Pupils from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish boarding school near Paris have been taken into care after allegations they had been cut off from their families and subjected to years of abuse.
Many of the children came from Israel and the US and spoke no French. One relative said parents thought they were sending their children abroad to a “Harry Potter school”.
The alarm was raised after a 15-year-old boy ran away from the Beth Yossef school at an isolated property in Bussières, a commune in Seine-et-Marne 37 miles (60km) east of Paris, in July and sought help from the US embassy.
The boy claimed pupils were treated badly, served out-of-date food and sometimes deprived of meals. Other pupils ran away from the school, which offers boys over 12 a strict Orthodox education in Torah studies, at the end of last year.
A number of young adults were also believed to be among the students at the establishment, described as “an extremely closed environment”.
The public prosecutor Laureline Peyrefitte said the school was attended by “numerous undeclared American and Israeli minors who did not speak French”, isolating them further. The rescued children told of “being locked up, having their identity documents confiscated, living in poor conditions, acts of abuse, lack of access to education and healthcare and with no possibility of returning to their families,” she said.
On Monday police raided the school and arrested 16 teachers, who are being questioned as part of a preliminary inquiry into allegations of “organized kidnapping, aggravated violence, deprivation of care and food and aggravated abuse of vulnerable people,” Peyrefitte added.
“The first elements of the inquiry, namely interviews with the minors who ran away or former pupils of the establishment, have confirmed our suspicions that offenses have been committed,” the prosecutor said.
About 42 pupils have been moved to temporary accommodation, of whom between 25 and 30 are believed to be Israeli nationals.
Simon Seroussi, a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in Paris, said the Israeli ambassador, Yael German, had visited the children on Tuesday and reported they were being well cared for.
“The ambassador insisted they were allowed to call their parents. Now, with the French and Israeli authorities, we’re doing all we can to ensure the Israeli minors can return to their families in Israel as quickly as possible,” Seroussi told the Guardian.
A documentary team from Israeli public television told Agence France-Presse it had been investigating the school for months and had passed information to investigators.
“We found ourselves with around 30 witness accounts dating back to the 2000s from former pupils saying they suffered violence,” the documentary film-maker Dubi Kroitoru said.
Rivka Azoulay, 26, from Jerusalem, whose 13-year-old brother started at Beth Yossef last week, told the Times of Israel: “It seemed like the Harry Potter school, out in the green spaces.” She said her brother de ella had called home and had seemed happy at the school.
Since July the French government agency charged with observing extreme sectarian movements has tracked down several ex-pupils who had returned to the US or Israel and who reportedly spoke of having had their mobile phones and passports taken away while at the school. A number of them told detectives they had been banned from leaving the grounds for several years.
France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, said: “It’s unacceptable for children’s lives to be put in danger. The conditions they were living in are unacceptable, full stop.”
There was no reply when the Guardian attempted to contact the school.
According to its website, Beth Yossef was founded by Rabbi Gershon Liebman after he arrived in France from Poland in 1948, and it is part of the Ohr Yosef institution. The school day starts at 8am with prayers and ends in the evening with an ethics lesson, a walk in the forest and the study of “sacred texts”.
“Today, the yeshiva is proud of its success and brings together more than one hundred students from the around the world… the students assiduously deepen their Torah knowledge in order to become Masters of the Torah themselves,” the school writes.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism