January 19, 2020

Searching for Hannah

When Yehiel Gubani read the shocking story in the Los Angeles Times last week, he thought of his mother’s fervent wish before she died in December.

“She kept saying, ‘I want you to find your sister,'” says the Yemenite-Israeli émigré, 46, a plumbing contractor who lives in Los Angeles. “She kept asking me to look for her.”

The Times article told a family story similar to Gubani’s — but with a happier ending, he says. The piece described Tzila Levine, an adoptee who discovered that she was the daughter of a Yemenite woman whose baby was taken from her during the mass Yemenite aliyah five decades ago.

The DNA tests matched, and the case brought new attention to the heretofore dismissed claims of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Yemenite-Israelis who suspect that their children were kidnapped and handed over to childless Ashkenazic couples, the Times said.

Gubani claims that his family experienced the same tragedy. Of the four other Yemenite Jews approached by The Jewish Journal, all but one said that they had relatives who had disappeared in a manner similar to Tzila Levine.

They admit that they have neither family documents nor photographs as proof, for Yemenite émigrés in the late 1940s were not savvy about the system, they say. All they have are the testimonies of loved ones, of mothers and aunts and cousins who, for decades, have told the same story.

Among the Southland’s some 1,500 Yemenite Jews, “a conservative estimate is that every third or fourth family has a connection,” says Eli Attar, 46, the president of Solomon’s Children, a Yemenite activist group.

Yehiel Gubani’s mother, Hamamah (center) and half-sister Sadaa Siri (above), suspected foul play in the disappearance of their babies. Gubani (top), is trying to find out the truth.
Yael Nagar-Schnall, a free-lance computer consultant and the wife of Neal Schnall, the principal of Valley Beth Shalom’s Hebrew school, says two of her cousins disappeared when they were babies. And Gubani, wearing blue jeans and a red T-shirt and ignoring his pager, says he lost not only a sister but two nephews — all before he was born.

Gubani’s story begins in 1948, when his mother, Hamamah, then pregnant with her first child, began the long walk over mountains and desert with her extended family. For several days, they traveled from their village of Juban to the port city of Aden, where Yemenite Jews were being transported to Israel via the airlift “On Eagles’ Wings.” Along the way, they were harassed, robbed and had to bribe various sheiks for safe passage. And Hamamah gave birth to a daughter, Hannah.

The pious Jews rejoiced upon arriving at the chaotic immigrant transit camp in the Holy Land, where Hamamah, like Levine’s mother, did not think twice when authorities said that her child must be admitted to the hospital. She was allowed to visit the baby to breast feed, and then, one day, discovered that the child was gone.

At first, officials told her that Hannah had been moved to another hospital; after a month, they said that the 6-month-old baby had sickened and died. A frantic Hamamah begged to see the body or at least a death certificate, but she was told that was unnecessary.

Once, she even saw the baby through the hospital window, Gubani says; Hannah had a distinctive brown birthmark on her forehead.

During the same time period, Gubani’s older half sister, Sadaa Siri, also lost her two youngest sons after they were admitted to the hospital. The family spoke only heavily accented biblical Hebrew and, so, felt helpless to fight the system. “They were confused, but they were also very naïve and accepting,” Gubani says. “Their dream had always been to come to the Jewish state, so how could they believe the authorities had lied to them?”

Hamamah never had another daughter, and Gubani, born in 1951, grew up “with stories of the disappearances and the pain.” His mother cried when she spoke of her lost child, whose “face was radiant as the moon.”

“She was devastated and never really recuperated,” Gubani says. “The family virtually gave up.”

That changed in the early 1960s, when draft notices for Siri’s supposedly dead sons arrived in the mail. The Gubanis became suspicious and joined the burgeoning movement of Yemenite Jews demanding to learn the whereabouts of their children.

Gubani, for his part, interviewed people who had worked at the transit camp hospital, but his efforts went unrewarded.

The Levine case has given him new hope. When he travels to Israel in December for his mother’s tombstone unveiling, he will place ads in the newspaper to try to locate his sister. “I want to fulfill my mother’s last wish,” says Gubani, who has named one of his daughters after his lost sister.

Attar, a financial adviser, artist and sky-diving photographer and instructor, grew up with similar stories. He always called his aunt, Rachel Shoker, “the sad aunt”; at family gatherings, she often asked him, “Do you know, Eli, that I once had another daughter?”

The daughter, Aviva, could not be found, although Attar’s grandfather, a rabbi and cantor, had been a leader of the Yemenite community in Aden and was a liaison between the Sochnut and the Yemenite community. Like Gubani, Attar promised his family that he would do what he could to help.

In 1991, he co-founded Solomon’s Children: The International Rescue Operation for Yemenite Jews, which has made the issue a priority. Since then, he has worked on a documentary on the missing children and has taken video testimonies of Yemenite families in Israel. He has witnessed the empty graves of Yemenite children who allegedly died in the transit camps. He arranged for Swiss journalists to interview Levine several months ago.

The disappearance of the Yemenite children, over the years, has remained one of Israel’s most persistent conspiracy theories, news reports say. Two government commissions failed to solve the mystery. A third was convened after a 1994 confrontation between police and a militant Yemenite group led by Rabbi Uzi Meshulam, who is viewed as a hero by many Yemenites.

An investigator for the two past commissions maintains that the children were not kidnapped or sold, as Yemenite leaders charge, but lost in the chaos of a mass immigration. When the birth parents could not be found, a baby was put up for adoption.

As The Journal went to press on Wednesday, the current commission in Israel was questioning Levine’s DNA test, which was conducted by Dr. Ghassan Khatib of Hebrew University’s genetics department. Commission officials say that documents show Levine was adopted in February 1949, seven months before her alleged mother emigrated to Israel.

Levine eagerly agreed to another DNA test; meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, Attar was planning another trip to Israel.

“Our demand is that the government open the adoption files and all documentation of the Yemenite aliyah,” says Attar, who is also calling for DNA banks and testing for relevant families.

“We want the immediate release of Rabbi Meshulam and his followers from jail. We want to know who gave the orders, who is responsible for the [disappearance] of the children. We want them to stand trial.”

Gubani wants anyone who might have information about his missing sister, Hannah, who should be about 47 today with a brown birthmark on her forehead, to call him at (213) 954-8528.