Stones left unturned

by Yigal Mashiach
© Ha'aretz Friday, September 5, 1997

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As controversy rages over the fate of the Yemenite babies who went missing in the 1950s, Yigal Mashiach asks why the investigating committee has ignored the startling case of Rabbi Bernard Bergman.  
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  In the early 1970s, as Watergate wound down, America warmed up
to its next monstrous scandal.  Rabbi Bernard Bergman, a
prominent figure in the Orthodox community, was investigated,
tried and convicted for swindling the government in a fraud
involving a series of nursing homes he owned.  Bergman was
pocketing millions of dollars in Medicare checks, leaving
residents of the homes to suffer from inadequate medical and
nursing care.  Witnesses told the court about patients who had
died from starvation, dehydration and infected bedsores.

  It seems that Rabbi Bergman's crimes may not have ended there.
He may have been a key culprit in the scandal that continues to
consume Israel: the fate of Yemenite children who were separated
from their parents in the early years of the state.

  Shimshon Giat, head of the Organization of Yemenite Jews in
America, has some personal knowledge of the subject.  He says
that while visiting Israel a couple of years ago, he was
approached by Yossi Yossipov, a lawyer who serves as chief
investigator for the state committee appointed to look into the
issue of the missing children.  Yossipov asked Giat for his help
- he had received some unverified information claiming that at
one time Bernard Bergman had "imported" Yemenite children from
Israel.  Yossipov heard that the children had been sold to
adoptive parents.

        "Yossipov suspected that while wiretapping Bergman during
        the nursing home investigation, investigators might have
        come across material relating to his involvement in
        bringing Yemenite children to the U.S.,"

Giat recounts.

        "He implored me to use my connections to find out who
        headed the Bergman investigation 20 years ago, and
        arrange a meeting with him."

  Giat willingly acceded to the request.  Upon his return to the
United States, he discovered that the investigator on the Bergman
case was now a district attorney in New York City.  Giat spoke
with the man, who agreed to meet Yossipov to discuss the findings
of the investigation., Giat called Yossipov in Israel to schedule
a meeting, but Yossipov responded that he would not be able to
visit the U.S., offering no further explanation.

        "That first refusal was peculiar," says Giat.

        "If the material in the hands of the D.A. could shed some
         light on the suspicion that Bergman did in fact bring
         children to the United States, how could the
         investigator not immediately jump on a plane to get a
         look at the material? Even if it turns out there is no
         worthwhile evidence, the chance is certainly worth the
         investment."

I asked Giat if he knew how Yossipov first heard of Bergman's
possible involvement.

        "Apparently there was a rabbi named Avigdor," he said.

  Giat was wrong.  The rabbi who tipped off Yossipov was not
Avigdor.  It was Shmuel Avidor Hacohen, who had a huge flock of
avid fans in the 1980s, thanks to his televised Friday evening
talks on the weekly portion of the Torah.  Avidor Hacohen, who
was the rabbi of Kfar Shmaryahu, confirms that he mentioned
Bernard Bergman's name in a conversation with Yossipov about 18
months ago.  He told Yossipov that during a visit to the United
States over 30 years ago, he had heard people in the Orthodox
community openly talking about how Rabbi Bergman was responsible
for bringing Yemenite children to America.  After checking his
passport, Rabbi Avidor Cohen was able to pinpoint the year: it
was 1963.

  Even then, as editor of the religious magazine Face to Face,
Avidor Hacohen was already a well-known figure.  Dining in a New
York restaurant, he was introduced to an ultra-Orthodox Jew named
Tatz.  Tatz was with his daughter, who had strong Yemenite facial
features.  This took place long before any accusations had been
raised about the disappearance of hundreds of children, and
Avidor Hacohen innocently inquired about the very visible
difference between father and daughter.  The girl was adopted, he
was told; she was a Yemenite who had been brought from Israel. He
was also told that there was a macher who could set people up
with children.  The name Bernard Bergman was mentioned.  Avidor
Hacohen found out that Tatz himself was also involved in bringing
over Yemenite children from Israel.

        "This information was completely out in the open,"

Hacohen says.

