The Man Who’s Been Documenting the People of Ofakim Since October 7

Nadav Mishali founded the cinematheque in the southern Israeli city of Ofakim. His personal story is bound up with that of the city itself and its brave and exceptional residents. Mishali has now taken on an even bigger mission – to document the stories of hardship and heroism that took place in Ofakim on Saturday, October 7, 2023

Nadav MIshali next to a sign at the entrance to the city of Ofakim that reads “Ofakim: City of Heroes. We will Remember and Prevail”, 2023. Photo: Lior Pingale

By Yael Ingel

On October 7, Nadav Mishali wasn’t actually in Ofakim, the southern Israeli which is his home. Instead, he was visiting family who live in central Israel. Two days after the most terrible Saturday we have ever known, he returned to help his hometown and its people.

A few days later, he was approached by Tal Biliya, a good friend of his from his high school days. Tal lost his brother on that awful day. He knew that Nadav was very familiar with Ofakim and that he was a filmmaker, so he said to him: “Go out and film what’s happening here. People have stories to tell. People need to know what happened here!” This appeal, which came straight from the heart of a bereaved brother, gave Nadav the push he needed to get up and do something – to do his part to preserve the history and the tragedy of this southern city.

Nadav Mishali at the entrance to Ofakim, 2023. Photo: Lior Pingale

Over the years, Ofakim had been relatively peaceful, aside from occasional rocket fire which is common in this region. The city is situated about 19 kilometers from the Gaza Strip and had never experienced terrorist infiltrations, unlike some of the communities located closer to the Gaza Strip. On that dark Saturday, Ofakim suffered the worst day in its history. Around 50 of the city’s residents were murdered, including civilians and members of the security forces. The shock was enormous, as was the heartbreak. Now, a few weeks later, more and more people can be seen on the streets as they attempt to resume their daily routine. The attempts to pick up the broken pieces and go back to normal can be felt throughout the city, and civil servants and other local functionaries have mobilized to respond to the residents’ needs.

Hanging out for the evening in Ofakim, 1972. Photo: Aliza Orbach, the Aliza Orbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

 

A report marking the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Ofakim. Al HaMishmar, June 27, 1966, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Nadav, who serves as the director of the Ofakim Cinematheque, took it upon himself to do the sacred work of producing video documentation of the stories that unfolded in his hometown on October 7. With the help of Miriam Toizer, a social activist and Yad L’Banim volunteer, he has been recording the difficult testimonies of the events that took place in this quiet city that was taken by surprise and subjected to brutal attack on the morning of the Simchat Torah holiday.

The first account Nadav recorded was that of the Biliya family, the family of his friend Tal whose brother Ariel was murdered that Saturday. Nadav spoke with them while they were still sitting shiva – mourning their terrible loss. Ariel was 28 years old. He was murdered while trying to protect ten members of his family, including his wife and their two young children. He made sure to get everyone out through the window in his parents’ home where they were all gathered, over to the small balcony that holds the home’s solar water heater. Their lives were all saved but Ariel was not able to escape the terrorists in time.

The late Ariel Biliya. Photo from a family album.

At first Nadav was dissuaded by the enormity of it all. “Who am I to point a camera at these people while they’re in mourning, during these difficult moments? I felt like I was pulling out a weapon when I took the camera out of my bag in front of the bereaved families.” He quickly noticed the effect that the camera had on the people around him. “Ariel’s wife started speaking to me, telling me what had happened, and she suddenly got up from her chair to show me the window they had all escaped from. She started to reenact everything that happened, totally spontaneously, without having planned it out, without me asking her to. That’s when I remembered the power of film.”

That same day, Nadav also interviewed Michal Biliya, Ariel’s mother, in whose home they all hid and where he was murdered. The Biliya family’s home is burned and completely destroyed from the battle that took place there, but when Nadav asked Michal if she’d be willing to go back, she answered, “Of course! It’s my home!” Nadav says that he has gotten the same response from other interviews as well; Ofakim residents aren’t willing to leave and in fact they feel even more connected to their city ever since the terrible events that took place there.

Nadav documenting a story in Ofakim. Photo: Miriam Toizer

That first interview encouraged Nadav to continue documenting the families of those who were murdered, especially once he saw how valuable this documentation was. “I quickly understood that the camera wasn’t something threatening but rather comforting, and I do everything I can to make it transparent so that the person sitting across from me sees me, speaks to me. I’ve realized for example that it’s best if the camera isn’t standing on a tripod; that seems too threatening. But if it’s in my hands, it’s more humane.”

