Cheryl Levi

Nova: A Field of Anemones and Horrors

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A few days ago, I did what I never thought I’d be able to accomplish.  I went down south to visit Otef Azza.  Now, it’s important to understand that I can’t get through a Disney movie without crying.  But when the opportunity arose to witness the devastation of the South, my moral conscience took over.  It is imperative that there are witnesses to the events of October 7th.  We are only 4 months away from that deadly attack and we are already encountering deniers.  In fact, from October 8th many claimed that the October 7th attacks didn’t happen the way we claim they did.  Some say that there weren’t any rapes, mutilation, or people being burned alive. Others claim that we somehow deserved what we got and that the attack did not constitute genocide.  It is for these reasons that I decided to grab a full pack of tissues and board the bus headed south.

We made multiple stops along our trip including the southern towns of Netiv Haasara and Shakaida, the car cemetery,  and a junction that three brothers turned into a base for soldiers to grab a hot meal. We spoke to residents, heard their harrowing stories, and met soldiers who accepted my students’ thank-you notes with smiles. And while every place we went had a poignant tale to tell, the one that kept haunting me was the Nova Festival Memorial.

Getting to the Nova Festival grounds was difficult.  It had rained most of the day, and the terrain was hilly and muddy.  We were on a bus and the trip was a true test of the driver’s abilities.  We rocked back and forth with the bus as it made its way through the thick mud and narrow pathways.  On the way, I looked out the window and spotted the blood-red anemones growing in the green fields.  The contrast in color highlighted the beauty of the fields and the cruel irony it bespoke.  This was not meant to be a beautiful field.  It was a field of death. Yet, nature had a say of its own.  And it chose to create beauty where there was once horror.

When we did finally make it to the scene of the festival, we began to slowly walk through the maze of faces on the stakes that carried them. The concept of placing the faces on stakes in the ground didn’t elude me.  When something is set on a stake in the ground, it declares eternal ownership of that piece of land.  It immortalizes the person and his connection to that place.  It’s a message that I hope is not lost on anyone.

As I walked through the images of the smiling faces there were a few that immediately caught my eye, mostly because of the quotations the families had written below or above the faces.  On top of Slav Madmoni’s face “God Has a Plan” was written in big bold letters.  It was a statement of acceptance and a message to all those visiting the field.  One should always keep in mind that there is a reason for everything, even if we cannot find it or get lost searching for it.  It was easy to lose our way walking through that field of faces.

There were other messages that stood out well.  Under Linor Kienen’s picture it read “I try to actualize what I want to happen;  If I don’t succeed, at least I made an attempt, and I know that what actually happened, was meant to happen all along.”  It sounds better in Hebrew,  but the point of the quote was clear.  The family was telling us that we cannot control what will happen in life.  All we can do is acknowledge that what happened was supposed to happen.  It is a message about human limitations,  lack of control, God’s omnipotence, and acceptance.  It’s a hard message to absorb when you are staring at Linor’s beautiful smile.  It shook me, as it was meant to. I wasn’t the only one affected by the words.  Soldiers who were visiting the festival at the same time read them along with me.  For a few minutes, we all just stood and stared at the face of Linor as we tried to absorb the message behind the stunning words.

A third surprise was waiting for me on top of Moriah Or’s image.  There, two sentences were written: “The world is created for me.  I am only dust and ash”.  The first sentence is a statement from the Talmud.  The second sentence is a statement made by Abraham in the Book of Genesis.  The contradiction between the two statements has been discussed by many Jewish commentators. “The world was meant for me” implies that everything in this wonderful world was put here for my sake.  It is a sentence that might be declared by a king or a head of state,  while “I am only dust and ash” is a humble admission that might be whispered by a dying man.   Rav Simcha Bunim, an 18th-century Hassidic rabbi, was said to have put each sentence into two different pockets. The point was that they are both true despite the contradiction. The trick is to know which one applies at what point in time.  The truth was at the Nova Festival, both statements applied.  Standing near the stakes of the dead, I felt like an inconsequential speck of dust. After all, that’s how all we end up – a picture in someone’s album.  A memory.  Or even a face on a wooden stake.  But at the same time, when I looked at all the beautiful images surrounding me, smiling and full of life, all I could think was that for the short time, these people inhabited this world, the world was created just for them.

I became dazed as I continued to float through the pictures at the Nova Memorial.  At some point, I heard a soldier say to me, “This is quite something, isn’t it?” But I couldn’t answer.  Words just seemed too small for the occasion. I shook my head from side to side and made my way through the faces. I still see them when I close my eyes at night.

The day after I came back from the south, I watched a documentary called “Nova” that was made by the Israeli producer  Dan Paar. The documentary was put together with 212 video clips from survivors of the festival and the terrorists themselves.  It also includes phone and WhatsApp conversations.  It is a powerful movie that tells the story of the Nova Festival, and I admit that I had to take a brief break in the middle to take some deep breaths.

It took me to that place on that day.  I saw the dancing, the laughing, the shock and the horror.  What happened at Nova was a massacre.  These people were hunted like animals.  They were shot at random with no mercy.  367 of the victims spent their last hours in this world in mortal terror. 34 were taken hostage, and thousands were physically and/or mentally tortured.

The video begins with a phone call made by Yuval Rafael to her father:

Yuval: Dad, there are a lot of dead people! Send the police!

Father: Dead people?!

Yuval: (crying) Dad, please send the police right now!

Father: I am sending them now.  Try to be calm. Stay with me on the line, okay?

Yuval: (crying) They are terrifying.  They are terrifying me.

Father: Try to relax, sweety. Yuvali, take a deep breath and hide. Pretend you are dead. Are there wounded outside?  Explain the situation.

Yuval: There are dead bodies on top of me.

Father: Wait, are there still terrorists there?

Yuval: They are walking around.

Father: Pretend you are dead. Hang up the phone and pretend you are dead.

Yuval was one of the lucky ones to survive.  Later in an interview on TV, she explains that she was hiding in a public bomb shelter with about 40 other people.  The terrorists entered the shelter and shot and killed many of the others hiding with Yuval. Buried beneath the bodies, she pretended to be dead.  When I heard the story, I couldn’t help but think of the Holocaust stories I have heard about people hiding underneath the corpses of their friends and families in the huge pits dug deep in the forests of Poland.  And as I further reflected on Yuval’s story, there was no doubt in my mind that a bit of Yuval did die that day because standing in that field of anemones and horrors, a piece of me died as well.

About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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