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Danielle Sobkin

At 20, What I Saw Made Nightmares Look Tame

(courtesy)
(courtesy)

At 20, I faced a truth that movies couldn’t prepare me for: real horror isn’t on a screen, but in the stories captured on October 7th. 

The decision to bear witness was mine, and mine alone.

In the fragile light of dawn, as Jerusalem awoke to the rhythm of an ordinary day, I made an extraordinary choice. At twenty, on the cusp of life’s many unfolding mysteries, I elected to confront a reality so stark, so brutally honest, it promised to redraw the boundaries of my understanding. This was no casual foray into the realm of adult choices, nor a youthful dalliance with the macabre. Rather, it was a deliberate step into the heart of darkness—the 46-minute documentary that unflinchingly chronicled the atrocities of October 7. This decision, made in defiance of the counsel of friends and family, was a solitary act of will, driven by a belief that some truths, no matter how harrowing, demand our witness.

Their warnings were a chorus of concern: “Why immerse yourself in such horror?” they asked, their voices tinged with alarm. But their apprehension, though well-intentioned, could not dampen my resolve. This was not only about courting darkness, but also about understanding it; not about the loss of innocence, but the gaining of insight. It was a conviction rooted in the knowledge that to turn away would be a disservice—not just to myself, but to the collective memory of humanity.

As I walked through Jerusalem, the weight of the impending experience pressed heavily upon me. The city, with its ancient stones and whispered histories, seemed to stand in silent testament to the complexity of human endeavor—both its magnificent heights and its abysmal lows. The waiver I signed felt like both an admission ticket and a farewell, a symbolic relinquishment of a part of my youth never to be reclaimed.

Seated in the dim light of the viewing room, surrounded by others from our group who had also chosen to bear witness, I felt an unspoken camaraderie. Yet, as the screen flickered to life, I was profoundly alone with my decision. The documentary did not flinch from its task, presenting a narrative so visceral, so unequivocally raw, that it seemed to tear at the very fabric of my understanding. The scenes it portrayed—of lives shattered, of unquantifiable loss—were a testament to the depths of human cruelty and the resilience of the human spirit.

Emerging from the darkness of the viewing room into the light of day, the world appeared altered. The mundane concerns that once occupied my thoughts now seemed trivial, distant. Conversations overheard in the streets, the laughter of friends, the plans we laid for the future—all were colored by the knowledge of what I had witnessed. Nothing seemed real. The documentary had not just opened my eyes to the atrocities of a particular moment in time; it had fundamentally changed the way I viewed the world and my place within it.

Returning to the rhythm of a “normal” life after witnessing such profound darkness is akin to moving through a world rendered suddenly unfamiliar, where the colors are dimmed and the sounds muted. Despite the best efforts of friends and family to bridge the chasm of understanding that now separates us, their empathy, though heartfelt, cannot fully comprehend the depth of the transformation I have undergone. They want to understand, to offer solace–but the truth I have absorbed resides in a place words can scarcely touch. This isolation, this sense of profound solitude, is perhaps the most unexpected aftermath of my decision to bear witness. It’s not that they don’t care, but rather that the magnitude of what I’ve seen is so alien, so beyond the scope of ordinary experience, that it defies shared comprehension. 

As a result, I find myself navigating a dual reality: one where I engage in the everyday motions of life, and another where I am perpetually haunted by the echoes of what I have seen. Weeks since, and the thought of normalcy still seems like a distant mirage, shimmering on the horizon yet ever elusive. The fabric of my daily existence, once familiar and comforting, now feels like an ill-fitting garment, awkward and constraining. The aftermath is a relentless torment—sleepless nights, a startle at every sound that echoes the screams, the cries I cannot unhear. Triggers lurk in the mundane, catapulting me back to moments of unspeakable horror. Images seared into my memory: bodies charred and contorted by fear, the grotesque silence of the beheaded, the desperate cries of children for parents who will never answer, the young women, their innocence marred by blood.

This solitude, this feeling of being fundamentally altered in a way that cannot be shared or fully understood by those around me, is a heavy mantle to bear. It underscores a poignant truth: in the act of witnessing, we not only confront the darkness in the world but also the inherent isolation that comes with carrying such knowledge. The journey back to a semblance of normalcy is thus not just a path of reintegration, but a quest to reconcile the indelible marks of awareness with the ongoing pursuit of a life that feels, in many ways, irrevocably changed.

This experience, though deeply personal, carries with it a universal message. In the act of witnessing, we are reminded of our shared humanity, of the fragility of the peace and security we too often take for granted. It is a call to action—not just to remember, but to engage with the world in a more meaningful, more compassionate way. As I continue on my journey, the memories of what I have seen serve as a constant reminder of the work that remains to be done, of the vigilance required to ensure that such horrors are never repeated.

In sharing this story, my hope is that others might be inspired to confront the uncomfortable truths of our world, not as a burden, but as a step towards understanding, empathy, and ultimately, change. It is a testament to the power of witness, to the capacity of human beings to confront darkness with light, and in doing so, to forge a path towards a more just, more humane world.

About the Author
Danielle Sobkin is a student at the University of California, Berkeley pursuing a double major in Data Science and Economics. With a deep connection to the global Jewish community, she has served on the Hillel International Student Cabinet (HISC) and works as a Data Scientist with Jewish on Campus (JOC). As the daughter of Soviet refugees and a first-generation student, Danielle draws inspiration from her unique background and aims to connect with others through her writing. She is passionate about conveying the importance of Jewish Joy in everyday life and creating a more inclusive and understanding community.
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