Holocaust Survivors in Israel Faced Fresh Horror When Hamas Attacked

Moshe Ridler’s life ended much the way it began, at the hands of people who wanted to kill him.

On Oct. 7, Palestinian gunmen succeeded where even the Nazis could not.

Mr. Ridler, 91, who as an 11-year-old boy daringly escaped from a concentration camp in Eastern Europe, was killed while at home in Kibbutz Holit during the Hamas-led terror attack on southern Israel. He was one of 1,400 people killed in the rampage, in what officials have called the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

“My father had his life finished at the hands of vile murderers,” Pnina Hendler, Mr. Ridler’s daughter, said in an interview. “That was his end.”

Moshe Ridler in February in Kibbutz Holit.Credit…via Pnina Hendler

Elderly Holocaust survivors living in southern and central Israel recounted harrowing stories from the day of the attack — pressing their frail bodies against doors for hours to keep attackers out, seeing neighbors wrenched from homes by gunmen and watching videos of their descendants beaten, bound and brought to Gaza as hostages.

The grim synchronicity of survivors from one historic massacre being terrorized in another delivered an added blow to Israel’s national psyche, which was already bruised by a failure to prevent the attack.

The creation of a Jewish state was long in the making before the near extermination of European Jewry catalyzed Israel’s founding in 1948. Central to the country’s national identity is its role as safe haven and defender of the Jewish people. Beyond those who fled Europe to Israel in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II, the country became a harbor for hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab countries after Israel’s founding. In the years since, it has provided a home to persecuted populations from the Soviet Union, Iran, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and other countries.

After the October attack, Israel declared war on Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. The Israeli campaign has included a siege on the enclave, a monthlong bombardment and a ground invasion that has left more than 10,000 dead according to Gaza health officials.

But for the country’s 146,000 aged Holocaust survivors, the attack has been particularly traumatizing, said Limor Livnat, a former Israeli government minister and the volunteer chairwoman of the Foundation for the Welfare of Holocaust Victims, a nongovernmental group that provides support to survivors.

“Everything is coming back to them from the Holocaust, and they’ve lost their sense of security,” Ms. Livnat said. “They went through the Holocaust and got to the state of Israel and such a thing couldn’t happen again and here it is happening to us.”

Zvi Solow, 89, has lived in Kibbutz Nirim since 1959 after fleeing the atrocities in Poland for Italy, then Greece and ultimately British Mandatory Palestine during World War II. On Oct. 7, he held shut the door to his home’s safe room for hours, hiding with his partner as Hamas assaulted his community, killing residents and taking hostages. At one point, through the safe room’s window, he saw two gunmen enter his neighbor’s home. The woman and her son are believed to have been kidnapped and taken to Gaza as captives.

Zvi Solow, 89, survived the Hamas attack in October.

“I was scared then, and I was scared now,” Mr. Solow said, comparing his experiences during the Holocaust to the recent attack.

Despite that fear — and anger at the government for failing to prevent the attack — Mr. Solow said he still felt less vulnerable on Oct. 7 than he did during World War II, knowing that his people now have a country and a military.

“Back then we were a persecuted minority who couldn’t do a thing except run. Now we can defend ourselves — we don’t always do it well,” Mr. Solow said, adding, “It should never have happened.”

Other survivors, whose family members were among the six million European Jews killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, are also contending with the trauma of having family members killed or kidnapped to Gaza as hostages.

Tsili Wenkert, 82, survived her infancy in a Transnistrian ghetto. Her grandson, Omer Wenkert, was captured in the Hamas attack on the Tribe of Nova music festival near Re’im in southern Israel.

Videos and photos of her grandson from the time of the attack show the young man being restrained, stripped to his underwear and surrounded by armed men in the back of a truck as he was taken away to Gaza.

“To think that my grandson is being held by Hamas, how am I even supposed to live?” Ms. Wenkert said.

Both the Israelis, the Palestinians and their supporters on both sides of the conflict have evoked the Holocaust and “genocide” — a word coined in the aftermath of the carnage of World War II and which has since been codified in international law — in the days since Oct. 7.

In October, the head of Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum criticized Colombia’s president for drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and the Israeli response in Gaza. He also criticized Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations for wearing a yellow Star of David patch during an address to the Security Council, saying the symbol, which was used under the Nazis to identify and humiliate Jews, dishonors both the country and victims of the Holocaust.

“While these attacks and while these atrocities are reminiscent of the Holocaust, we have to draw distinctions, as well as comparisons,” said Simmy Allen, a spokesman for the national memorial, Yad Vashem.

Dov Golebowicz with President Isaac Herzog of Israel.Credit…via Dov Golebowicz

Shoshana Karmin, 92, a Holocaust survivor who managed to leave Budapest’s ghetto along with her mother before it was sealed off, survived the Hamas attack in Kibbutz Magen last month. She is pessimistic about Israel’s prospects of eliminating the group, which she said was “a lot stronger and bigger” than she had thought.

“What worries me is what will happen after the war,” she said.

Despite the horrors of the attack, some are drawing strength and hope from their histories.

Dov Golebowicz, 92, fled Poland as a boy as the clouds of war began to gather. During the Hamas attacks, he hid in his home’s safe room in Kibbutz Nirim, where he has lived for nearly 70 years. Using a wood and metal fixture that his son, an engineer, had fashioned for such an emergency, he jammed the door closed for hours.

“I sweated it out by myself,” Mr. Golebowicz said. “It was very frightening and disturbing.”

In the weeks since the attack, Mr. Golebowicz said he has been thinking of “Zog Nit Keyn Mol,” a Yiddish song sung by Jewish partisans during World War II, which became a hymn of resistance still sung at Holocaust memorial ceremonies.

“It goes, ‘Don’t ever say that this is the last road you are taking,’” Mr. Golebowicz said, adding, “The last word is ‘we are here.’”

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