Shoshana Dugma says she still clearly remembers the morning 66 years ago when she went to feed her baby at an immigrant camp in Israel and discovered she had vanished.
“At six in the morning, I was the first person at the nursery, and there was nothing,” the 83-year-old, who at the time had just arrived from Yemen, said of her 11-month-old daughter Mazal.
“Nothing in her bed.”
Such stories of babies from immigrant families disappearing have been told in Israel for decades, but growing calls to unseal official documents on the allegations mean new light could soon be shed.
Activists and family members believe up to several thousand babies were taken in the years after Israel became a country in 1948, mainly from Jewish Yemenite families, but also from immigrants of other Arab or Balkan nations.
They allege that babies were stolen and given to Jewish families of Western origin in Israel and even abroad, mainly those who could not have children on their own.
According to their accounts, hospital officials would inform parents their baby had died, but would not hand over a body for burial.
Official inquiries have in the past found that most of the children whose cases were examined did indeed die, noting the poor health conditions and other complications at immigrant camps at the time.
Doubts have however persisted and activists call the investigations insufficient.
The allegations have put a spotlight on intra-Jewish racism, with Jews of European origin traditionally held up as Israel’s elite and those from elsewhere alleging discrimination.
A lawmaker from the ruling Likud party, Nurit Koren, has formed a caucus dedicated to “reaching the truth — where the children disappeared to, who gave the order,” she told AFP.
Politicians from across the political spectrum have backed her, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed support for opening files supposed to remain sealed for several more decades.
“It’s a bleeding wound in the nation’s heart,” said Koren, who is of Yemenite origin.
‘HONEY, GO HOME’
After Israel’s founding, the country set up camps to accomodate the influx of immigrants from mainly Arab countries.
About 30,000 Jews arrived from Yemen around 1949, including those in poor health due to the arduous conditions of the journey, according to Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, a professor at Ben Gurion University specialising in Yemenite immigration to Israel.
In addition to language barriers, she argued that they also faced “paternalism” from Israelis of European origin, who may have reasoned that some of the children of Arab-speaking Jews would be better off with different families.
In 1950, Dugma was 17 and said she was living in a tent in a camp in northern Israel with her husband and older children.
Babies were kept in separate nurseries with better conditions.
“I put her to sleep around midnight,” Dugma said in an interview with AFP, speaking in Hebrew peppered with Arabic at her home in the Israeli town of Elyakhin, near the Mediterranean coast.
“She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t weak. She was a great eater.”
The next morning the baby was gone, she said, adding that she has had no word on what happened since.
There are many other such allegations.
Barood Jibli’s seven-month-old baby girl Tziona was fine the last time she saw her in the nursery.
When Jibli, who had also come from Yemen, went to tend to her one morning in 1950, she was met by nurses instead, she said.
“They told me she wasn’t feeling well” and was in a hospital in Haifa, the 86-year-old said.
Jibli and her husband rushed there, only to be turned away.
“We said, ‘show me my child.’ They said ‘she’s dead’,” she told AFP on the balcony of her small house in Elyakhin.
“I said ‘that can’t be. I fed her yesterday. She’s healthy and strong.’ They said ‘honey, go home, there’s nothing we can do’.”
A first state committee to examine the claims was formed in 1967.
The allegations came to light then in part because parents began receiving notices that their long-missing children were to report for mandatory military service.
That committee investigated the cases of 342 children, determining 316 of them had died.
Its findings were however later questione d, and a new committee was established in 1988, followed by a commission of inquiry in 1995.
Findings published in 2001 said that of the 1,033 cases of babies that went missing in Israel that had been examined, 972 had died.
The fates of 56 were impossible to determine, while another five had been located.
The commission rejected claims of baby theft.
“In the materials presented to the committee, there is no evidence for the claim of abductions, neither in its extreme form of the organised ‘abductions by the establishment’ nor in the more moderate form of ‘intentional baby stealing’,” its report said.
It said the explanation for most cases was that parents were not properly informed of their babies’ deaths, with burials being conducted without them present.
The materials pertaining to the cases were classified for 70 years for privacy reasons.
Shlomi Hatuka, 38, is one of a group of activists seeking to document what he calls the “crime against humanity.”
At age 16, he was shocked to discover his Yemenite grandmother had given birth to twins, one of whom was “abducted,” said Hatuka.
Three years ago, he was one of the founders of a group called Amram, which set out to gather testimony.
Gil Grunbaum, 60, is among those who appear on its website.
Grunbaum spent the first half of his life as the son of European Holocaust survivors, only to discover he was adopted.
He managed to track down his biological mother, a woman from Tunisia, who told him she had been informed after giving birth that her baby — Grunbaum — had not survived.
“They told her the child died at birth,” he said.
“I questioned her quite a bit. I couldn’t understand how they didn’t want to see their dead child, and there was no funeral. But they were naive, new immigrants. They didn’t ask too many questions and just accepted the issue.”
“Nobody should be able to play God,” Grunbaum said.
“You can’t decide where a child will be better off.”