Mary Grossman

Nothing between us

A photo of the sunset towards Gaza by Batia Holin. This was the image used seeking photographers from Gaza to collaborate on a photo exhibition.
A photo of the sunset towards Gaza by Batia Holin. This was the image used seeking photographers from Gaza to collaborate on a photo exhibition.

The shifting balance between darkness and light is very much a part of Jewish thought, with the dance between them a constant struggle of the human experience. This has particular significance for the survivors of the atrocities of October 7. For older Israelis, it’s hard to imagine how almost four decades of lives well lived were wiped out in a single day.

Batia Holin’s story – of photographing her pastoral community of Kibbutz Kfar Aza in the Gaza Envelope, forming a partnership with a young Gazan man to produce a photo exhibit, and how that young man later betrayed her – is well known by now. It goes like this:

Holin, 71, moved to Kibbutz Kfar Aza in 1975. She spent nearly 50 years as a peace activist, promoting development and community life in the Negev. She and her husband, Nachum, have three adult children and two grandchildren who live nearby in the kibbutz.

Though Holin began taking photos with her cellphone in 2010, it wasn’t until 2019 that she became an avid early-morning walker to improve her health. She began taking pictures during her walks, eventually creating a gallery of images from her kibbutz on her Facebook page.

“Every morning after I finished my walk, I looked at my photos with my husband and put one picture on my Facebook page,” she said. “People became very interested and kept saying I should have an exhibition.”

One day, she received an email from her regional council stating that a grant was available for community members who wanted to do something special, such as an art exhibition. She applied for the grant and received it.

“If you live in the Gaza Strip and are interested, please PM me”

Now Holin had to hone her exhibition idea. Her photos depicted kibbutz life in the early morning hours, which most people missed because they were still sleeping. They showed fields at sunrise, the sunrises themselves, plants and flowers, and other tranquil images of nature. One dissonant note, however, was the constant presence of a fence.

“As I was walking around the fence, I always heard my neighbors,” she said, referring to the Gazans on the other side. “I heard and saw them, and then I thought it would be interesting to show two sides of the fence. And all the rest is history.”

Batia is a frequent poster on the Facebook page Life on the Border of Gaza, administered by Adele Raemer. Adele has known Batia for over seven years and has worked with her to advocate for better protection for the citizens of the Gaza Envelope. “She is creative and assertive and knows how to take an idea and make it a reality,” Adele says.

After receiving the grant, Batia posted to the Life on the Border page that she was looking for Palestinian photographers on the other side who might be interested in collaborating on the exhibition. Her post read:

I am writing in this group in an attempt to find people from the other side of the fence who would like to participate in my exhibition and present photographs that describe the environment in which they live, on the Gazan side of the border: pictures depicting THEIR everyday life. I believe that such an exhibition could be an important statement for all of us. If you live in the Gaza Strip and are interested, please PM me.

Eventually, only one Gazan photographer, Mahmoud (a pseudonym), seemed willing to overcome the security challenges of collaborating (artistically) with an Israeli.

Announcement for Between Us. Courtesy Photo.

Batia and Mahmoud worked for months, exchanging messages and photographs through encrypted channels on the dark web. Batia enlisted the help of a curator to edit the images and promote the exhibition Between Us, which opened to much acclaim in the gallery of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in the spring of 2023. More than 10,000 people who saw the exhibit wrote notes in the guestbook about how inspiring and optimistic the photos were. Coexistence seemed possible.

Batia said she felt sorry for Mahmoud, 28, who still lived with his parents in Shuja’iya in the Gaza Strip. Mahmoud told her that he was unemployed but occasionally worked as a DJ. He said he needed money, so she sent him some via dubious channels, which she now realized should have set off alarm bells. Batia even intended to donate the proceeds of print sales from Between Us to Mahmoud. But then came October 7.

“Hi, my girlfriend”

Although Holin was committed to her early morning walks, she always made an exception on Shabbat mornings.

“I never walk on Shabbat – not for religious reasons, but because I go to my grandchildren early in the morning,” she said. “This was my first ‘luck,’ because if I were walking on the road [that morning], I would not be here.”

Just after the attack began on October 7, while she and Nachum were hiding in their safe room – a specially-built room designed to withstand rocket impacts and chemical weapons – Mahmoud called her on her cellphone. He had never called her before.

“He said, ‘Hi, my girlfriend.’”

Batia thought that was weird – not only because she was old enough to be his grandmother, but also because – why now? He had never called her over the months they worked on Between Us.

“He began to ask me about all the IDF movements. ‘Where are you? Where are the soldiers? Where are the troops?’”

He went on to say that the IDF was bombing his neighborhood and that there was a big war going on. To Batia, this didn’t seem right. She knew what an IDF bombing campaign felt and sounded like; the detonations shook her house. It was so soon after the start of the attack that Israel had not yet responded.

“So I knew that wasn’t true. I closed the phone and disconnected the conversation,” she said. She realized then that Mahmoud was collaborating with Hamas.

