Fifty-five years after she was abducted from her family's home in Baghdad by her Muslim neighbor and forced to renounce her Judaism, Hannah Menashe managed to flee Iraq and find her way to one of Israel’s European embassies. Her long, exhausting journey is finally coming to an end these days, as she will soon be reunited with he family in Israel,
who thought her murdered all these years.
Hannah’s fascinating story begins in the 1950s, when her Baghdad-native family – parents and seven siblings – decided to immigrate to Israel. Hannah, already married to a Jewish Iraqi, was also planning to make aliyah, when fate struck: A Muslim neighbor, who was aware of the family’s plans to immigrate, kidnapped the striking Hannah to keep her by his side. Her siblings only have a vague recollection of that horrible day. They went looking for Hannah, they say, but the earth had swallowed her.
Decades passed, the siblings made aliyah and the family expanded, all the while keeping their bitter secret to themselves. Shortly after arriving in Israel, Hannah’s mother died at 37, her heart broken by losing her child.
Six months ago, out of the blue, the family received a surprising phone call. The woman on the other side of the line was Ravit Topol from the Ministry of Interior, with an extraordinary story she was looking to verify.
It turns out Hannah had been forced to become a Muslim and had raised her neighbor’s children for 50 years. No one in the Baghdad neighborhood knew about her secret or her Jewish roots, and she was afraid her husband would kill her if she tried to contact her siblings.
When her husband died a year ago, the now 76-year-old Hannah escaped Baghdad under the guise of being a war refugee. She was able to reach Europe through an Arab country and decided to locate an Israeli embassy.
“I am Jewish, I want to go to Israel,” she said in fluent Arabic and with great excitement. The embassy found it hard to believe her story; but when she named her relatives in Israel, the embassy officials realized the truly incredible nature of the story unfolding before their very eyes and quickly contacted the Ministry of Interior’s population administration.
“What happened? Did they find her?” asked Ephraim Menashe, Hannah’s brother, upon receiving the moving phone call. “We were in shock. Some of us hung up the phone, finding it hard to believe it was real,” Ephraim told Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday. “I always kept the faith that one day we would find her, my beloved sister.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli consul of the European city Hannah had arrived at took her into his private residence until she was able to board the plane taking her to Israel.
Hannah will be arriving in Israel shortly, where she will be acknowledged as the long-lost sister of a Jewish family and be granted new immigrant status.
Her relatives gathered late Wednesday at her brother Ephraim’s home in Ramat-Gan. “He hasn’t slept a wink from all the excitement,” his wife said. “My heart is loaded, but I don’t want to say too much right now,” said Ephraim. “I must ask her a questions which only she can answer.”
According to Hannah’s brother, only he knows the true details of her disappearance, since he was her closest sibling. “As soon as we had reached Israel, I decided to return to Iraq to look for her, but it the timing was wrong, and didn't make it there.”
It's hardly an easy task to make up for 55 lost years, her relatives agreed, especially since Hannah’s parents and some of her brothers and sisters have passed away. “It won’t be easy, but we love her and will help her adjust.”
Daniel Bettini contributed to this report