There is often a chilling sense of unease that runs laps up the spine when one realizes they are witnessing history in the making. Citizens around the world will never forget how this feeling tortured them on September 11, 2001. History, never forget, is bloody, brutal, and terrible.
Those last four words might well be echoed with doubled and, perhaps tripled, effect when considering the slaughter of Israelis at the hands of Hamas on October 7 and the litany of sanguinary conflicts that have engulfed the region since.
It is difficult to imagine that it has already been over a month since the senseless massacre of over 1200 Israelis, with well over a thousand wounded by Hamas militants on, by no means uncoincidentally, the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. Many more were kidnapped and taken into Gaza.
Two brave Israeli activists and historians who are behind the lines currently in Israel recently opened up about their experiences.
Activist and writer Peta Pellach is the first to share her story. Peta is a dedicated advocate for education and interfaith understanding. Currently holding the position of Director of Educational Activities at the Elijah Interfaith Institute, Peta is actively involved in fostering dialogue in Jerusalem. Peta lives in Jerusalem and is an enthusiastic supporter of Women Wage Peace, which is the largest grassroots peace movement in Israel.
On the Eyewitness History podcast, Peta went into detail about how Israel and the surrounding region arrived at this place in history, which is no easy feat, considering the decades of conflict.
Peta then summarized what she witnessed on October 7.
She, along with her sister visiting from Australia, embarked on a routine 15-minute walk towards their synagogue at approximately 8:15 AM. That was when the first siren went off, prompting Peta to express to her sister, "This is real. I have lived through enough wars to know this is the real thing."
In the absence of shelters in their old neighborhood of Jerusalem, the instinctive response was to find cover against a wall. Peta chose not to disclose her knowledge of the nearest public shelter, knowing it was too far away. They deliberated whether to return home or proceed to the synagogue, opting for the latter based on their experience with previous conflicts.
Upon arriving at the synagogue, the tension was evident. Peta's friend, who had access to a radio through her neighbors, predicted more significant developments. Despite the uncertainty, the synagogue service continued, punctuated by announcements from the rabbi about seeking shelter whenever the siren sounded.
Peta went on to describe the atmosphere, saying, "During the synagogue service, several times, the rabbi made the announcement before we started that if the siren sounded, we would go to the safe area." Throughout the day, Peta and others sought refuge in the synagogue's safe area each time the siren wailed, with uncertainty looming over their community. It was six times during that morning service that they would go to that safe area.
When Peta's husband returned from his own synagogue, the rumors of casualties circulated, with as many as 80 deaths.
An unmistakable sign of the gravity of the situation emerged when a dedicated member of the synagogue received a call. It was a call received by an active member of the synagogue whose son was in the army, wearing a distinctive watch, which is also a phone, indicating a call to duty.
“[That’s when] we realized just how serious it was. They were calling people up."
The full extent of the tragedy became apparent after finally turning on the television and radio post-Sabbath. Peta conveyed the shock, stating, "It was worse than anybody had rumored during the day. And I think everybody was in shock. Nobody knew how to respond."
In addition to recapping her personal experience of that and preceding days and the personal loss to her, she also explains the organization’s prescriptions for a solution, the “Unity War Cabinet” formed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition and opposition politicians like Benny Gantz.
The second interview was with Angela Scharf, an activist and fellow acolyte of Pellach’s Women Wage Peace. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.
"I was at home when the news broke about heavy bombardment in the south [on October 7]. For hours, the information was scarce and spontaneous, leaving us in the dark about the unfolding situation. The uncertainty persisted, with talks of terrorists infiltrating Kibbutzim and causing chaos."
As the gravity of the situation became apparent, Angela learned about her friend Vivian, who was in Kibbutz Be'eri. "Vivian, a friend from Women Wage Peace, was giving us signs from the shelter. They were hiding, enduring the sounds of gunfire and Arabic screams. It was an unimaginable experience, and everyone awaited the arrival of the army, hoping for intervention."
This was Vivian Silver, a lifelong activist who was, in fact, one of the founders of Women Wage Peace.
The toll of casualties escalated rapidly. Angela described the chaos: "Reports spoke of 20, 50, and then 100 people killed. Yet, no one could fathom the true scale of the atrocities — 1400 people killed, a staggering number. Rumors circulated about youngsters fleeing the scene of the party, adding to the complete chaos."
Angela received distressing messages from Vivian during the day. "Vivian's last messages at 11:10 revealed her fear, no longer speaking audibly to avoid detection.” She went on to say that Vivian was “hiding in a cupboard due to the intruders in her house, her battery dwindling. She went silent. We were left in the dark, helpless."
Despite concerted efforts, the community faced a desperate situation. "For 33 days, the families of hostages had no information about their whereabouts, their well-being, or the dire conditions they faced. The families gathered daily, standing, sitting, and even sleeping in what became known as the 'Square of the Hostages' in front of the television museum."
A terrible update is that Vivian Silver has been confirmed dead.
An article released today by Women Wage Peace reported that “For 38 long days and nights, our beloved Vivian Silver, Peace Wager, was pronounced missing, presumed kidnapped. Last night her family received notice that, to our dismay, she was murdered on October 7, in her home’s safe room in kibbutz Be’eri.” The article goes on to cite Vivian as a “role model” and a “ brave leader to peace.”
As host of the Eyewitness History podcast, I strive to bring stories from the past to light. This includes, among others, a Holocaust survivor named Ben Lesser, who had to endure the unthinkable cruelty of being imprisoned in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. It has also included more light-hearted fare, such as my interview with Spike Edney, the so-called “fifth member” of Queen, who told me what it was like playing the infamous concert at Live-Aid, among many other incredible people.
No matter who I’m talking to, I look behind my shoulder towards the past. But, in these instances, it was important to look toward the events in the making and, indeed, what this might mean for the future because history unfolds in the present. By focusing on those events, we can decipher the threads that connect the past, present, and, inevitably, the future.
The history of Israel is one of courage in the face of struggle and adversity. This ethic of stoicism and overcoming dates as far back as 538 BC when the Persian King Cyrus allowed Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem. This was a marked triumph in the restoration of what can be called Jewish identity.
That commitment to resilience that is difficult to define and even harder to wield persists today with these latest attacks. As always, Israel will look towards the light and, just as it did so many centuries ago, reclaim its right to sovereignty and its national identity.
Photos Courtesy of Peta Pellach and Angela Scharf
Josh Cohen is a journalist and commentator living out of the Midwest. He has written for a number of reputable publications, including TownHall. He joins Scott Rank as a member of the Partheneon podcast network, with his podcast on history, called "Eyewitness History!" His fascination with history is in the story of our existence and how it is told. Keeping the tradition of storytelling alive in History On The Net is what drives him.