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In historic first, alleged ‘disappeared’ Yemenite baby exhumed

Sister of Uziel Houri, who according to records died in 1952, says she has doubts as to whether answers will be found regarding her brother’s fate

Screen capture from video of the exhumation of Uziel Houri, the son of Yemenite immigrants, whose family rejects official records that he died of illness as a baby in 1952. The grave was opened in Petah Tikva, on May 23, 2022. (Twitter)
Screen capture from video of the exhumation of Uziel Houri, the son of Yemenite immigrants, whose family rejects official records that he died of illness as a baby in 1952. The grave was opened in Petah Tikva, on May 23, 2022. (Twitter)

The grave of a baby who died in 1952 was opened Monday to confirm to the boy’s surviving family of Yemenite immigrants that he really was buried there, and was not spirited away from them 64 years ago.

It marked the first-ever opening of a grave for DNA testing in the Yemenite Children Affair, the decades-old claim by immigrants who arrived from Yemen and other countries that their children and siblings had been kidnapped from them as babies in the 1950s.

The child is Uziel Houri, whose grave is in the Segula cemetery in the central city of Petah Tikvah. Five families related to Houri asked for and received a court order permitting the exhumation. According to state records, the child was born in 1952 and died a year later of illness.

Houri’s sister Hayah Mazuz, who was at the cemetery to watch the proceedings, told media that the family wanted to believe the state’s account.

“I really want to believe that the state, as soon as it made this decision [to open the grave], will really tell us the truth,” said Mazuz, who was a teenager at the time of her brother’s death. “Whether there is something here or nothing here.”

But Mazuz said she doesn’t expect that the exhumation will reveal what really happened to her brother.

“There are 4-5 versions of what happened to him. Each time they [authorities] said something else — we didn’t know anything,” she said.

Screen capture from video of Haya Mazuz during the exhumation of her brother Uziel Houri, who records show died as a baby in 1952, an account the family questions, in Petah Tikva, May 23, 2022. (Twitter)

Uziel had been taken to the hospital because he was ill and, according to officials, died there. Mazuz said the family was told different stories of how he had died — that he fell, that he suffered cardiac arrest, that he had a high fever.

“They showed my father a bundle from a distance and said that they will bury him and take care of everything,” she recalled.

She said the circumstances of Uziel’s disappearance was a source of tension between her parents, with her mother never forgiving her father for entrusting their son to the authorities.

Mazuz noted that Uziel’s twin brother died 14 years ago without ever knowing for sure what happened to his sibling.

Last week the Health Ministry announced that the exhumation would be carried out to obtain a DNA sample from the remains for the purpose of establishing family authentication. The ministry said it was acting under a law passed four years ago that permits opening a grave in order to carry out genetic testing to determine family ties.

Under an agreement between the Houri family and state authorities, the DNA sampling will be done at the state-operated Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, though an expert on behalf of the families will also be present.

The Houri family immigrated to Israel in 1948. Uziel and a brother were born four years later. After Uziel became ill, he was taken to the hospital by welfare services. Shortly afterward, the family was told that he had died. A past state commission of inquiry into the Yemenite children saga found that he did indeed die and that he is buried in the grave that bears his name.

Illustrative: Children being airlifted from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet, in front of an Alaskan Airlines plane. (Courtesy AJM)

The decades-long Yemenite Children Affair involves more than 1,000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries — who have alleged their children were abducted from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad, in Israel’s early years.

The official explanation is that the children died while under medical care, but many families do not believe this, insisting their children were taken away and given to childless couples of European backgrounds. Although previous inquiries have dismissed all claims of mass abductions, suspicions have lingered and contributed to a long-simmering fault line between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds.

Three high-profile commissions dismissed the claims and found that most children had died of disease in immigration camps. The most recent inquiry, in 2001, said it was possible that some children were handed over for adoption by individual social workers, but not as part of a national conspiracy. However, citing privacy laws, it ordered the testimonies it collected be sealed for 70 years.

In February 2021, the government approved a NIS 162 million (almost $50 million) compensation program over the issue of the Yemenite children.

The proposal included a declaration that “the government of Israel regrets the events that happened in the early days of the state and recognizes the suffering of families whose children were part of this painful issue.”

However, a number of families involved demanded that the government reveal confidential documents relating to the matter, calling the compensation plan “hush money.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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