SOAS University of London

New Brunei Gallery exhibition to help find lost children of Jewish families in Israel

26 August 2022

Many children were separated from their families while staying in temporary camps after migrating to Israel during the 1940s and 50s – mainly from Yemen but also the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans. The state officially maintains that these children died but their families have never seen bodies, graves or death certificates. Instead, families believe their children were sent away to so-called ‘baby homes’ run by women’s organisations and often illicitly adopted, perhaps even abroad.

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Yaffa Dayan with one of her children. Her firstborn son was born in 1964. She was not allowed to breastfeed her baby and after four days learned he had been taken to a children’s home. When Yaffa and her husband went to the home demanding to see their baby they were told he had died.

A growing body of evidence to support families’ claims has been assembled by Dr James Eastwood from Queen Mary University of London and museum curator Joanne Rosenthal for the new exhibition, ‘Empty Cradles: Israel’s Disappeared Children’, which will be free for public access from 23 September to 10 December at Brunei Gallery.

Documents and photographs reproduced in the exhibition record the Israeli State policy of systematically separating Yemenite children from their parents, as well as charting the role of so-called ‘baby homes’ in housing ‘lost’ children before putting them up for adoption. Mothers whose children were taken away by force have shared moving testimonies, detailing the racism and condescension they experienced from Israeli authorities, who frequently accused them of being unfit to raise their own children.

While the disappearances took place in Israel, the exhibition also documents the role of international women’s organisations, including some based in the UK. Publicity material from the time shows that volunteers, donors, tourists and members of the public around the world were aware of and involved in the Israeli state's work with these children; many shared assumptions about the ‘unfitness’ of the parents, and even visited the ‘baby homes’ when parents themselves could not.

The organisations involved in these children's disappearances still operate today, and many of the lost children could still be alive. Families, campaigners and researchers who created the new exhibition hope it will raise awareness and spark conversations that encourage people to come forward if they have any knowledge of these events. 

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Shoshanna and Zeharia Kohavi with one of their children. Shoshana gave birth to twins in 1948 but was only allowed to see one of the babies. The hospital told her the other twin had died but would not allow her to see the body.

Dr James Eastwood, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and a co-curator of the exhibition, said:

“The forcible removal of children was sadly common in the twentieth century, including in Israel, but recognition and justice has not always followed in every case. There remain significant gaps in our knowledge of what happened in Israel, which the families are desperate to fill. This exhibition hopes to raise public awareness about this story, but also to locate people in Britain and around the world who may be able to help complete the picture.” 

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Shulamit Arami with one of her children. She gave birth to twins in 1954 and was told by hospital staff that one of the babies had died. She was not shown a body or a grave

The Amram Association, an Israeli organisation which campaigns for justice for the affected families, welcomed the opening of the exhibition by saying:

 “Bringing these stories to international attention is vital for raising awareness and seeking justice. Visitors to the exhibition will have an important opportunity to recognise the injustice which befell these families, after decades of silencing and denial.

 “Our organisation has collected hundreds of testimonials on our website but very few studies have been conducted on the subject, and even fewer in collaboration with families affected. In June 2022, the President of the State of Israel hosted a special event for these families, beginning an official recognition process – which we hope will influence organisations that remain silent about the affair, such as WIZO and Hadassah.”

 The free exhibition opens at the Brunei Gallery on 23 September 2022 and runs until 10 December 2022.

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