Ofakim kindergarteners in the early 1960s (estimate). Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Even before he started this special project, Nadav (37) was a known figure in the cultural life of Ofakim and had influenced it a great deal. He was born in Ofakim to parents who had emigrated from Morocco, and was raised in a traditional but open-minded home. Nadav chose to attend a religious school and later joined a yeshiva, but when he enlisted in the IDF, he decided he’d no longer wear a kippah, though he remained faithful to his beliefs.

During his student days, he decided to make a film about an old movie theater that had operated in Ofakim during the 1970s and 1980s. He cherishes childhood memories of visiting the old “Cinema Merchavim” theater and it was a painful moment for him when the establishment went out of business in the 1990s and became an abandoned ruin. When Mishali moved back to Ofakim, he started working on a plan to reintroduce film culture and its accompanying discourse into the city.

Nadav knows that having a movie theater in Ofakim is no trivial matter, explaining that in a city with such a hometown feel, a movie theater has special significance. “It’s something that opens up your mind as well as your heart.” He laughed while telling us about the seemingly conservative city, that allows its own residents, living and working inside it, to change the community from within.

This place where everyone knows everyone is unique in that it has always enabled its residents to initiate, invent, and impact the reality around them. Instead of living and working in central Israel, Nadav chose to live in the city where he was born, and to affect change there. In addition to being a creative artist, he has also become a social activist and entrepreneur. He has undertaken his life’s work in Ofakim: his cinematheque has been in operation since 2016.

 The theater can hold up to 90 people, who come to watch movies from the past and present. The Ofakim Cinematheque also serves as a cultural center that hosts lectures, meetings, and cultural events with artists from all over Israel. At first, the cinematheque was treated as a bit of an oddity, something that seemed out of place, but now, the locals can’t even imagine the city without it.

A May 2023 pre-screening ahead of the national premiere of the film “Let the Party Begin”, starring Aki Avni (left) and Galit Hershkovitz (right). Avni had the idea to hold this special screening in Ofakim due to the tense security situation, as a tribute to the citizens of the south and a way to show solidarity with them. Photo: Ofakim Cinematheque PR team

During the first few weeks of the war, the cinematheque moved its screenings to various shelters, schools and gardens, but once it became possible, the films returned to the theater, which has its own bomb shelter, in order to provide a sense of normalcy. The movies being shown are meticulously selected, with the main goal being to empower and encourage anyone who has made the decision to leave home and go see a movie.

A packed audience at the Ofakim Cinematheque. Photo: Nadav Mishali

“The community in Ofakim is amazing. The people are amazing. I know all of them and of course that helps me to enter their homes or go to their memorial services or tombstone unveilings. The heroism that we saw here takes different forms. I’ve seen nobility and enormous soul in every story.” Nadav views his project as an opportunity to reveal a city whose people are often invisible to external eyes.

One Ofakim resident who has received a lot of publicity is Rachel Edri, whose home was taken over by terrorists on October 7. She offered these Hamas jihadists cookies and drinks as well as medical care, thus buying time for security forces to organize a rescue operation that saved her and her husband’s lives. Nadav says: “Rachel’s story is obviously amazing and represents Ofakim and its sense of hospitality, but I interviewed everyone who was willing, not only bereaved families but also people who were injured or who bore witness. I made it my goal to interview all of them. Including people who didn’t do something we might consider heroic. I wanted to interview everyone who is invisible to the media.”

Ofakim, 1972. Photo: Aliza Orbach, the Aliza Orbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

 

Visting towns in the southern part of the country – Ofakim and Sderot, 1984. Photo from the Dan Hadani Archives, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

One of the many interviews he recorded was with the family of the late Aharon Paresh, a Sergeant Major in the IDF’s Technology and Maintenance Corps, who served on the Re’im Base near his home in Ofakim and was called up to report for duty there on that awful morning. He engaged in combat with one of the terrorists before he was murdered. His wife spoke with Nadav about the deep sense of loneliness that has remained with her ever since.

Another interview that remains deeply etched in Nadav’s heart was with the family of the late Aharon Haimov. “Aharon was a senior medic with the Magen David Adom ambulatory service. He was a Haredi man who generally didn’t work on Shabbat, but he was called up that day and of course he didn’t hesitate to head out towards Kibbutz Urim,” Nadav says. “He hadn’t even made it past the city’s western exit when the terrorists got to him and shot him, he was killed on the spot. When I spoke with his wife, I heard about what a special personality he was, and what a huge gap he left behind. She held a picture of him, and you could feel the love with which she spoke of him.”

