This piece is one of an ongo­ing series that we are shar­ing from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.

It is crit­i­cal to under­stand his­to­ry not just through the books that will be writ­ten lat­er, but also through the first-hand tes­ti­monies and real-time account­ing of events as they occur. At Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, we under­stand the val­ue of these writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ni­als and of shar­ing these indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. It’s more impor­tant now than ever to give space to these voic­es and narratives. 

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, JBI is record­ing writ­ers’ first-hand accounts, as shared with and pub­lished by JBC, to increase the acces­si­bil­i­ty of these accounts for indi­vid­u­als who are blind, have low vision or are print disabled. 

On Fri­day Octo­ber 6, my life part­ner, Gidon Lev, and I were at Kib­butz Mish­mar HaEmek in the Jezreel Val­ley of Israel to vis­it his son, grand­chil­dren, and great-grand­chil­dren. The Jezreel Val­ley is broad, green, and dot­ted with kib­butz­im, Arab Israeli vil­lages and towns, and miles and miles of gold­en fields. The call of the muezzin blends with song­birds, rustling leaves, and flow­ing springs. In the evening, we joined the kib­butz res­i­dents to cel­e­brate Shab­bat and Sim­chat Torah in the com­mu­nal din­ing hall. 

Hours lat­er and nine­ty miles away, a night­mare of bru­tal­i­ty was unfold­ing. Hamas ter­ror­ists pro­ceed­ed to bru­tal­ly mur­der over a thou­sand Israelis — chil­dren, moth­ers, fathers, those with dis­abil­i­ties, and the elder­ly. In some cas­es, these mur­ders were live streamed. In oth­ers, videos of the mur­ders were sent to the victim’s fam­i­ly from the victim’s own phone. Hun­dreds of young peo­ple danc­ing in the desert at a music fes­ti­val were mowed down. 

While these events were tak­ing place, Gidon and I were unaware of them. We slept, and then lat­er bathed in a fresh spring, joined by fam­i­lies from all over North­ern Israel. A love­ly Arab Israeli woman, Ham­da, wear­ing a bathing suit that cov­ered her head, laugh­ing­ly stretched her arm out to me as I strug­gled near the churn­ing water­fall. We spoke in Hebrew and Ara­bic, and she told me that she and her fam­i­ly were from Acre. I remem­ber it as a love­ly after­noon, were it not for peo­ple check­ing their phones ner­vous­ly around us. 

Some­thing was hap­pen­ing, but it wasn’t clear what. Reports and more reports. Text mes­sages and anguished faces of wor­ry. Gidon and I raced back home to see what was hap­pen­ing. We spent our evening in our bomb shelter. 

When the news caught up and began to report the sto­ries of what had hap­pened, Gidon and I were swal­lowed up whole and spat out again in shock. How could this hap­pen? What would hap­pen next? As the days passed, our phones pinged day and night with news updates, rock­et alarms, and pleas for us to leave the coun­try as soon as pos­si­ble. Like every­one else in Israel and around the world, we tried to absorb the news, glued to the tele­vi­sion. We saw and can nev­er unsee the ter­ri­ble footage of a young Israeli girl with blood­ied hands, face, and crotch being tak­en through the streets of Gaza. Or that of anoth­er young woman being tak­en away on a motor­cy­cle, beseech­ing her bound and help­less boyfriend to stop what was hap­pen­ing. We all saw the pic­tures of burnt corpses. Of babies. 

Gidon will be eighty-nine years old in March. He spent four years of his child­hood in the There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp. His third son, Elisha, was called up for reserve duty on the Lebanese bor­der. His grand­son, Noi, was called up to serve on the Jor­dan­ian bor­der. Obses­sive­ly, I check the rock­et reports to see where and when mis­siles have been fired into Israel. Each new day is worse than the last – the fear, shock, and hor­ror cours­ing through our veins. The media is a con­stant drum­beat of death, destruc­tion, and blame. 

We are often asked if Gidon suf­fers from Holo­caust trau­ma, like feel­ing guilty about sur­viv­ing, hoard­ing food, or being unable to throw things away. Not real­ly, I say. But the day I sug­gest­ed leav­ing Israel until this war is over, the pain and loss Gidon had car­ried since he was a small boy erupt­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. He came out of the show­er and, clutch­ing his tow­el to him­self, roared at any­one and every­one – I will not run! I will not lose my fam­i­ly! Not again!”

It wasn’t easy to con­vince Gidon to go to Kib­butz Ein Gedi, near the Dead Sea. It isn’t leav­ing the coun­try, but it is leav­ing what I think of as the bulls­eye” of Israel — Tel Aviv. Now, we are in the low­est place on earth. It is qui­et here except for the desert birds dart­ing among the rocks and chil­dren play­ing. There are hun­dreds of sur­vivors here from Kib­butz Be’eri and Kib­butz Holit. Kib­butz Ein Gedi has embraced them. 

This feels like a col­lec­tive dark night of the soul. The world holds its breath. Who knows what will be?” Gidon often says. All I know is this: sev­en­ty-eight years ago, when a mal­nour­ished, trau­ma­tized, ten-year-old Gidon stum­bled back into free­dom, he sim­ply put one foot in front of the oth­er, believ­ing, some­how, that things could be bet­ter. And I am lucky to be at his side. 

The views and opin­ions expressed above are those of the author, based on their obser­va­tions and experiences.

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Cal­i­for­nia native Julie Gray made aliyah in 2012 and lives in Tel Aviv. Her writ­ing can be found in the Jew­ish Jour­nal, the NY Post, the Times of Israel, the Huff­in­g­ton Post, Moment Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. Gidon and Julie’s book, Let’s Make Things Bet­ter (Hachette/​Pan MacMil­lan) will be avail­able Fall 2024