Tel Aviv The affair surrounding the missing children of Jews from Yemen and other Oriental countries has driven the Israeli public for decades. In search of the truth, a tomb is to be opened on Monday. There are up to 5,000 unsolved cases.
“Usiel Churi, son of Michael, April 7, 1953” is written on the simple tombstone in the Segula Cemetery in Petach Tikva near Tel Aviv. But is the child born in 1952 really buried here? Or maybe still alive? These questions have plagued the family for nearly 70 years. Usiel is one of thousands of children of Jewish immigrants from Yemen and other Oriental countries who, according to witnesses, disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Israel in the 1950s.
Usiel’s grave is scheduled to open on Monday – the first since the legislation was passed in 2018. If there are remains in the grave, DNA tests are planned. There was legal altercation over the grave opening until the end, according to the family lawyer, a court finally ordered the move after a hearing Sunday.
“For as long as I can remember, this affair has hung over my family like a dark cloud,” said Usiel’s younger sister, 64-year-old Masal Berko. She is the sixth of eight children in the Churi family. The parents had come to Haifa from the Tunisian island of Dscherba in 1948.
According to the Israeli organization Amram, which is working to establish the truth of the affair, two thirds of the missing children came from Yemen, the rest from North Africa, Iran and Iraq and a few from the Balkans.
With the “Flying Carpet Operation”, about 50,000 Jews from Yemen came to the young state of Israel. The conditions in temporary reception camps were often chaotic. During that time, several babies and young children disappeared under mysterious circumstances – many Yemeni Jews accused the Israeli authorities of passing them on to childless Holocaust survivors. The parents were told that the children had died at the hospital and were buried immediately. It is estimated that there are 1,500 to 5,000 children.
Many fates could never be clearly clarified – like Usiels. The boy got polio when he was 10 months old. The parents, who at that time already had three other children besides Usiel, had to travel far to get the follow-up treatment. “The social authorities therefore offered my parents help, they took Usiel with them and promised to bring him back after the treatment,” says the sister. “The child was healthy, he just limped a little. Then, a few days later, my father suddenly learned that the boy was dead. ” The nurses just showed him a “bundle wrapped in white sheets” and said they would bury the child. At the time, her parents were bona fide new immigrants.
The questions started later. There have always been inconsistencies and indications that the child could still be alive. About three decades ago, they were shown a tomb with a tombstone in Petach Tikva.
The family plans to come to the excavation with an independent expert on Monday. “Unfortunately, we do not trust the state,” Berko said. According to the Ministry of Health, a DNA test can take “at least a few weeks”.
The affected families have accused the Israeli authorities of systematic concealment for decades. At that time, the European-born founding generation looked down on immigrants from Arab countries and considered them primitive. “Racism certainly played a role,” Berko says.
After the archives were opened in 2016, the responsible minister, Zachi Hanegbi, came to the conclusion that hundreds of Yemeni children had been taken away from their parents and given away. Last year, the Israeli government expressed regret and announced compensation payments of 162 million shekels (about 46 million euros) to affected families. However, this was condemned by relatives as “silence money”.
What does Berko expect from the grave opening on Monday? “If we’re allowed to get a DNA sample from an independent expert, I’m happy,” she says. “But I honestly think the tomb will be empty.”