Nadav interviewing people in Ofakim. Photo: Dana Arielli

The testimonies that Nadav Mishali is documenting in Ofakim, along with other projects aimed at documenting the testimony of those who were in the Western Negev region on that horrible day of October 7, are being collected for safekeeping at the National Library of Israel.

The Library which, among other things, is dedicated to the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, has established “Bearing Witness” – a project dedicated to documenting the events, testimonies and aftermath of October 7, 2023.

***

For further information and inquiries about collecting testimony, click here.

To help support the documentation team in Ofakim, which is working on a completely voluntary basis, please call Nadav at 054-5887669 or email him at [email protected]

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.

 

 

Refugees in Their Own Land: The Children of Yad Mordechai Leave Their Homes

After spending long hours hiding in their safe rooms, with the local civilian security team and members of the Border Guard bravely fighting armed terrorists seeking to break into the kibbutz, the residents of Yad Mordechai were evacuated from their homes until further notice. Many might describe this as a “once in a lifetime” experience – but for some kibbutz veterans, this was not the first time they left their home behind without knowing when, or if, they would ever return.

Children next to a "butterfly" armored car, of the sort used to evacuate Yad Mordechai's children

“A daughter has been born to us, a new instance of life, culture in the heart of desolation” – these words marked the big day for the community of Miztpeh HaYam towards the end of December 1943, the day they struck root in the lands of their kibbutz. Their settlement would soon receive a new name: Yad Mordechai, after Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.

They had started out as two separate settlement groups in training in Poland in the early 1930s. Upon arriving in the Land of Israel, they settled a tiny plot of land on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea near the city of Netanya. This site gave the group its first name, “Mitzpeh HaYam” literally meaning “overlooking the sea” or “sea observation point.”

But now that they had finally received the lands for their permanent home, far to the south – a great hope could be felt among the smiles and handshakes – the hope that here, now, the exhausting journey was at an end. They were home.

Children in the first years of the kibbutz. Source: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive, IL-YMOR-001-70-028-005

Did any of them fear for the future? Could they envision what they were about to build, what they were risking, what they were about to lose?

Here’s what a kibbutz member back then wrote about those early years, in a document preserved in the Yad Mordechai Archive for future generations:

“We were raised on the great pioneering, volunteering movement, envisioning the rebuilding of Israel and the liberation of the working man. As those faithful to this vision and its realization, we founded our settlement at the end of 1943, which grew and flourished within a few years within a sea of hatred from the Arab villages around [us]. We knew that the question of security would be one of the most serious for us, for we sat on the main highway – the main road between Jaffa, Gaza, and Egypt.”

(Yitzhak Waldman, Yad Mordechai, 1950)

But neither the weighty question of security nor the unceasing harassment of nearby Arabs prevented them from establishing a model settlement and community. In the first few years, significant efforts were made to ensure good, neighborly relations with nearby Arab villages.

A “mukhtar” or local village leader was appointed for the kibbutz, who was tasked among other things with maintaining official ties with the surrounding villages. The kibbutz doctor provided medical care to neighboring Arabs. The small local school taught mandatory Arabic classes.

Children on the farm, 1950s. Source: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive, IL-YMOR-001-70-028-004

Upon hearing the news of the approval of the UN Partition Plan, the kibbutz members understood their fears were realized – Yad Mordechai would be included in the Arab state, not the Jewish one. The security situation deteriorated. The kibbutz, entirely surrounded by Arab settlements, was effectively cut off from the main Jewish settlement concentrations. The only way to reach it or leave it was with armed convoys organized by the Negev Brigade of the Palmach.

In early April 1948, when it was clear to everyone that there was tough fighting ahead no matter what, the kibbutz members sought to evacuate the children. Negev Brigade command opposed this move, arguing that an early evacuation would unnecessarily burden the civilian home front and harm troop morale.

So, the children remained in the kibbutz, where they were exposed to Egyptian bombardments and where they made friends with the young Palmach fighters who came to reinforce local defenses, under the command of Gershon Dubenboim.

