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80 years after WWII, Holocaust survivor escapes Hamas attack

Twenty people in Netiv Haassara were killed, including many whom Weissmann knew personally. 

Yaakov Weissmann survived the Holocaust as a child hiding with a non-Jewish family in France
Yaakov Weissmann survived the Holocaust as a child hiding with a non-Jewish family in France - Copyright AFP Yuri CORTEZ
Yaakov Weissmann survived the Holocaust as a child hiding with a non-Jewish family in France - Copyright AFP Yuri CORTEZ
Michael BLUM

Yaakov Weissmann survived the horrors of the Holocaust by hiding with a non-Jewish family in France when he was just four years old during World War II.

Now 83, he survived the October 7 attack in Israel by Hamas gunmen that has drawn comparisons to Nazi atrocities for its brutality.

Weissmann’s village Netiv Haassara is just 500 metres (1,600 feet) from the border with the Gaza Strip, from where Hamas Islamists under the cover of a hail of missiles, stormed into Israel, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians.

Israel has declared war on Hamas, pounding Gaza incessantly since with air strikes that the densely populated enclave’s authorities said killed 2,750 people, most of them ordinary Palestinians.

Weissmann heard rockets go off at around 6:00 am that Saturday, which was also the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest.

“Rockets, rockets and booms. Well it’s not the first time,” said Weissmann, whose village of 800 inhabitants is used to projectiles aimed by armed Palestinian groups at Israel.

Pistol in hand, he and his wife followed the drill to get into his fortified shelter — something that every home in the area is equipped with, securing the door and window within 15 seconds.

“Then I heard, with my wife, we heard machine gun fire. When we heard this, we know there has been an infiltration of enemy forces,” he said.

A deep sadness came over him, he said, “because as soon as there is gunfire, I know there are deaths”.

When he came out of the shelter, he found to his great relief that all 23 of his descendants — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — who live in the village were alive.

– Anger –

Twenty people in Netiv Haassara were killed, including many whom Weissmann knew personally.

Five of them died with weapons in their hands. They were security volunteers, said Weissmann, who believes they had helped to prevent further bloodshed.

As the day went on, the scale and the horror of the attack became clear.

In the worst-hit villages, entire families, including babies, were killed in their homes, some of which were also set on fire.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the attacks were “savagery never seen since the Holocaust”.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin said the Hamas fighters took “evil to another level” from Islamic State jihadists.

Ten days on, Weissmann said the overwhelming emotion for him beyond sadness is “anger, because, how did our famous army get caught off guard?”

Born in France in 1940, Weissmann said the attack had revived memories of his childhood hiding from the Nazis.

His Polish parents fled pogroms to move to France in 1933 but his father was arrested by Nazi-allied French militia in 1944.

He was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were killed.

A non-Jewish family took him and his sister in a village near the southeastern city of Lyon, pretending they were their nephew and niece on a visit.

After the war, Weissmann moved to Israel, where he first lived close to the Jordanian border before resettling in Netiv Haassara, a farming village in the Sinai Peninsula after it was seized by Israel from Egypt during the 1967 six-day war.

But the village was evacuated in 1982 under the framework of a peace deal which returned control of the peninsula to Egypt.

It was then displaced to its current location close to the Gaza Strip, conserving its name.

– ‘Eradicate them’ –

At 83, Weissmann has been displaced again — this time to a retirement home in central Israel’s Modiin.

Inhabitants of villages close to Gaza have mostly vacated their homes in recent days as Israeli troops massed in preparation for a ground invasion.

“I don’t want revenge, but I want the people responsible to pay,” said Weissmann, adding that for him, “not only is Hamas at fault, but those Gaza” who “jumped in joy and distributed sweets” when the gunmen were carrying out their attack.

His greatest revenge against the Nazis was simply having stayed alive and built a family.

“You wanted to exterminate us, well, I had children and grandchildren and we keep on living,” he said, adding that he uses the compensation Germany pays him as a Holocaust survivor to take the family on vacation.

What he wants for Hamas is to “eradicate them from the map”.

Israel’s vow to “destroy” Hamas must be met, he said, adding: “Then I will calm down.”

After that, he says without hesitation that he plans to return to Netiv Haassara.

“But I can understand that my daughters may not want that,” he conceded.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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