In 1948, 3-year-old Yigal Cohen was smuggled out of Kibbutz Nir Am at the outbreak of the War of Independence. He later returned to the kibbutz, grew up, and started a family. 75 years later, on October 7, the kibbutz was attacked again. Residents evacuated, among them 78-year-old Yigal, who was doing this for the second time in his life...
When 78-year-old Yigal Cohen was evacuated from Kibbutz Nir Am to Tel Aviv, he experienced some déjà vu, a flashback to when he was 3 years old: The sirens warning of incoming missiles sounded exactly like noises that had terrified him as a toddler during the War of Independence, 75 years earlier. In his home in Nir Am, the alert that signals incoming rockets is different these days. On Yigal’s kibbutz and in other communities close to the Gaza border, there are no sirens. Instead, a recording of the Hebrew words tseva adom (color red/code red) is played over loudspeakers. Whenever Yigal hears the undulating wail of the sirens in Tel Aviv, he is flooded with childhood memories.
Kibbutz Nir Am was founded in 1943 by members of the Gordonia youth movement from Bessarabia (present day Moldova). It played a leading role in the Jewish settlement of the southern Negev region. The water source found on the kibbutz grounds two years later had a significant impact on the decision to include the Negev region as part of the Jewish state in the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan. This reservoir also made it possible for 11 different settlements (“The 11 Points”, including some of the first Gaza border region communities) to be established in the Negev in 1946.
Yigal Cohen is a filmmaker who taught at Sapir College, as well as a journalist and member of the Tel Aviv Journalists’ Association. Today, he serves as the director of the Nir Am Archive. He was born on the kibbutz in the year 1945 to parents who had helped found it. When the War of Independence broke out, the kibbutz had some defensive positions but no real shelters. During the 1948 battles, when the men went out to fight and defend the community, the women and children crowded inside a makeshift shelter covered with sandbags. For five long days, they remained there, until the women and children could be evacuated to Tel Aviv. The situation was so dangerous that the trucks that transported them drove with their headlights off when passing through areas teeming with hostile infiltrators from Gaza. As Cohen tells it, the children were given sleeping pills so as not to accidentally alert the enemy to the convoy’s presence.
Yigal will never forget the fear, panic, and helplessness he felt as a 3-year-old experiencing war: “The shelling and bombing tore through the sandbags, which made the sand pour all over us. It was unbearably crowded and suffocating.” Back then, 75 years ago, the members of Kibbutz Nir Am spent almost a year in an empty school on 12 Zamenhof Street in Tel Aviv, waiting to return to their beloved home. This was finally made possible in April 1949.
Yigal has a photograph documenting the special moment when a truck returned the children to the kibbutz. He remembers how, as a young boy who had gotten used to his new life in Tel Aviv, he refused to get off the truck.
Yigal grew up in the collective children’s home, as was the common practice in the kibbutzim in those days. He has fond memories of happy years spent there, despite the close proximity to the border and the infiltrations from Gaza into the area which occurred from time to time.
In his lifetime, Yigal Cohen witnessed or took part in each and every one of Israel’s wars, and he carries scars and memories from all of them:
By the time of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the kibbutz had a proper bomb shelter, where Yigal spent much of the war. In 1967, he completed his compulsory military service, just a month before the Six-Day War broke out. He had even set a date for his wedding to his beloved Adi, but the young couple was forced to delay the ceremony, as Yigal immediately enlisted for reserve duty.
During that war, the kibbutz was struck by a two-fold disaster: Amos Shachar (Schwartz), a son of the kibbutz, was killed in battle. 30 days later, his 17-year-old brother Oded was driving a tractor that rode over a landmine in the kibbutz’s farmlands, and he was killed as well. As it turned out, Gaza militants who fled towards Hebron during the war had buried quite a few landmines in the fields of the border communities, and soldiers from the Military Engineering Corps were tasked with neutralizing them throughout the entire area for a long time after.
Yigal spent the war as a reservist patrolling the border. A few weeks later than originally planned, he married the woman who remains his wife to this day, Adi Cohen Nitzani, in her home kibbutz of Ginosar.
By the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Yigal had two young children and stayed back to protect his home. Later that same year, he served in reserve duty patrolling the border with Gaza. No one from Kibbutz Nir Am fell in battle, and the concerns of all the kibbutz members were focused on one reservist soldier who was critically wounded. This man, Amnon Abramovich, had grown up with Yigal and had played soccer with him as a boy on the grassy lawns of the small kibbutz. According to Yigal, he had been quite a good player and a particularly mischievous little boy. He sustained burns on 95% of his body when his tank was hit by enemy fire. Amnon would survive his injuries and go on to become one of Israel’s leading journalists and political commentators. Yigal, along with the other members of the kibbutz, supported Abramovich and monitored his long recovery.
As Yigal tells it, Nir Am is a relatively small, intimate, and warm kibbutz. Over the years, it has grown and flourished. In 2002, it was privatized and in recent years, the kibbutz community has taken in new families. But living so close to the border taught Yigal and many of the kibbutz’s veteran members to be cautious. “They told us that everything is fine, not to worry, that there’s an electronic fence. But we were never calm, we were alert. We could see their movements. From the kibbutz fence you can really see everything.”
But despite his anger and disappointment, Yigal remains optimistic. “Nir Am is my home. The community will change, of course, but it’s not only the community. The entire country will change. Of that, I’m sure.”
Yigal has lost many friends from communities in the Western Negev. In recent days and weeks, he has been traveling around the country, going from funeral to funeral, comforting mourner after mourner. The two regional councils that were hit hardest by the brutal and merciless attacks on October 7, Sha’ar HaNegev and Eshkol, are a cluster of small, family-based communities where everyone knows each other. Although the people of Nir Am largely survived the events of October 7, Yigal had close, personal relationships with dozens of people from neighboring communities who were murdered on that awful day, and he is mourning for them and for his abandoned home that was turned into a military base within days.
75 years separate 3-year-old Yigal, whose eyes and mouth were filled with sand from burst sandbags torn apart during the War of Independence, and 78-year-old Yigal, who awoke to catastrophe on the morning of October 7, 2023. “On Saturday morning, when the rocket alerts began to sound, I didn’t feel like going into the safe room. I’m used to it. My wife insisted we go inside. When we began hearing gunshots approaching, I was sure it was IDF gunfire. Our power went out pretty quickly, we had no internet or TV, and we had no idea what was going on outside. It was only once we spoke on the phone with our children who don’t live on the kibbutz that we began to understand the scale of the horrors happening around us. It was terrifying.”
“We were saved by a miracle. I still can’t digest the magnitude of the miracle that happened here. Thanks to the kibbutz’s security coordinator Inbal Lieberman, and all the brave members of the civilian security team, Kibbutz Nir Am was almost completely unharmed.”
Yigal also has some positive memories from his time as a refugee in Tel Aviv: He remembers the excellent ice cream shop; “Whitman,” where his mother took him to eat on the busy street; and the movies they went to see in the theater – things he had never experienced on the kibbutz.
Will the current ongoing evacuation be only a temporary experience for this new generation of displaced Nir Am children? Will they return to build an even stronger community after this is all over? What memories will remain with them from this period?
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”. Click here to see all of the articles and stories.