Palmach platoon under the command of Gershon Dubenboim, 1948. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive, IL-YMOR-001-70-006-008

It was only in mid-May, after Israeli independence had been declared and after intelligence came in of an imminent, large-scale attack by the Egyptian Army, that a decision was taken to carry out the evacuation.

During the night between the 18th and 19th of May, the children were pulled from their beds, wrapped in blankets, and led via trenches to the eucalyptus grove that served as an assembly area for the evacuees. There, “Butterfly” armored cars were waiting to take them to safety.

The parents who weren’t on guard duty at their defensive positions accompanied their children and tried to put on a happy face and fill them with courage. But the hugs that were a little too strong and the tears of the fathers told the real story of how they felt. They didn’t know if they’d ever see their kids again.

Palmach members and kibbutzniks. The women stayed to fight alongside the men. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive. IL-YMOR-001-70-006-008

Most of the mothers remained on the kibbutz. The women were an inseparable part of the defensive plan, and the decision of the members was to stay and fight as families, knowing that this could mean their children could lose both their parents. Among those who stayed behind was a pregnant woman who was responsible for the young calves in the dairy. She would survive and later gave birth to a healthy baby.

The trip away from the kibbutz was long, exhausting, and mostly – cramped. Children were packed into armored vehicles which drove at a nerve-rackingly slow pace along dirt roads, and which tried as much as possible to avoid Arab villages and stay off the easily targeted main road.

In the morning, when they reached Kibbutz Gvar’am, a siren went off. This was the siren announcing the beginning of the Egyptian attack on Yad Mordechai. Had the departure been delayed for even a few hours, it would not have been possible to leave the kibbutz.

From Gvar’am, they headed to Kibbutz Ruhama, and then split up. Some remained in Ruhama for a day or two and others continued north to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel near Haifa. A few days passed until everyone was united, temporarily, in the original settlement site of the group that founded Yad Mordechai – Mitzpeh HaYam, on the coast near Netanya.

They were later joined by the remaining adults after the kibbutz fell to the Egyptians. 26 soldiers were killed in the battle for Yad Mordechai and around 40 wounded. The soldiers left when they realized that reinforcements were not coming. They announced their decision to retreat despite being told by brigade command and the state leadership not to do so without approval. The ammunition was running out, the wounded were in bad shape, and they knew that they would not be able to repel another attack, no matter how willing they were to die for the cause.

The wounded were extracted in armored vehicles loaned to them by the Palmach platoon led by Gershon Dubenboim – who had also overseen the evacuation of the children. As for the rest, anyone who could stand up and walk did so, taking the trek along long dirt roads strewn with mines and crawling with enemy fighters.

Exhausted and mournful, they arrived at Mitzpeh HaYam to see their children. But not all of the children were able to reunite with their parents. “Know that anyone who doesn’t get off the bus, anyone who hasn’t made it, is a hero,” the care workers told the children while trying to hold back tears.

“The children didn’t understand that the father who fell would not return. ‘When will daddy’s wound heal?’ ‘What does that mean he fell?’ ‘What does that mean he’s gone?’ ‘He has to come because he’s a hero.’ We heard from the young ones many things like this. Their little brains did not internalize the fact of death and loss.”

(Yitzhak Waldman, 1950)

After this, the members of Yad Mordechai went into exile, which lasted a long time.

First, they split up the children: the older kids went to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, while the babies and the mothers resided in Kibbutz Ma’abarot.

The people at Gan Shmuel tried to get the children back on something resembling a routine. A school was established, and a new teacher was assigned instead of the previous one who was wounded in battle. They quickly grew to love their new teacher, but the Gan Shmuel children didn’t always welcome the newcomers and often picked on them.

School. Playground scuffles between children. A wartime routine.

Later, they all moved to the Ali Kassem farm, where they began rebuilding the agricultural facilities and maintained a new kibbutz routine.

The 55th Battalion of the IDF’s Givati Brigade establishes itself in Yad Mordechai after liberating it in battle, 1948. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive. IL-YMOR-001-70-006-005

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai was liberated during Operation Yoav. The soldiers of the Givati Brigade’s 55th Battalion entered the kibbutz on November 5 after the withdrawal of the Egyptian Army.

Upon hearing of the liberation, the kibbutz members set out. They had to see what was left of their beloved home. Most of them made the last leg of the journey on foot.

But the sight of their ruined homes and destroyed farms shocked them. They made a decision – they wouldn’t bring the children back to this. They would rebuild the farms, and only then, once the place again began to resemble a happy home, would they bring back the women and the children.

