JERUSALEM — Margalit Umassi was a bewildered 17-year-old when she stepped off an airplane from Yemen in 1948 with her baby daughter in her arms.
She spoke no Hebrew, understood nothing of the new culture, and didn’t ask many questions when an Israeli nurse meeting the new arrivals took the baby to be cared for in a nursery.
“This is how we do it here,” the nurse told her firmly.
When Umassi went to breast-feed her daughter at a transit camp nursery one evening, the child was gone. A nurse said she had no idea where the baby was.
Last week, after nearly a half-century apart, mother and daughter were reunited here after DNA tests supported their blood relationship. Their remarkable saga gives new credence to one of Israel’s most persistent and shocking conspiracy theories – that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Yemenite babies were kidnapped in the late 1940s and 1950s and sold for adoption to European Jews.
For decades, Yemenite Jews have alleged that their babies were stolen by authorities when they first immigrated to Israel, and either sold to wealthy Jewish families or given to Ashkenazi, or European, Jews who had lost children in the Holocaust. The stories seemed too incredible to be true – until the reunion of Margalit Umassi and the missing baby, now a 48-year-old Sacramento resident named Tsila Levine.
“You can’t cheat DNA. I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that this is my family,” Levine testified yesterday before an Israeli investigative commission in Jerusalem.
The Israeli government has asked that Levine take another DNA test to confirm the result of the first, which was conducted privately by a geneticist from Hebrew University.
Levine was raised by Polish Jews on a kibbutz in northern Israel. She knew all along that she was adopted. In 1976, when Israel passed a law giving adopted children the right to see their files, she went to an adoption agency in Haifa, where her parents said she had been adopted.
“They said they have absolutely no information about my case, not even a document that confirms my existence,” Levine testified yesterday. “They said I’d better stop searching for my roots, and that I would only come face to face with a brick wall if I did so.”
Levine said her adopted mother, whom she adored, had also warned that there might be something strange about the adoption. She said she was told that couples interested in adopting children at the time “were told that the deal was that you get a baby, but don’t ask questions.”
In 1979, Levine moved to the United States with her husband, an American. The couple settled in Sacramento and raised two sons. In 1995, she happened to see a cable-television interview with a representative of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America on the subject of stolen children.
It all clicked like the last piece of a puzzle – the dates, the cloak of secrecy about her adoption – and Levine became convinced that the scandal held the key to her identity.
With the help of an Israeli lawyer, Levine placed an advertisement in an Israeli newspaper with childhood and adult photographs of herself. She received 15 responses – one of them from Margolit Umassi.
Almost 50 years later, having raised six additional children, Umassi had never forgotten the firstborn child who was taken away.
“I didn’t give up in my heart. I always dreamed about her,” said Umassi, a diminutive 67-year-old who sat behind her new-found daughter during yesterday’s testimony.
Israel formed two previous commissions to investigate the allegations of stolen children – in the 1960s and again in the 1980s. Each time the commission found no evidence of a conspiracy, concluding only that chaotic record-keeping during the early, tumultuous years of Israel’s founding might have caused some children to be misplaced in transit centers.
“They tried to bury the truth. It is a giant cover-up,” said Moshe Nahum, president of the International Federation for Yemenite Jewry, who attended yesterday’s hearing. He believes that as many as 6,000 Sephardic children – most of them Yemenites – were abducted and “sold” for adoption for up to $5,000 apiece.
Other Yemenite activists believe the motive was not financial but rather a racist concept that the Yemenites had too many children and that their “excess” offspring would be better off adopted by Jews of European origin.
In the late 1940s, in response to Israeli appeals for Jews to populate the new country, about 50,000 Arabic-speaking Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel through “Operation Magic Carpet.” The Yemenite immigrants, and their children, have long complained that they were treated arrogantly by Israel’s founding elite, the European Jews – and that the kidnapping of their children was only the most glaring transgression.
In the transit camps set up for new immigrants in the 1940s and 1950s, it was standard practice for babies to be housed in hospitals or nurseries. Often the parents, living themselves in squalid tents, did not challenge the policy. However, many were shocked to be told when they tried to visit that the babies had disappeared, or more commonly, had died. It was only years later, when the parents began getting draft notices for these children, that they questioned the veracity of what they had been told.
Yemenite anger over the stolen children has occasionally erupted in violence. In 1994, a Yemenite activist and rabbi, Uzi Meshulam, conducted a Waco-style standoff with police, barricading himself in a house in a Tel Aviv suburb for six weeks. Meshulam is now serving an eight-year prison term.
Earlier this month, Meshulam’s followers won permission to exhume four graves in a Jerusalem cemetery of babies who allegedly died in transit camp hospitals. The exhumations, which were filmed by Israeli television, did indeed show that the graves were empty, although experts said it was possible the bones had shifted in the earth.
Upon her arrival in Israel, the teenaged Margolit Umassi was assigned to a transit camp in Rosh Ha’ayin. The baby girl was put in a nursery run by Hadassah Hospital, and Umassi would visit twice a day to breast-feed.
“I had come during the day to feed her and everything was fine,” Umassi recalled. “She was healthy. I came back in the evening. I went to her bed and she just wasn’t there. The same nurse was on duty, but she didn’t know where my baby was. They never told me what had happened to her. They never said she was dead, they never said she was alive. I was a teenager. What did I know?”
Umassi did try to file a complaint with a policeman, who told her: “Missus, if you have a problem, you can go back to Yemen.”
The mother and daughter met a week ago in the lawyer’s office. Umassi says she was quite certain Tsila was her daughter because of the uncanny resemblance to the other children, but Tsila advised that they should wait for the DNA analyses of blood and saliva samples. On Sunday night, the geneticist telephoned the lawyer to report “the chances that Tsila Levine is the daughter of Margalit Umassi are 99.99143 percent.”
“Even if the DNA test came out otherwise, I told her I would adopt her. I felt so sure she was my daughter,” Umassi said yesterday.
Taking a cigarette break during the testimony, Tsila Levine and her newly found sister Yehudit Levi-Seder compared their robust figures, their thick, dark hair and other similarities.
“She has the same voice as us. The same laugh. All of the sisters have this allergy where we sneeze first thing in the morning,” Levi-Seder said. “Growing up, my mother always told me I had an older sister, but I never thought I would see her.”
Now, the Yemenite activists are hoping that the reunion of Tsila Levine and her mother will at last solve the mystery of the missing children. Yaacov Ben Shalom, a 46-year-old Jerusalem resident who attended yesterday’s hearing in a traditional Yemenite costume, said that four of his older brothers were stolen as children.
“My mother cried for eight years without stopping. She said to me: `Never forget. Always look for them,’ ” Ben Shalom said. “It is our privilege that Tsila is the first to find her real parents, and it gives me hope that my brothers will be found as well.”