        "We talked about it candidly, in meetings at homes and
        synagogues.  They did not see it as anything awful.
        Quite the contrary.  They regarded the adoptions as
        humanitarian deeds. There were families who couldn't have
        children of their own, so they would go to Bergman and he
        would set it up."

  It sounds quite sensational, I comment.  Rabbi Avidor Hacohen laughs.

        "They didn't make a big deal out of it.  It wasn't a
        secret.  Back then I didn't think about children being
        stolen. What did amaze me was that Israeli children were
        being allowed to emigrate to America.  They replied that
        it was a matter of saving lives.  Anyone looking for a
        child to adopt went to Bergman or to Tatz."

  But was the community blind to the fact that Bergman was a con-man?

        "Bergman acted like he was a king," Hacohen says.
        "He had a chauffeur with a cap who would open the door
        for him. They knew he wasn't lily white.  It is strange,
        but among the haredim, I learned a long time ago, nothing
        is considered strange.  They accepted him.  They did not
        reject him until he went to jail."

  When he arrived back in Israel in 1963, Avidor Hacohen tried to
interest his journalist friends in the story.  For whatever
reason, the newspaper correspondents were not biting.  Finally he
approached his friend Shalom Cohen, who immediately recognized
the importance of the subject and published an article in Olam
Ha-zeh ("This World"), a muckraking journal that has since ceased
publication.  The article caused a great sensation, but the
writer had not published any names of the concerned parties, and
did not back up his sensationalist allegations with any documentation.

  Last January, Yossipov, the state committee's investigator,
called Shimshon Giat in New York and once again asked him to set
up an appointment with the District Attorney who had been in
charge of the Bergman investigation back in the 1970s.  Once
again the D.A. expressed his willingness to share what he knew.
He promised Giat that not only would he show Yossipov all the
material from the investigation, but he would also summon the
other members of the investigation team to the same meeting.

  The meeting was set for January 30, 1997, at 11:00 A.M. in the
D.A.'s office.  Yossipov had flown to New York together with his
wife.  After a few days in the city, Giat relates, Yossipov
canceled the meeting with the D.A., once again without providing
any reason.

        "Yossipov knew that the D.A. was prepared to lend as
        much help to the investigation as he could,"  stresses Giat.

        "I invited Yossipov and his wife for dinner at my home. I
        thought he might tell me his reasons for canceling the
        meeting. Yossipov didn't breathe a word about it.  If
        Bergman and his associates were indeed responsible for
        bringing in Yemenite children for adoption, then the
        state investigation had blown a prime opportunity to get
        its hands on some solid evidence."

  Giat's information regarding the canceled appointment was
confirmed by the office of the District Attorney in New York.

        "All I was trying to find out was whether there was
         material or not,"

counters Yossipov.

        "Bergman was being followed for several years, and when
        you wiretap a phone you also pick up other things."

  But if there was a chance to expose Bergman's involvement in
the case, why did Yossipov cancel the first meeting?

        "I didn't initiate the first meeting," he says.

        "I didn't even ask him (Giat) to arrange it.  It was a
        spontaneous act on his part, not long after the committee
        began its work." But Yossipov admits that "the second
        time, I was the one who asked for it."

  So what happened? Why was the meeting called off?

        "I didn't call it off," Yossipov insists.

        "I told him that given the circumstances, the meeting
        could not take place.  It was a week or ten days before
        the meeting."

  While Giat maintains that Yossipov canceled immediately prior
to the planned meeting, Yossipov sticks with his story:

        "It was at least a week beforehand.  It was during a
        private visit I made. I asked Giat to apologize for
        me ten times over."

  Yossipov maintains that he was in New York vacationing with his
wife, and suddenly had second thoughts about pursuing business
while he was there.

        "Why not let the Israeli police handle it?"

he asks.

        "They have a representative in New York."

  Asked if any application had been made to the Israel Police
representative to look into the matter, Yossipov replied:

        "I was told that there was.
         I don't know what the result was."

  Pressed as to how the committee investigator could not be aware
of the results of his own investigation, Yossipov shrugs.

  "I don't know," says the chief investigator.

  (c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz.  All Rights Reserved

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