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Grave of Disappeared Yemenite Baby Opened as Family Looks for Answers
A Yemenite Jewish family walking through the desert to a reception camp setup by the Joint Distribution Committee near Aden, Nov. 1, 1949. (Zoltan Kluger/Israel GPO)

Grave of Disappeared Yemenite Baby Opened as Family Looks for Answers

The family of Yosef Melamed, said to have died as a baby in an Israeli hospital, suspects he was kidnapped and put up for adoption. On Wednesday they opened his grave to find out if the remains are his, or if he might still be alive.

The grave of Yosef Melamad, whose family suspects that he was never buried there and was one of the babies of Yemenite origins alleged to have been given for adoption to Jewish families both in Israel and Jewish communities abroad, was opened on Wednesday following the approval of an Israeli court in order to examine the remains.

Family members of Yosef Melamad arrived at the Nachlat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning accompanied by medical anthropologists to test the remains in the grave that bears the headstone of the child referred to by the family as Yossi.

Yossi’s family suspects he was kidnapped by state authorities and put up for adoption without the family’s consent. This is a common theory about the unexplained disappearances of babies from more than 1,000 Yemenite families, which were unusually common in the early ‘50s. While the families were told that their babies had died, many of them did not see a body or receive a death certificate.

Yossi’s family had the grave opened in order to compare the DNA of the remains found in it to Yossi’s mother, Shulamit, who is still alive, in order to discover once and for all what happened to him.

If we would have solved this 30 years ago things would have been different. My mom would have a different life had she not lived with this doubt for so long. It’s a little too late now for that, I feel.

Vered Driham, Yossi’s sister, told The Media Line about the uncertainty that was ever-present in the family’s life due to the uncertainty of Yossi’s disappearance.

“My mom lost her husband in the 1948 war. A year later, Yossi was sick so she took him to the hospital. They told her to come back tomorrow and pick him up, but when she arrived there Yossi was gone. She asked the nurse where he went, and he told her Yossi died that night and they buried him,” Driham said. “A few years later, when he was supposed to turn 18, we got a recruitment letter with his name on it. My mom said, ‘I told you he’s alive’ – and fainted. Ever since she used to say: ‘The Arabs took my husband, and the Jews took my son.’”

The story of Yosef Melamad is one of the hundreds of missing children which is known as the Yemenite Children Affair. The affair is one of the most controversial episodes in modern Israeli history, as many families suspect to this day that their children were taken and sent for adoption without permission. Between 3,000 and 4,000 babies were pronounced dead in the first years after Israel was founded, most of them from Yemenite families, as well as some of North African and Balkan origins.

The Media Line asked Driham what she thinks it would be like to discover that Yossi is still alive and to even meet him.

“We asked our mom before she lost her memory, ‘What would you feel if Yossi was alive, but he doesn’t want to see us?’ She always replied: ‘I just want to see him once, to know he’s okay. To see he married a Jewish girl. After that I can rest in peace.’ In a way, I feel like this investigation is doing her will,” Driham said.

Several state commissions of inquiry through the years have found that most of the children did, indeed, die of diseases and that there was no organized operation to kidnap children and put them up for adoption. The most recent probe, in 2001, acknowledged that some children may have been put up for adoption by individual social workers but not as part of a national effort. A $50 million compensation program was approved in 2021. Still, one of the documents about the affair was banned from publication; it is titled “Secret.”

“I based my appeal on a limited legal decree from 1997 which allowed opening graves for the investigation,” Nurit Koren, who was the head of the last investigation committee on the affair, told The Media Line. Koren served as a lawmaker in Israel’s Knesset for the Likud Party between 2015 and 2019.

“There are still secret documents that should be revealed to the public, and I tried to open them when I was a member of parliament. The fact that they are still closed makes me think these children were sent to adoption because that grants secrecy on documents for 70 years,” she explained. “It’s been 70 years; these documents should be revealed. I’m hoping to enter parliament again in these elections and fix that. The families deserve answers,” she added.

Driham still wonders what could have been for her family if Yossi’s death had been investigated decades ago.

“If we would have solved this 30 years ago things would have been different. My mom would have a different life had she not lived with this doubt for so long. It’s a little too late now for that, I feel,” Driham said. “And yet, here I am talking about him as if he’s alive. So, I guess I still believe there’s a chance.”

By the end of the day, the special team that dug up the grave found forensic evidence of a baby buried there. DNA samples of the remains will be compared to Yossi’s mother and sister, to see if they match. A final answer will arrive in a few weeks.

“Even if it is him, there’s still so much wrong that was done,” Driham said. “They never should have buried him like that, and never should have sent us the military recruitment letter, or told us he left the country. Someone messed up, and my mom paid with a life full of sorrow for that.”

 

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