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‘My sister was abducted when my parents made aliya from SA’

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TALI FEINBERG

But their new life was shattered when Riva gave birth to her daughter, whom the family call Ilana, at a maternity home in Hadera in June 1951. “Doctors told my mother that the baby was ill, and the next day they said she had died. They told my parents: ‘You are young and will have more children,’” says Orna Sandler Klein, who was born five years later, and who, as an adult, has taken up investigating her family’s story.

Shocked and frightened new olim who believed in the inherent goodness of the Jewish state, Basil and Riva left the maternity home without their daughter, a birth certificate or a death certificate. They went on to have a son – Riva travelled specially to South Africa for the birth because of her trauma with Ilana – and then two more children.

Growing up, the children were told about Ilana, but their parents never looked further. However, when the child would have turned 18, army call-up officers came looking for her. The family started investigating why this would have happened and Basil’s brother, a doctor, found Riva’s medical record booklet.

However, the history of the pregnancy, birth and supposed death of the baby were missing – torn out. All the information before and after was there. Dr Sandler was told that records of the maternity home were transferred to the Hillel Yaffe hospital in Hadera but had been lost in a “fire”.

As an adult, Orna has taken on trying to find out what happened to her sister. She even wrote a fictional account of the story, in which she meets her sister, who had been taken to America. But in reality, Orna has found no trace of her. “There are no records, no name, no documents,” she says.

This story is not unique – it is part of what is known as the “Yemenite children’s affair”, which continues to be discussed and debated by the Israeli public and press. Just three weeks ago, The Times of Israel reported: “Israeli authorities approved a request by families of children who went missing decades ago in the so-called Yemenite children affair, and will issue a warrant allowing the exhumation of remains from 17 graves for the purpose of genetic testing.”

The article goes on to explain that since the 1950s, more than 1 000 families – mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries – have alleged that their children were systematically kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad.

This is not a small number of families, so how is it that this controversy is not known about or understood in the Jewish world, and could this accusation of a state-wide operation of “stolen children” be true? Furthermore, could the child of South Africans Riva and Basil Sandler have been abducted?

In his research on the topic, Daniel Barnett, who has had a long-time interest in these events, explains the context: “It’s 1948 and the new State of Israel is created. It is in the middle of fighting for its very existence. Israel begins a co-ordinated programme to receive 700 000 Jewish refugees from these Arab countries. At the same time, the state absorbs thousands of Holocaust survivors, and sees its population almost double over five years.

“It is not easy. The refugees speak a wide array of languages, and, in addition to suffering trauma in almost all cases, they come from a variety of countries with widely varying customs. Many are poor, illiterate and unaccustomed to the bureaucracy of a modern state. It is in this context that we find a complicated and difficult episode in Israel’s history – the disappearance of thousands of Jewish babies in the 1950s, possibly at the hands of other Jews, and possibly at the encouragement or even with the co-operation of the Jewish state.”

Just like in the Sandler story, “the most common version of what happened is that, soon after arrival in Israel, a baby or toddler was taken from their parents to be put in a nursery or hospital, under the guise that these stone buildings were healthier than the tents and shacks of the Ma’abarot (refugee camps)”, explained Barnett.

“Later, the child’s parents were told that their child had died or was simply no longer there. And in almost all cases, the parents never received additional reliable or official information about the fate of their child.”

Among Israeli Yemenites, it is difficult to find a family that does not have a story of a missing child. Many of these families believe – and, in a number of cases it has been proven through DNA tests or paper trails – that their children were taken and given to childless Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis of East European descent (who possibly couldn’t conceive babies themselves), including Holocaust survivors.

In his extensive research, Barnett found abundant testimony to back up this version of events. For example, Naomi Giat, who is now 92, came to Israel via Operation Magic Carpet. When her plane landed in Lod in central Israel, it was dark, cold and hailing. As Naomi reached the tarmac at the bottom of the stairs, a waiting nurse told her she needed to take her baby, Yosef. Naomi protested but the nurse insisted, saying the baby was ill and needed tests. It was the last time she saw her son. Later, the nurse came to her tent and told her that Yosef had been taken to another transit camp. Two months later, Naomi and her husband Yehiel were told he had died.

There was no death certificate or grave. Naomi pined for Yosef, keeping and washing his nightgown for years. She still lights a candle on Friday evenings in his memory. “I just want to know what happened to him,” she says in lilting, Arabic-accented Hebrew.

There are other testimonies of children who have found their birth parents. Tziona Heiman confronted her Ashkenazi parents with suspicions that she was adopted. They admitted that she had been selected from a Jerusalem hospital. Their neighbour, Yigal Allon, a famous Israeli general, had – in their words – given them the girl as a “birthday present”. Heiman later found her biological parents.

Just like the Sandlers, almost all the parents of the children who disappeared were given a recruitment order from the Israel Defence Forces when they would have been 18. When this started to arise in the mid 1960s, it suggested that the state was unaware that the children were dead – or, the parents say, actively knew that they were alive.

Stories such as these can tear a society apart, and indeed, they have rattled Israel to the core. But there is still no official version of events. “In brief, the official line from the Israeli government was, and has always been, that it’s all an elaborate hoax. Their argument is that through heroic self-sacrifice, a small community of mostly European Jews took in a very large number of Jewish immigrants, mostly from Muslim countries.

In response to public anger, the Israeli government established three different commissions of inquiry between 1967 and 2001. However, by law, these commissions had no subpoena power, were closed to the public and had no public oversight to ensure balance.

About two years ago, a prominent TV journalist, Rina Matzliach, took up the story. She conducted a lengthy interview with Orna Sandler Klein, who went on to meet President Reuven Rivlin to discuss the issue.

There is hope. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met the families and may soon announce the missing children as a fact. And only last week, two sisters were reunited – one had been adopted in the 1950s. “The families of the missing children, who now would be between 65 and 70 years old, will not give up,” says Orna.

“My view is that the state would never cover up a scandal for private people,” she adds. “Which means that with the level of secrecy we have seen, something very bad happened in Israel.”

She knows of at least one other South African family who are looking for a son.

Her mother, Riva, passed away some months ago, never knowing what happened to Ilana. Basil, who is now 90, says it gets harder, not easier, as he now wonders more often about his lost daughter, and wishes he had questioned what happened at the time.

Orna’s message to the South African Jewish community and the whole diaspora is this: “Wake up and say: ‘Something bad happened.’ Let’s find out what it was and end this. If you adopted kids from Israel, check it out. You don’t have to be family or friends with these families who lost their children, but you need to help us find closure.”

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