An Israeli survivor of the Holocaust and Oct. 7 says after the recent atrocities, we ‘held our heads high’

Penina Ben Yosef escaped the Nazis in Poland and was a founder of Kfar Maimon, where she found herself sheltering as Hamas terrorists and IDF soldiers battled right outside

Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel took on a new resonance on Monday, nearly seven months to the day after the greatest atrocity against the Jewish people since the ones perpetrated by the Nazis.  

There are currently 132,826 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, according to the Israeli Welfare Ministry. The events of Oct. 7 are estimated to have impacted 2,500 Holocaust survivors, including 1,894 who were evacuated from their homes, 554 of whom come from Israel’s south. Of the evacuees, 238 have returned to their homes, mostly in Israel’s south; 86 of the survivors who were evacuated have died since Oct. 7. 

Penina Ben Yosef is one of those who escaped the Nazis and lived through Hamas’s attack on Southern Israel. She spoke with Jewish Insider ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Ben Yosef was born on Aug. 1, 1940 in Kovel, Poland – which is today in Ukraine – after the German invasion of Poland. Her father, a locomotive engineer, was forced to bring supplies to the war front and bring wounded soldiers back to Poland.

“My father knew what was happening to the Jews,” Ben Yosef said, “and one time, when he was able to stop in our city, he called the whole family together, his parents and brothers, and told them to run away.”

“They didn’t believe anything would happen. They said that they had been in Poland for hundreds of years and had a lot of trouble with the goyim (non-Jews) and nothing particularly bad would happen now. When my father insisted, they said ‘take your wife and daughter and go,’ so he did. They stayed, and they were all killed,” she said.

Penina’s parents acquired false identification papers that did not say they were Jewish, and they fled to Russia, where her father was conscripted into the Red Army. After the war, they were deported because they were Polish citizens. Upon their return to Poland, her parents searched for relatives, finding none, and eventually made their way to a displaced persons camp in Austria.

“We were in the American zone and were able to emigrate to America, which my mother wanted very much,” Ben Yosef said. “My father insisted that he will only go to the Land of Israel because he never wanted to be called a zhid [a derogatory term for Jew] again.” 

Ben Yosef and her parents made their way to Mandatory Palestine illegally on a freight ship in April 1948, one month before David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence.

Ben Yosef was one of the early residents of Kfar Maimon, one of several agricultural communities near the Gaza border established by alumni of the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva. She arrived as a teacher in the fledgling moshav in 1960, a year after Kfar Maimon’s establishment, and raised two daughters there. She has 11 grandchildren, including two soldiers who fought in the war in the past seven months.

On Oct. 7, Ben Yosef had a broken leg in a cast and was unable to go to synagogue for Simchat Torah. She had heard the rocket sirens at 6:30 a.m. — “We’re used to that,” she said — but when they stopped, she sat by her window. As the morning progressed, she did not understand why she did not see the other residents of her religious village walking to synagogue. 

“Then my daughter who lives [in Kfar Maimon] and a grandson who was a soldier on leave, but was back in uniform, came here to put me in the safe room because I couldn’t walk on my leg,” she said. 

What Ben Yosef didn’t know was that a battle was taking place by the entrance to Kfar Maimon. Hamas terrorists shot at a Yasur (Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion) helicopter, which made an emergency landing at the moshav. Dozens of soldiers emerged from the helicopter and fought off and killed about 60 terrorists in the village’s environs, preventing them from entering Kfar Maimon.

“It was a great miracle,” Ben Yosef said of the battle.

Meanwhile, Ben Yosef remained in her safe room. The following morning, her daughter, who has young children, left, while her 24-year-old grandchild stayed with Ben Yosef.

“I was there until Monday afternoon when I agreed to leave the house and the village,” she said.

Ben Yosef said it was “very, very hard” for her to evacuate her home.

“I came to this region to work, and for 64 years and two days, I was there. Through all the wars and all the operations, I never left my home,” she recalled.

Part of the difficulty for Ben Yosef, she said, was that “every other time I helped, I did things for other people. This time I was told that if I stayed, [the authorities] would have to come and check on me and protect me. So I told myself, ‘Pnina, you’re already old, you did what you could. Clear the way for the young people.’”

Ben Yosef left for Alon Shvut, a settlement near Jerusalem where she lived for more than four months and passed the time knitting hats for IDF soldiers. She returned home at the end of February. 

“There wasn’t any damage to the village and no one was killed, thank God, so everyone is back,” Ben Yosef said.

At the same time, Ben Yosef said they hear constant “booms” and there are soldiers present at all times.

