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‘My garden is dead, but we’re alive’

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Ralph Lewinsohn, his wife, Barbara, and their family survived their beloved home on Kfar Aza turning into hell on 7 October 2023 when it was attacked by Hamas terrorists, killing 10% of the kibbutz’s inhabitants and destroying all they had. But life will never be the same for them again.

Comparing their lives to a shattered piece of pottery, he said, “We’re trying to glue all the pieces together again, to make the piece of pottery whole again, but we’ll succeed only partially, because some of the pieces are too shattered to glue together and there’ll forever be holes and gaps in the piece of pottery that we cannot mend, but the piece of pottery will be rebuilt.”

Lewinsohn, 71, was born in Windhoek, Namibia (then South West Africa), and made aliya in 1977. Barbara, also 71, made aliya from Johannesburg in 1975. He graduated in hotel management and she was a social worker dealing with traumatised women. Having been on Kfar Aza on the Gaza border for 42 years, Lewinsohn first farmed before studying to be a tour guide and working with foreign tourists in English and German since 2000.

He looks back at what he calls “Black Saturday” as having been “hell on earth”, recalling how it all started at 06:30, when they heard a “not uncommon severe barrage of rockets” heading toward them from Gaza. What they didn’t immediately know was that heavily armed terrorists had broken through the border and attacked the southern communities, including their own, he wrote in the first missive to family and friends around the world.

“The terrorists went door to door, and murdered and took hostages back to Gaza, including whole families with children. We saw them running outside our house, dressed in black, shooting non-stop. In my small kibbutz, there were tens of dead and abducted. Our emergency response volunteers were nearly all murdered, abducted, or wounded. Many homes were occupied and families held hostage. A good friend’s daughter, husband, and baby were murdered in front of their two older children, who hid in the cupboard, and called their grandmother who was overseas.

“The only way to give support to the two kids was for a social worker to be on the line with them for many hours, as they were in the room with the bodies of their family until the army managed to get to them. No ambulances could get through. Those that tried, the paramedics were killed and the ambulances hijacked to Gaza.”

Lewinsohn’s daughter, Michal, lived in another part of the kibbutz, as did his son, Alon, and his family. “My daughter was without electricity for about 18 hours, her cellphone battery ran out, so we had no contact with her for about 12 hours, and we feared for her life,” Lewinsohn said.

“We were in our bomb shelter all the time, surrounded by constant shooting and explosions, very bad internet connection, no phone reception, some without electricity.”

Somehow, Lewinsohn and all his family were finally extracted by the Israel Defense Forces and taken to safety after “almost 24 hours of hell”.

He recalled how the army broke into his house through a window. “We had a moment of great fear, not knowing whether they were soldiers or terrorists,” he said.

“They collected us in small groups and under heavy guard, and led us to buses, which eventually evacuated us out of the war zone. There was constant heavy fire around us, and we had to take cover in a bunker for a while. On the way to the buses, we passed tens of burned out vehicles, bodies lying in the street, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK47 rifles, grenades, among other weapons.”

They were taken to Eilat for a few days before being moved to Ra’anana. “My wife, son, daughter and three grandchildren all managed to get out alive, which is unbelievable. Most weren’t that fortunate,” he said. “There are still pockets of terrorists in the area, and the kibbutz is deserted. We can’t even bury our dead.

“As African born, the wilds of Africa have taught me many things. One lesson is that an injured beast is much more dangerous than a healthy beast. Israel is now an injured beast,” Lewinsohn wrote to family when he was still in Eilat.

He wrote another missive to family and friends around the world a week later, saying it was the seventh day “since our world as we know it came to an end. We’re still counting our dead, missing, and abducted.”

Lewinsohn said that the first burials of about “100 dead friends have started, with very few people allowed to attend”.

He spoke of being one of “the lucky ones distributed to various reception centres where we are housed, fed, and have doctors and psychologists helping us. Most of us left with only the clothes on our backs, some had no shoes, wallets, money, credit cards, glasses, medication, or much else. We’re mostly clothed by donations from locals.”

Most of the children are traumatised, he said. “We try to prevent the kids from seeing friends they grew up with [displayed] on social media as hostages in Gaza, or dead with their families, some mutilated, burned, beheaded, and abused, or just bundled up in black body bags being loaded into refrigeration trucks,” he said.

“Our kibbutz probably won’t be habitable for the next few years because of the massive destruction, burning, looting, and booby traps.”

Lewinsohn and his wife expect to be in their temporary apartment in Ra’anana for another six months, by which time a caravan will be set up for them in the south until the kibbutz can be rebuilt, which he said would probably take up to two years. The idea, he said, was that they should be close enough for their children to go back to school and for people to return to their jobs in the area – “if their jobs are still there”.

In spite of the horror he has experienced, he spoke about the “unprecedented wave of unity and a spirit of volunteering in a population which is normally very fragmented and sectorised.

“People volunteer to milk cows in the deserted kibbutz communities, pick the fruit, be drivers, prepare food, basically anything that’s needed. In our darkest period in many decades, there’s a bit of light shining through,” he said.

“We spend most of our time trying to set up all the services that we need in our new environment, and going to ceremonies marking the shloshim [30 days after the burial] of our dead friends, which is a ceremony at the gravesite. Normally, it’s at this ceremony that a tombstone is erected, but all have been buried in temporary sites as our cemetery in Kfar Aza is a closed military zone and too dangerous.”

These people will be reinterred on Kfar Aza once it’s possible, he said. “We have 61 dead and 18 hostages from our small community, which is about 10% of our population.”

Lewinsohn said he had been back to Kfar Aza a few times with officials to enable him to retrieve some clothes, documents, laptops, medicines, and other personal items. “My beautiful garden is dead, but we’re alive, which is unbelievable considering what happened,” he wrote in his latest missive.

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