When the Palestinian militant group Hamas entered Israel on Oct. 7 and killed some 1,200 soldiers and civilians, it was the largest loss of Jewish life in any period since the Holocaust.
Hamas also took an estimated 249 hostages back to the Gaza Strip. Among them are 40 children (the youngest a baby of 10 months), a woman believed to have given birth in captivity and many seniors, including Holocaust survivors.
CBC News spoke to family members of several Israeli hostages held in Gaza. These are their stories.
Aharon Brodutch lives in Toronto and called his brother Avihai in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, three kilometres from the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 7 to ask how his niece’s birthday party went that day. Brodutch’s mother picked up the phone and frantically told him she didn’t know where his brother was and that Hamas members were shooting residents of the kibbutz.
Brodutch immediately woke his wife up to tell her the news. He then called his brother’s house again and this time got Avihai on the phone. Brodutch asked how Avihai’s wife and three young kids were, and his brother told him they had all been killed.
For more than 24 hours, this is what the family thought had happened — until a neighbour told them he saw them being taken hostage.
“Everyone thought they’re dead. And then I called my mom in the morning, Sunday morning, which is a day and a half after … everything started, and she said, ‘We just heard news, someone has seen them alive,'” said Brodutch.
“And I broke down and started crying. I was crying up until that moment, but then I just burst into tears, it was just joy. I mean, it’s the worst possible news, but it was just pure joy because at that moment they were alive.”
Within a week, Brodutch was flying into Israel — just as most planes were flying out — to offer his brother and parents support.
“I had to go to be with my family,” Brodutch said. “I have to stay strong…. we all do, my whole family. We have to fight to bring them back because this is our life now.”
Brodutch returned from Israel two weeks later. While there, he and his brother started a protest outside the Israeli defence headquarters to pressure the country’s security apparatus to make liberating the hostages its only priority. The demonstration remains strong to this day.
Since being back in Canada, Brodutch has travelled to Ottawa to press the federal government to do whatever it can to facilitate the release of the hostages. He has also attended more than a dozen rallies to keep awareness of the hostages high in people’s minds and has done many media interviews.
Brodutch said he will keep doing his part until his family members are home, and that a big part of that is making the world understand these are people with individual stories, and aren’t just just numbers among many.
“My nephew Yuval is eight, he’s a bright kid who loves Minecraft Legos. My sister-in-law, Hagar, is a good person, a doer who helps everyone on the kibbutz,” he said. “My other nephew, Ori, is a sensitive child, just four. And my niece, Ofri, 10, is just an adorable child. She was here for a month in Toronto this summer and we had an incredible time. She’s my older daughter’s best friend, they talk on the phone all the time.”
Brodutch worries they don’t even know their father is alive because the family was separated on the day of the attack. He said he tries not to think of what they are going through.
“I feel like a robot now, I try to do everything to detach from my feelings, otherwise I would break down, and I cannot. It’s very, very hard.”
Maayan Zin’s daughters Dafna, 15, and Ella, 8, were visiting their father, his partner and her son on Oct. 7 for a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of Kibbutz Nir Oz, where he lives. They were excited to be performing at a show there that weekend.
Zin, who lives in central Israel, was awakened by family early that Saturday with the news that Nir Oz was under attack and that members of Hamas were livestreaming the capture of her daughters.
“They are really young, innocent kids that didn’t do anything wrong, and they are alone with people that we know murdered and did terrible things before they were actually even kidnapped,” Zin said. “I ask myself what’s happening with my daughter Dafna — she’s a teenager and she has the body of a woman. It’s terrifying.”
In the video Zin saw, which was livestreamed from her ex-husband’s stepson’s phone, her daughters are terrified and crying sitting near their father, who had been injured and bleeding badly from his leg.
He was killed later that day, along with his partner and her son. The thought that Zin’s daughters witnessed that horrific scene before being taken themselves haunts her.
“I try not to think about what they saw, how they are dealing with it,” Zin said. “But the deaths must have been very brutal, because the three of them were buried in a coffin which is not the tradition in Israel — it must be because their deaths were so brutal.”
Zin has spent every day since her daughters’ kidnapping pressuring anyone she can to help bring them home. She has done countless media interviews and written letters to Israeli officials and the International Red Cross.
Last week, she made international news by begging Israel to take her into Gaza to become a hostage with her girls. (A video about it that she posted on X has received more than a million views.)
“I love my daughters very much, they are my life,” Zin said. “I can’t bear to think of them being there alone. I want to be with them, to take care of them, to tell them I’m there with them and I would do anything to be there with them.”
Zin has seen a picture released by Hamas of her daughters on a mattress in captivity, and says the image prevents her from sleeping or eating. She tries to counter it by telling anyone who will listen about her girls in an attempt to make the world understand they are unique individuals.
“They are people with full lives,” Zin said. “They are always surrounded by friends, boys and girls, they fight like sisters and challenge me, but they are my life. My older daughter, Dafna, loves to sing and dance, she makes clothes, she loves kids and helps out in the kindergarten on the kibbutz.”
Gefen Sigal’s mother, Clara Marman, just turned 64 when she was abducted from her home in Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak along with her partner, Louis Har, 70, her brother Fernando Marman, 60, her sister Gabriela Leimberg, 59, and her niece Mia Leimberg, 17.
The group had gathered for the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah and were sheltering in their safe room after the Hamas attack, texting Sigal until right before they were taken.
Sigal, who lives in central Israel, waited hours for confirmation that they had been kidnapped.
“I tried to call [her mother] and she didn’t answer again, and the hours went by and it was the worst hours of my life,” said Sigal, who lives in central Israel. “We didn’t know what their situation was, and how they were feeling, or if the terrorists entered.”
At 4 p.m. that afternoon, Sigal was told her mother and extended family were likely taken as hostages, because their house had been ransacked and they were nowhere to be found.
“My mother and her partner take medicine for chronic illnesses. I don’t know if they have those or if they’ve even seen daylight in these 35 days,” Sigal said.
To improve the chances of seeing her missing family members again, Sigal has done as many media interviews as she can, as well as spoken out online and participated in rallies for the release of the hostages. She says being active is the only thing that helps her get through the days.
“It’s really hard, I feel like I’m just surviving every day,” she said. “I know the damage that it does to them to stay in captivity. It’s a nightmare, really, for me and for my family.”
Sigal wants the world to know that her mother is a peaceful person. Marman was a kindergarten teacher who worked in the kibbutz’s daycare after she retired and was an excellent baker. She recently made the birthday cake for Sigal’s daughter’s second birthday.
Sigal says her mother’s partner, Louis Har, has four children and 10 grandchildren and loves the theatre. Her uncle Fernando is a handyman and helped residents of the kibbutz with anything they needed fixed. Sigal says her aunt Gabriela worked in a centre for people with cognitive disabilities who miss her a lot. Her cousin Mia is only 17 and preparing for her driver’s license.
Sigal prays that at least the family members have been kept together.
“I want people to know that every person is a world, with interests and faith and beliefs,” she said. “I share their story hoping whoever I tell will tell someone else, and so on until they are released.”
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