Nearby, Batia’s daughter, Rotem, was hiding with her two children, ages 5 and 7, in their safe room while Hamas terrorists ransacked their home. Rotem’s husband was still hospitalized with injuries from an accident, so Rotem was alone with the children. After many hours, she managed to persuade the terrorists to leave by bribing them with some household goods. She was one of the lucky ones.

Batia, Rotem, and the children were rescued after more than 24 hours, and Batia was relocated to a kibbutz north of Herzliya. Not knowing whether she will ever live in her home again, she faces the unimaginable prospect of rebuilding her life at 71.

Coping with trauma and betrayal as an older adult

Liora Bar-Tur, PhD, is a clinical gerontopsychologist with a therapy clinic in Tel Aviv. She has been working overtime treating elderly survivors and victims of the October 7 massacre, some in their 80s and 90s, including Holocaust survivors.

Liora Bar-Tur, PhD, is a clinical gerontopsychologist in Tel Aviv. Courtesy photo.

She says that the mental health community has not yet dealt with post-traumatic therapy because the war is still going on.

“We have no theory or experience with massive, ongoing trauma like this. There are so many aspects to deal with and different groups of clients: survivors; bereaved, broken families; children who lost both their parents; parents and grandparents who lost children and grandchildren. Bereaved communities, soldiers in trauma, hostages who have returned, young women who were sexually abused, elderly hostages, and the families of those still in captivity, who are in great emotional pain and stress… and thousands of refugees who were uprooted from their homes in the north.”

While Batia appears focused and robust, one can’t help but think she feels a terrible sense of betrayal. The attack on October 7 upended the values and beliefs of the surviving peace activists from the kibbutzim, many of whom had devoted decades of their lives to seeking peace with their neighbors across the fence. Among those who did not survive was Vivian Silver of Kibbutz Be’eri, co-founder of Women Wage Peace. She was murdered on October 7, and her remains were found only five weeks later.

“I felt deeply broken,” Holin wrote on her website just after October 7. “I felt that everything I had believed in for the past 50 years had been shattered into pieces. I was left without words and without air in my body.”

“Older adults from the Gaza Envelope who were victims of the Hamas atrocity and massacre, and older hostages who were released, are at higher risk and more vulnerable,” said Bar-Tur. She points to the difference between older and younger victims in that older adults, such as Holocaust survivors and those who have been widowed, have accumulated losses from their past. She mentioned a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor from Kibbutz Nirim who said that he lost his home twice: once in 1936 and again on October 7.

For Batia and Nachum, it seems almost silly to wonder how they will start over at their age. They live in a hotel room with just a few belongings that they brought.

Bar-Tur says that many victims of the Hamas attacks “may be too old to settle back, and they are too old to overcome this massive trauma. Moreover, they may be sick, widowed, restricted in their daily life and suffer loneliness as many older adults experience, so they are at risk for depression and even suicide. This can be dangerous.”

More than 100,000 Israelis have been displaced from their homes, more than 300 soldiers have fallen in battle, and half of the 250 hostages remain in captivity. The Israeli soul is deeply traumatized. The scope of trauma affecting society is staggering. Few escape the effects – from the family members of those who were murdered and raped, the enraged family members of the hostages, the families and friends of fallen IDF soldiers, to the families that have been displaced. Adding to the stress are the resumption of the anti-government protests and a battered economy. For elderly victims, such trauma coming from all directions leaves them in disbelief, some for the second time.

“One of the most important aspects of well-being in old age is a sense of integration and generativity,” says Bar-Tur. “Can I leave the world peacefully, knowing I gave something to my children or the next generation that they can carry on? All these were taken away from the older generation in the Gaza envelope.”

Batia participates in ‘Album,’ a group exhibition at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art. Photo by Jacob Fainguelernt.

A path forward

Batia continues to take daily photos from the ocean-side village where she lives and is busy touring the US and Europe with her new exhibition, Dream. Fracture. The exhibit shows her photos from Between Us, but omits Mahmoud’s, replacing them with terrifying images of the destruction of her kibbutz.

Batia says she omitted Mahmoud’s photos because his participation was all a lie.

From Holin’s newest exhibit touring the U.S. and Europe, Dream.Fracture. Kfar Aza aftermath.

“The exhibition was called Between Us. And it’s false. It’s a lie now. I thought there was something between us, but [there was] nothing between us. There is nothing we can share between us. He did not want to live with me or near me; [he] wanted to kill me.”

Her speaking tour and photographs now focus on reminding the public of the atrocities of October 7 and the jarring images of the aftermath of the attack on the kibbutz.

“If nobody remembers the Seventh of October, then there is no explanation for this war,” she says, delivering the central message of her current presentation and photographs.

On Facebook, Batia continues to post images of the sun rising and setting across the Mediterranean landscape, capturing the heartbreak and the ongoing struggle between light and dark, good and evil, neighbors and enemies – a constant reality for Israelis.

About the Author
Mary Grossman, a member of the American Jewish Press Association, founded the first and only Wyoming Alt Weekly in 2002, called Planet Jackson Hole. Now, she is the Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community. She made Aliyah in 2023 and travels between Jackson Hole and Tel Aviv.
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