Kibbutz members assemble upon returning to the kibbutz after its liberation. The shell-torn homes are visible in the background. Photo: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive. IL-YMOR-001-70-006-001

In a shared effort, not just physical but also emotional, they rebuilt the kibbutz, making it even more beautiful than it was before.

The children returned – to houses with new red roofs, accommodating almost everyone from before the war, except for the fallen, who were buried on the northern hill.

75 years later, everything turned upside down once again. The events of October 7, even if they didn’t physically harm the kibbutz members, shocked them to the very core of their soul. Every one of them has friends, relatives and loved ones from neighboring communities who will never come home again. The kibbutz members are clearly feeling the aftershocks of that great upheaval, and the future of the kibbutz is once again filled with questions waiting for answers.

Pictures appearing in this article are kept at the Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive and are made available thanks to the collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel

 

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

Every Hostage Has a Story: A New Exhibit at the National Library of Israel

We at the NLI felt we needed to help people around the world realize that the hostages held in Gaza are human beings, not just numbers and faces on a poster. We wanted to illustrate how there is an entire life behind each of these faces, each of these men, women and children. To do this, we decided to make use of the books that fill our library...

Photo: Liron Halbriech

*Some of the hostages mentioned and seen in this article have by now returned to their families. Far too many remain in Gaza. We await their return.

 

Where’s Spot?

Is he behind the door?

Is he under the stairs?

Is he under the bed?

Thousands of parents in Israel and around the world read the words of this classic children’s book night after night as they hold their sons and daughters close in a warm, safe bed.

Today, two Hebrew copies of “Where’s Spot” (Eifo Pinuki?) by Eric Hill wait on two tiny chairs which have been set aside for Yuli and Emma Kunio, twin sisters who are only 3 years old. The questions that appear throughout the book are now given heartbreaking significance.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

Since October 7, we have all been overwhelmed with sadness and perhaps a sense of helplessness in the face of the unimaginable tragedy that has befallen so many families.

Yuli and Emma are among the 239 people being held in Gaza.

Like everyone else, we felt the need to do something. Something that could help people realize that these are human beings, not just numbers and faces on a poster. These are real people, with their own loves, hobbies and hopes for the future.

We wanted to illustrate how there is an entire life behind each of these faces, each of these men, women and children. To do this, we decided to make use of the books that fill our library.

This exhibit is called “Each Hostage Has a Story”. Many dozens of black chairs, far too many, have been placed in the middle of our new reading hall. Each chair has a picture of one of the hostages placed on it. Beside these black chairs are a number of smaller, colorful chairs for kindergarteners and young schoolchildren. There is also one baby chair, as difficult as this is to imagine.

Photo: Shai Nitzan

 

Each chair also has a book placed on it that we have chosen specifically for each hostage. The books await their return.

Each book contains a personal library card that we’ve prepared, each one marked with a return date – NOW.

We wanted to illustrate the unimaginable number of people who have been abducted from their homes, while at the same time allowing for a personal look at each and every one of them, to remind us that they all have an unfinished story.

Thanks to relatives who have shared stories of their loved ones, we were able to learn a little bit about each of the hostages. Based on this we chose a book for each person that we thought would help others get to know them better and understand who they are. Secretly, we found ourselves wondering: Will they like the books we chose? Do our choices do them kindness and justice? Do they truly present them as they are and as they would like?

Photo: Shai Nitzan

 

Elyakim Livman, 24 years old, can’t bear to see people picking on those weaker than themselves. His family nicknamed him “Robin Hood”. We’ve placed a copy of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” on his chair.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

Liat Beinin Atzili, 49 years old, recently completed a course for tour guides at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. We’ve placed the book “Our Holocaust” by Amir Gutfreund on her chair.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

We placed a copy of the book “Dad’s Building A Cake” on the chair reserved for 35-year-old Sagui Dekel Chen, who builds toys for his children.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

79-year-old Channah Peri loves to spend time tending to her garden. We’ve placed the book “My Wild Garden: Notes From a Writer’s Eden” by Meir Shalev on her chair.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

We put a copy of “4X4” on Alex Lobanov’s chair, since he enjoys going on Jeep tours.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

We chose the book “The Kiss That Got Lost” for 3-year-old Avigail Idan, who is likely missing the hugs and kisses of her parents Smadar and Roy, who did not survive the attack by Hamas.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

