Yemenite children: Were babies taken from Jewish migrants?

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Story highlights

  • Hundreds of immigrants have claimed their children were taken
  • No evidence of wrong doing has been found by three inquiries
  • A promise to reveal documents has been made
  • Many still seeking closure

For decades, hundreds of immigrants into Israel -- mainly Jews from Yemen and other Arab countries -- have claimed their children were kidnapped. CNN investigates some of the moving stories that have become known as the Yemenite Children Affair.

(CNN)Jacqueline Fedida prays she will meet her son before she dies.

He was born on June 3, 1954, while Fedida was sedated. When she woke up, doctors told her that her son didn't survive the birth. But Fedida was never given a birth or death certificate. And she was never allowed to see the body.
    Jacqueline Fedida says God will curse the people who, she believes, tricked her into signing her child away.
    "'Show me my son,'" I told them. "'Why can't I see him?' And they told me, 'Lady, we threw him out.' In those words. 'Lady, we threw him out.'"
    When she arrived at home, she looked at her husband and told him what she felt in her heart.
    "I told my husband that this boy didn't die. He's not dead. Never in my life have I felt that he died."

    Some claim children were sold

    Fedida came to Israel from Morocco in 1948 amid a wave of mass immigration. The newly-created state's population doubled in three years. For decades, hundreds of these new immigrants -- mostly Jews from Yemen and other Arab countries, known as Mizrachim -- claimed their children were kidnapped.
    Some say the children were sold to Eastern European Jews, known as Ashkenazim, or Holocaust survivors who couldn't have children of their own. It is known as the Yemenite Children Affair.
    Before Fedida gave birth, doctors had asked her to sign a few papers. Fedida, who didn't speak a word of Hebrew, signed without asking questions. Years later, she believes she signed adoption papers.
    "Curse them? I won't curse them. God will curse them. But when [the doctor] gave me the papers to sign, he didn't once look me in the eyes."
    Three different committees have investigated the affair -- the Bahlul-Minkowski Committee in the 1960s, the Shalgi Committee in the 1980s, and the Kedmi Inquiry in the 1990s. All three found no evidence of wrongdoing, but the last of these sealed the documents until 2071, fueling rumors of a government cover-up.
    Following a review of the most recent inquiry, Tzahi Hanegbi, a member of Israel's Knesset, has promised to unseal the documents, allowing the public to review thousands of pages of material.

    DNA testing

    At the same time, a genealogy company called MyHeritage has offered DNA testing to parents and children who believe they may be involved in the Yemenite Children Affair.
    Yehuda Cantor gave a DNA sample to try to track down members of his family.
    Yehuda Cantor, who only found out he was adopted when he was 23 years old, spent years researching his origins. He had no birth certificate and knew very little of the first three years of his life.
    He showed up early, scraping the inside of his cheeks with plastic brushes to collect DNA samples. Like hundreds of others who stood in line, he hopes to find any family members that may be out there. Maybe, he says, he will even figure out why he was given up for adoption.
    "In those days, people didn't talk about it. It was hidden. It was a secret, a hidden fact," said Cantor. "Nobody talked about it."
    Through his research, Cantor learned that his mother was a 20-year-old Yemenite woman named Madani Zahari who came to Israel in 1950.
    "I found one document without any signature, without any fingerprint, and it says, 'Ms. Zahari gave up her child,' and that's all."
    Cantor says DNA testing is the final step in his investigation. He has compiled a binder full of documents containing all the evidence he has found of his parents and his early life, but historical documents can only take him so far. DNA testing, he hopes, will fill in the rest.
    It is a hope he shares with many others.

    'Thousands may be affected'

    "It's not just dozens. It's thousands of babies," insists Shlomi Hatuka, whose organization Amram has tried to uncover the full story behind the affair.
    Shlomi Hatuka insists that "thousands" of babies were taken.
    "The committee got more than 1,000 complaints," he said. "And still there are complaints. We found thousands more who didn't complain because they didn't believe the regime will do something. They don't have any faith in the regime anymore."

    'High infant mortality'

    Professor Dov Levitan of Bar Ilan University can quote specific cases in the Yemenite Children Affair by name and date. He spent decades researching the stories behind the affair.
    "It started as a rumor. Later on it became a myth. For many years, it has become a part of the narrative of the Yemenite Jewry here in Israel," Levitan said.
    Dov Levitan spent decades researching and found no proof of babies being stolen from their mothers.
    He said most of the missing children died because of a high infant mortality rate among new immigrants -- and that other children were lost or sent to the wrong families in crowded immigration centers that relied on group nurseries.
    Levitan says there has never been a smoking gun, and insists there never will be.
    "No one can give a witness, a testimony saying, 'I know, I have seen that this child or another child has been taken away, has been kidnapped, has been illegally taken away from the family,'" he said. "And you won't find it. I know those [documents], and you will not find it."
    Gil Grinbaum's adoptive parents were Holocaust survivors. He never told them that he knew the truth about his real mother.
    One man who did find what he was looking for was Gil Grinbaum. He learned he was adopted only much later in life but he never told his adoptive parents he knew. They were Holocaust survivors and they never had any other children.
    "As long as they were alive, we were leading a double life," Grinbaum said. "They didn't know until the last day that I know."
    After they passed away, Grinbaum began researching his own origins. He encountered obstacles at every point, he said, especially from the state's adoption agency, which refused to let him see his complete file.
    "[The woman at the agency] was holding a small, tiny file with a few documents," Grinbaum remembers. "That's not the big file with everything."

    '100% sure baby was dead'

    Even without the adoption agency, Grinbaum was able to figure out who his mother was. She was still alive, and he wanted to meet her.
    She had been told her son had died. At first Grinbaum said he found that hard to believe, but over time, he became convinced.
    "I came to the conclusion that she was telling the truth. She had a baby and she left without it, and she cried, and she was 100% sure that the baby was dead."
    With the discovery of his family, Grinbaum has found the closure that so many others still seek.
    Perhaps the sealed documents from the last inquiry have the answers to the Yemenite Children Affair.
    Or perhaps people already have in their hearts the only answers they will accept.