein Shemer camp and moved to a transit camp in Nahariya. For some reason, my parents had a feeling that Yehuda was feeling unwell. They took him to a hospital in Nahariya and sat by his bedside until evening. In the evening they returned to the transit camp. The next morning, they returned to the hospital to look after their son. But how great was their disappointment. The doctors at the hospital told them that because of his serious condition, Yehuda was transfered to be hospitalized at the Rambam hospital in Haifa.
My parents rushed to the hospital in Haifa. When they arrived and inquired about their son, they were told that Yehuda had died. My father, who experienced a similar event, asked to see the body. Again, as was in Ein Shemer, he was told that the body had already been delivered for burial. When? Where? No one was willing to give him any information. Again my father could not sit shiva. My father broke down at that point and started crying and bemoaning his bitter fate. He believed that he "had won" the curse of Job.
Later in life, my parents had me, Zadok, and my sister Ilana. By that point my parents were not willing to deliver any of us to the hospital in case of illness. From then on, my mother preferred to seek medical advice from the elderly women of the community, who had a tradition of healing treatments when they were still in Yemen. They knew how to concoct remedies to every disease known to them. My parents believed in the elderly healers and their medications, which they thought were effective in most cases. Moreover, these treatments have saved us – it is a fact that that in these circumstances we did not disappear like our siblings Ziona and Yehuda.
As I mentioned, my father took the disappearance of his children very hard. My mother would tell me that he was depressed, that he beat his hands on his chest in grief. Later he became ill and had to undergo surgery. This situation intensified his suffering, and later he even seemed indifferent to his medical condition although he was only a 25 year old man. While he was at the hospital, he called my mother and sworn her to keep watch over me and my sister. Do not trust anyone, he said. He was especially worried that what happened to my siblings would happen to me. My father did not survive the surgery and he died on the operating table at the age of 25.
When one contemplates the tragedy my family went through, one might say that half of it was severed - my sister Ziona and my brother Yehuda, whose fate remains unknown, and my poor father Shlomo - all three of whom I was not fortunate enough to know. Incidental to the story of my siblings’ disappearance, a similar thing happened to my father’s sister, "Gina" (Nun Bazira), or as she is called in Hebrew, “Rina.” My aunt had a daughter. Whenever she was spoken of, they would say that such a beautiful girl has never before been seen. But this girl too had disappeared in the flood of kidnappings that took place in Israel at the time. My aunt, needless to say, has died, probably of tuberculosis, in her own home. But this time the family did not release the body for an autopsy but buried her on their own in the Afula cemetery, where she was living.
I do not know what took place in the hearts of those who had a hand in the disappearances of innocent babies in those years. It is terrible to think that these cruel people felt contempt for the Jews of Yemen. "Yes, they have children like animals. They won’t have a problem if we take a child or two," they said to themselves. Their arrogance towards their fellow brothers of another ethnicity only causes the families more pain. The children’s parents carried their pain in a resounding silence. Those people, natives of the land, would not realise that no mother in the entire world could forget the fruit of her loins for the rest of her life. Every day, every week, month and year, the mother would imagine her offspring’s image and maturation. Doubt always gnawed at her heart, "Who knows if they are looking after Ziona and Yehuda, who cares for their health. Are they eating properly," so my mother would occasionally say through gritted teeth. I personally had experienced anxiety. Ever since I was little, my mother used to warn me not to go here, there or anywhere that aroused her fear that she might not see me again.
I do not know if the affair of the Yemenite children will be resolved. In my heart of hearts, I know that there will not. The State of Israel has always excelled in whitewashing affairs that did not please the ears of its leaders. For who would be willing to openly admit that they were the ones responsible for the disappearance of babies, for Israel’s atrocities.
In fact, as time passes, this affair too will be forgotten, or it will remain vague and obscure, exclusive to those who experienced the events themselves. The fact that the affair is once again brought up to surface, lest it be forgotten - that is a victory in and of itself. If those responsible for the disappearances of children thought that the deaths of the parents will wipe out their memory, now their children and grandchildren rise to honor their parents, even if they themselves understand that no benefit may come out of it. For generations upon generations, the stain of this affair will continue to cast a shadow on Israeli society. So long as the state will not work up the courage, the voices of the babies of the Jews of Yemen will continue to rise from the depths of their captivity.