‘It’s living hell,’ says SA-born hostage’s daughter
Ayelet Svatitzky is a romance novelist, but lately, she’s lost for words. Her elderly South African-born mother, Channah Peri, 79, and her brother, Nadav Popplewell, 51, were kidnapped by Hamas terrorists more than a month ago from their home on Kibbutz Nirim. They were last seen being taken hostage into Gaza. Her oldest brother Roi, 54, was murdered near them on the same day.
“When it happened, I had no words for this atrocity. Now I can say it’s hell,” she told the SA Jewish Report this week.
“It’s hell on earth, a living nightmare that never ends,” she said from her home on Kibbutz Yagur, which is about an hour from Tel Aviv.
She’ll never forget the chilling moment when armed Hamas terrorists sent her three photographs of her mother and Nadav while they were being held captive.
“It’s something you cannot get out of your mind,” Svatitzky said.
This week marked a month since the Hamas massacre on 7 October which claimed the lives of 1 400 innocent civilians. There are 240 hostages including babies and children still being held captive, their status unknown.
“Imagine for one minute what it’s like. Both my mother and my brother have diabetes. My mom needs insulin. My brother needs his medication. I have no idea where they are, if they are being fed and looked after. I picture them in a tunnel somewhere in Gaza, but I haven’t heard anything. The Red Cross hasn’t been allowed to see the hostages,” she said.
Her mother, Channah, was born Denise Adele Levy in Johannesburg. Ayelet doesn’t know too much about her mother’s childhood. She understands that she spent time in Gqeberha (then Port Elizabeth) and Cape Town, and made aliya as a young woman with her sister, Leonore Armbruster, 75, who lives in the United States, and their late brother, Raymond.
They have distant family in South Africa, some of whom have reached out to her during this time.
“My mom and her siblings left South Africa in the sixties. They made aliya as they wanted to be a part of building the state of Israel. They were passionate about it,” she said.
She met Ayelet’s late father, British-born Israeli, Rafi Popplewell, on Kibbutz Nirim, where they married and had three children, later divorcing but remaining close. She and her brothers have British-Israeli citizenship.
A few years ago, Svatitzky surprised her mother by converting 8mm home movies taken some time during Channah’s childhood in South Africa into digital videos.
“You can see footage on the beach, and there are some where you can see elephants and giraffe,” she said.
This week, Svatitzky recalled the chilling instant she knew her mother and brothers were in grave danger on 7 October.
Her husband, Eyal, woke her up early with the news that there was a terrorist attack taking place in the south of Israel.
“This happened often, sadly. My mother lived with the reality of constant threats and missile attacks from Gaza. Eyal said I must call her immediately because WhatsApp groups started burning with messages about missiles and a terrorist attack on the ground.
“I frantically called my mom and told her to lock the house, rush to her safe room, and not let anyone in the house. She told me she was in the safe room, which didn’t have a lock, and that she didn’t have time to lock the house.
“I then heard men in the house speaking English with an Arabic accent, and I knew what that meant,” she said.
“I hung up the phone and called Nadav, who lives next door. I heard men’s voices inside his house. I hung up.”
She told the SA Jewish Report that she then tried frantically to alert others on the kibbutz, eventually managing to tell friends about what was happening, but no-one was able to come to their rescue.
And then her world came crashing down.
“A couple of minutes later, I received two pictures from my mom’s phone via WhatsApp showing my mom still in her nightwear and my brother barefoot.” The sender of the message added a caption with one word, written in English: “Hamas”.
A third picture was then uploaded from Channah’s phone to her Facebook story, something Svatitzky knew her mother didn’t know how to do. “That picture showed my mom and my brother in the living room and an armed man in the corner with a Kalashnikov [rifle]. That was the last I saw of them,” she said.
That night, she learnt that her brother, Roi, was missing. They had found his phone but didn’t know his whereabouts.
She learnt of Roi’s death while she was filling out a missing person’s report at the police station the following day.
“I received a call from the kibbutz the next day informing me that they had found Roi’s body.
“When I received the photos from Hamas, I thought they were dead. I didn’t know what would be a better option – to have been murdered or kidnapped in Gaza,” she said.
Svatitzky lives with her husband and three children about two hours from Kibbutz Nirim.
“My mom and brothers always visited us because we felt it was safer for my kids not to go to Kibbutz Nirim, which was often targeted by rockets. They would come for Shabbat and stay for the weekend,” she said.
Svatitzky said the family was close and her children were traumatised.
“There was a memorial at school this week to mark a month since the attacks. My daughters stayed home because it would be too sad for them,” she said.
She described her mom as “the kindest person you could ever imagine”.
“She’s a wonderful grandmother, gentle and patient,” she said. Her mother managed a small clothing shop on the kibbutz which also made children’s clothes.
Dr Zvi Solow, 89, a Holocaust survivor and long-time neighbour of Channah, said he knew her very well and was concerned for her and Nadav’s safety.
“We live next door to one another. There’s a small lawn between us. When the terrorists entered Kibbutz Nirim, I went into my safe room with my partner. We were holed up there for hours. Inside, there’s a small window. I looked out the window and saw two armed terrorists standing outside Channah’s house. I immediately ducked because I knew if they saw me they would have shot and killed us,” he told the SA Jewish Report.
“Later, I heard they had been taken. I haven’t heard anything about their fate. I’m heartbroken.”
Solow who is a retired high school teacher and lecturer from Ben Gurion University, said Channah had been his neighbour for decades.
“Nadav was my student. I would see Channah every day, that’s kibbutz life. We are both oleh from English speaking countries, she from South Africa and me from Australia, so we had that in common. Channah is independent and intelligent and a good person. I was heartbroken to hear about the murder of Roi. They are good people.”
Svatitzky said she would stop at nothing to raise awareness to help bring her family home.