“It’s not that we are back in paradise, but we’re home,” she said.

Asked why she remains despite the dangers, Ben Yosef said: “If we’re not here, the Arabs will be here. There is no question. It’s clear that we have to be here. They call us the ‘Gaza envelope,’ but we are the envelope of Israel.” 

Penina Ben-Yosef at a JNF Lag Ba’Omer event in the DP Camp in Austria sometime in 1946-1948

Kfar Maimon is perhaps best known in Israel as a site of one of the major showdowns between opponents of the Gaza disengagement in 2005 and law enforcement, with tens of thousands of people demonstrating in the small village.

Asked whether she felt the disengagement contributed to the current situation, Ben Yosef recounted the “great relations” residents of the village had with Gazans.

“We would go to the market to buy clothes, shoes, and kitchenware because it was closer than Beersheba,” she recalled. “We would go to the beach there…When we drove north to Tel Aviv or something, we would drive by way of Gaza because it was faster.”

“It’s hard to believe such things now, but it was totally fine. The Palestinians worked here in the villages in the area and made a nice living. I’m sure their situation was much better than now,” she said.

Ben Yosef was pessimistic about the future of relations between Israel and Gaza.

“The hatred didn’t start now; it’s from the days of Ishmael and Isaac,” she said. “I do not see that there will ever be peace with the Arabs, because they don’t want us here… Somehow the world has to stop this radical Islam or it won’t just be Israel [in danger], it will be the whole world.” 

As for the connection people are drawing between the Oct. 7 attack and the Holocaust, Ben Yosef said that “over the decades, fate brings us all kinds of ups and downs, and that was one of the most difficult low points, but to compare the days of the Holocaust and Oct. 7 — it’s not the same.”

“In the time of the Holocaust, we were spread all over the world and when we were massacred, we couldn’t do anything. Today we are in our own country with our own army. The losses were tremendous, the shock was great — but we held our heads high,” she said.

Ben Yosef took part in a project initiated by the Israel office of Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, called “Sharing Memories,” in which influencers upload videos of Holocaust survivors telling their stories. This year Meta Israel is highlighting survivors who were in Israel’s south on Oct. 7. The participants are mostly Israelis, so the videos are mostly in Hebrew, but actor Michael Rapaport produced content in English; they have an aggregate following of over 7.2 million people on Instagram. The project will raise funds for Israeli NGO Latet to provide essential needs to impoverished survivors, and the clips were available to watch on the VOD service of one of Israel’s biggest cable companies, Yes TV, starting on Sunday night.

Hamas murdered several Holocaust survivors on Oct. 7, including some of the 15 elderly people found dead in the street in Sderot, where they were waiting to board a bus to the Dead Sea. One of them was Moshe Ridler, 91, the oldest resident of Kibbutz Holit, who escaped a concentration camp when he was 11 years old. 

The eldest of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, Shlomo Mantzur, 86, is a survivor of the Farhud, the 1941 pogrom against Jews in Baghdad, inspired partly by Nazi influence in Iraq. Farhud survivors are recognized as Holocaust survivors under Israeli law.

In the Farhud, Shlomo’s sister, Hadassa Lazar, told a Knesset committee earlier this year, the Iraqis “murdered, raped, tortured babies, kidnapped, decapitated… It was the Kristallnacht of Iraqi Jewry and the world was silent. Shlomo saw things that stayed with him his whole life. We used to think ‘never again’ – it did not occur to us that such things could happen again when we have a sovereign state.”

Some of the other hostages have close relatives who are Holocaust survivors, including Michael Kuperstein, 82, the grandfather of Bar Kuperstein, 22, who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, and Tsili Wenkert, 82, whose grandson, Omer Wenkert, was taken from the festival and appeared in a hostage video released in January. Bella Chaim is the grandmother of Yotam Chaim, who was kidnapped to Gaza and accidentally killed by IDF soldiers. Ruth Haran, 89, had seven relatives kidnapped and three murdered; her grandson-in-law Tal is still being held hostage in Gaza and her daughter Sharon, daughter-in-law Shoshan, grandchildren Noam and Adi, and great-grandchildren Neve and Yahel were kidnapped by Hamas and released in November. 

Haran, who was born in Romania and spent years fleeing the Nazis, survived the Oct. 7 attack on Kibbutz Be’eri and said that “people who survived the massacre talked about death, murder, women raped and the destruction of our community. The whole trauma of being a Holocaust survivor came back to me…As a Holocaust survivor, I know how to deal with pain, but this time I don’t know how to cope.” 

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.