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One group of displaced survivors in Israel is living in a hotel


For Israeli survivors of the Hamas attacks two weekends ago, the nightmare is far from over. Their loved ones are still being recovered and buried, held hostage in Gaza or are still missing. And for those who survived, what now? NPR's Daniel Estrin visited a hotel where hundreds of survivors from a community that suffered some of the most catastrophic losses are staying.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's disorienting when you walk into the Shefayim Hotel along the Mediterranean coast. There's so much life and so much loss. These are the displaced survivors of Kibbutz Kfar Aza. Families lounge on green lawns. Kids play basketball. Survivors walk their dogs in the hotel lobby past a handwritten roster of funerals that keeps growing.

Nadav Amikam, Yuval Solomon, Neta Epstein, Aviv Kutz, Livnat Kutz, Rotam Kutz, Yonatan Kutz, Yiftach Kutz (ph). Wow. Five members of the same family. Here's an easel where a man has just written yet another funeral. All of these people - men and women - killed - lived in the same community, the kibbutz Kfar Aza, and none of them are being buried in the community where they were killed.

BAR ELISHA: I heard them starting - entering the houses, breaking doors, breaking windows and just brutalizing everything all around.

ESTRIN: Geologist Bar Elisha hid under pillows in his neighbor's shed. He listened to the attackers go door to door.

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ELISHA: I was, like, oh, my God. He's dead. His whole family is dead. I was sure they were murdered in cold blood. Then I heard them moving to the next house and to the next house.

ESTRIN: Soldiers rescued Elisha 30 hours later. He emerged to destruction. Homes had gaping holes. The attackers left behind an aerial photograph with buildings identified as targets. The details haunt the survivors.

AVIDOR SCHWARTZMAN: Our little piece of paradise become pure hell. I don't know how to else put it.

ESTRIN: Media consultant Avidor Schwartzman had moved to the kibbutz a couple months ago with his wife and baby. It had palm trees, a plastics factory, a dining hall - the kibbutz ideal of communal living. There was a waiting list to join, even though it's along the Gaza border, where occasional rocket fire was always a part of life.

SCHWARTZMAN: When we moved there, we thought it was safe. I mean, yeah, there was constant bombing and everything, but we never thought that dozens or even hundreds of terrorists will infiltrate the kibbutz and would start slaughtering entire families in their home, in their beds. My wife lost both of her parents. They were murdered. They lived, I don't know, about hundred meters from us, 150 meters from us.

ESTRIN: More than 50 out of the community's thousand residents were killed. Others were kidnapped. Some are missing. The survivors evacuated. Now hundreds of them are staying together at this hotel on another kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Their days are filled with funerals and visitors. We spotted a film star and a former Israeli president. Everything they own they left behind. They're wearing donated clothes. Schwartzman is stunned to be in someone else's outfit.

Do you think about whether you'll go back to your home, Kfar Aza?

SCHWARTZMAN: I don't know. I don't think that we'll go back there. We just don't feel safe anywhere right now.

ESTRIN: Even shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning at home, can't be done at home. Shiva after shiva is here in the lobby of a bank on the hotel grounds. We meet Ofer Baram sitting shiva for his son Aviv, who stage managed popular artists.

OFER BARAM: He's a angel that came to visit us for 33 years, give his light, give his love, give his - I don't know - whatever can someone give to the world, and disappeared. Aviv was the glue that gather us around him - the wife, his mother, myself. And if Aviv is not there, no reason to live there.

ESTRIN: In Gaza, Palestinians don't have the opportunity to take refuge in a peaceful hotel. They can't escape the deadly Israeli bombings. The Israeli survivors at this hotel are relatively safe, but they cannot yet move on. We meet volunteer therapist Libby Shmuel in the hotel lobby. She tells us about helping one survivor cope with the uncertainty of where his father's body was.

LIBBY SHMUEL: It was imagining that his body is just, you know, in a bag with many, many bags of other bodies. And it was so terrible, like Auschwitz - just a very bad image - and just wanted to say goodbye to his dad, just see his dad in a different place.

ESTRIN: Shmuel offered him EMDR therapy - eye movements, knee tapping, guided imagery. He visualized his dad on a mountain, a place he fell in love with on a trip abroad once.

SHMUEL: So he said, OK, I just go there with my dad, and we are together. And then he goes, and he's waving to me, and I see his beautiful smile. And then he said, Dad, goodbye, I love you. He could see his dad and just give him a hug and say goodbye to him in a normal and dignified way. Then he got peace.

ESTRIN: And it's a sense of community that's bringing comfort to the survivors we meet. Avidor Schwartzman.

SCHWARTZMAN: The human spirit here is so strong. You see the civilians here that are taking care of everything - everything - everything that you need, like with clothes and money and food, places to be. Everything that you see here, as far as I know, are managed by civilians.

ESTRIN: The geologist Bar Elisha looks across the hotel lawn at all the other families sitting there.

ELISHA: I see so many people that I was sure they were dead. Suddenly, I see them alive. They survived. And this what makes me strong and make me feel alive again.

ESTRIN: Then he lifts up his 4-year-old daughter, who also survived, and gives her a kiss.


ESTRIN: Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Shefayim, Israel.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.