Yuval Brodutch, 8 years old, enjoys playing Xbox games, so we put a copy of “The Rescue”, from the Minecraft series, on his chair.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

Doron Steinbrecher is a veterinarian nurse. We decided to lay the book “Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds” on her chair. The book tells the true story of a captive lioness who was released into the wild.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

We chose the book “The Art of Loving” for 27-year-old Inbar Haiman, after her partner Noam Alon told us they were reading it together. They’re still in the middle of the book and he awaits her return so that they can finish it together.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

Ori Danino only recently proposed to his girlfriend, so we’ve placed a book dedicated to Israeli wedding invitations on his chair.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

Moran Yanai was able to realize her dream of opening up her own jewelry stand at the party held in Re’im, and so we placed a catalog of Israeli jewelry on her chair.

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

Ohad Mundar recently marked his 9th birthday in captivity. We placed a book belonging to Galia Ron-Feder-Amit’s “Time Tunnel” series, popular with Israeli children his age, on his chair. The book’s title – “Black Sabbath” – has now become imbued with tragic, heartbreaking meaning.

 

For little Kfir Bibas, only 9 months old, we chose the Israeli children’s classic “Where is Pluto?” by Leah Goldberg. Towards the end of the book, there is a line that many Israeli parents know by heart: “You’ve returned home, what joy!”

Photo: Liron Halbriech

 

These are just a handful of examples. Hundreds of other chairs and pictures of hostages fill the hall, each of them representing an entire life. Many of them carry books that we chose because their titles suddenly received even greater meaning: “Run, Boy, Run”, “The Life Before Us”,  “Great Expectations”, “Who Will Comfort Toffle?”

 

On a personal note, I have to admit that the issue of the hostages is a very difficult one for me. I couldn’t bear to think about the people who were kidnapped and the terrible suffering of the families. I had trouble reading the stories about them and looking at their photographs. The pain was unbearable. And then I found myself reading about them day and night, about what happened to them on that day and mostly – who they are, what they like to do and the people they love and who love them. Now each name and picture is a name and picture that I have come to know and love. As a consequence, the pain of their absence has also grown and so has the great hope to see them here again.

This story must have a happy ending.

 

***

 

The exhibit “Every Hostage Has a Story” is now on display in the reading hall (floors -1 and -2) of the National Library of Israel

 

Dori Gani , a reference librarian at the NLI, is the curator of the exhibit

Forced to Leave His Home in Nir Am as a 3-Year-Old, and Again at Age 78

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...

Yigal Cohen from Kibbutz Nir Am, at the age of 78 (left), and at the age of 3 when he was evacuated to Tel Aviv during the War of Independence (right) \. From a private album.

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.

3-year-old Yigal Cohen, during his stay in Tel Aviv in 1948. From a private album

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.

Nir Haim – the Southernmost Settlement Point” – An article in HaBoker from January 24, 1943, about the establishment of Kibbutz Nir Haim (the former name of Kibbutz Nir Am), the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

The discovery of water near Kibbutz Nir Am, 1946, photo courtesy of the Nir Am Archives

 

Construction of the water tower in Kibbutz Nir Am. 1943, photo courtesy of the Nir Am Archives.

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.

Construction of the first security fence, 1943, photo courtesy of the Nir Am Archives

 

Guard duty in Nir Am. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, from the Shifra Schwartz Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

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.

The homecoming of the children of Kibbutz Nir Am after the War of Independence, in late April 1949. The child on the truck is 4-year-old Yigal Cohen. Photo courtesy of the Nir Am Archives.

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.

Egyptian Hostilities Renewed” – Report about clashes in the Nir Am area, Zmanim, August 13, 1954, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

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.

Report about the death of Oded Shachar, LaMerhav, July 11, 1967,

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.

Young Amnon Abramovich, from Kibbutz Nir Am, near his parents’ home on the kibbutz in 1958. Photo courtesy of the Nir Am Archives

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.”

Women from Nir Am in its early years. Pnina (Piri) Hammer (right) was one of the founders of the kibbutz and is currently 102 years old. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, from the Shifra Schwartz Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 

Members of Nir Am celebrating inside a tent, during the kibbutz’s early years. Photo: Nadav Mann, Bitmuna, from the Shifra Schwartz Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

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.

Nir Am’s water tower, 2023. Photo courtesy of the Nir Am Archives
Yigal Cohen, 2023. Photograph from a private album

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