Search of Grave Sites Yields No Traces of Missing Children

A largely forgotten and little-known tragic story from Israel’s early years of statehood became the focus of attention this week, when hundreds of Yemenite Jews who immigrated in the early 1950s descended on Kfar Yona cemetery near Netanya.

They were searching for the unmarked graves of their children, many of them infants who died during their first harsh winter in the ma’abarot — the tent cities and tin hut hovels where tens of thousands of immigrants were temporarily housed at the time.

Hundreds of thousands of Yemenites were flown from Aden between 1950 and 1952, in what was dubbed “Operation Magic Carpet.”

More than 600 of their children fell ill and were taken to regular or makeshift hospitals where their parents, unfamiliar with Western ways, lost track of them.

Rumors surfaced at various times that Yemenite babies were “kidnapped” and put up for adoption by childless German immigrant couples and concentration camp survivors.

Reports surfaced recently that missing Yemenite children of that era were buried at Kfar Yona. Their parents, elderly now and distraught, hoped to find their graves. But they were disappointed.

Netanya police reported Wednesday that the graves of 120 children were found at the cemetery.

Time and weather eroded the markers, but forensic tests established that the remains were those of children from Libya and other North African countries brought to Israel at the same time as the Yemenites.

Nissim Atai, a 75-year-old Netanya stonemason and volunteer gravedigger, recalls that he buried 120 North African infants and young children who died in epidemics of diphtheria and typhoid that swept the immigrant encampments some 40 years ago.

“There may have been one or two Yemenite children among them, but certainly no more,” he said.

He added, “There was no mass grave. Each child was buried in his own grave.”

The discovery is expected to revive a longstanding Yemenite demand for a state inquiry into the disappearance of their children.

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