| 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.|
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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