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Ashley McKinless | Zac DavisDecember 11, 2023
A photo of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who has been held hostage by Hamas in Gaza since the attack on Israel on Oct. 7 (Courtesy of the Goldberg-Polin family)

Hersh Goldberg-Polin is one of the 137 children, women and men who remain in captivity in Gaza 65 days after Hamas’s massacre in southern Israel. Last week, his mother, Rachel Goldberg, spoke with Ashley McKinless and Zac Davis on the “Jesuitical” podcast about the events of Oct. 7 and her tireless efforts to secure his freedom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley McKinless: We’re talking to you two months after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. In the 61 days since your son was taken hostage, you’ve spoken to the pope and the president and countless others about Hersh. I’m hoping that you can start by telling us about Hersh.

Rachel Goldberg: Hersh is our oldest and only son. He has always been obsessed with reading. He gained a curiosity for the world and for people and for trivia and for geography at a very young age. He’s always had wanderlust. He knew from a young age that he was going to travel when he got older. And he has a great sense of humor: a dark, witty, sarcastic sense of humor. He’s a very respectful person. He’s wild about soccer—wild about music and music festivals and traveling. He went this summer for nine weeks with one teeny-tiny backpack by himself to six different countries in Europe, going to music festivals in each place and meeting people.

He loved meeting people from all different backgrounds. He’s a big pursuer of peace. The soccer team that he [supports] has as their number one objective coexistence activities with the Arab community here in Jerusalem. He was always very active with that.

Zac Davis: It sounds like Hersh being at a music festival was not out of the ordinary or anything. This seemed to be like something he loved to do. Could you tell us about when you last saw him and heard from him?

RG: On Oct. 4, which was a Wednesday, Hersh went up north by himself to go to a music festival. He was supposed to be at that music festival until Sunday, Oct. 8. But on Friday afternoon, Oct. 6, he called us and said: “Ugh, it’s so upsetting. The police just came and they said our permit isn’t the right kind of permit for the weekend, and so they’re closing down this massive music festival in the north. So I’m coming home.” And he said, “I’ll come to synagogue with you guys tonight, and then Aner and I are gonna go out and do something fun.” Aner was one of his best friends from childhood.

The five of us went to synagogue. We had a wonderful time. It was also a Jewish holiday that celebrates when we finish reading all of the Torah, it’s called Simchat Torah, happiness of the Torah. We wind the entire book back to the beginning, and everyone dances with the actual Torah scrolls. Friday night, he danced with the Torah. All of us danced with the Torah.

Then we went to dinner. Around 11 o’clock, he kissed me goodbye. He kissed Jon goodbye. He hugged our hostess, which I was proud of him [for]. I made a mental note of like, that is the right thing to do—not all 23-year-olds would do that. He said, “O.K., I’ll see you guys tomorrow night,” meaning Saturday night. I knew they were camping somewhere, but I didn’t know where. That’s the last time I physically saw Hersh in person.

Saturday morning I was in my kitchen having a cup of tea. My husband had already left for synagogue. Around 8 o’clock, bomb sirens started to go off in Jerusalem, which is unusual.

I went quickly to wake up my daughters, who were still sleeping, and we got into our bomb shelter. The protocol is that you wait 10 minutes, and if you don’t hear an explosion, then you can come out. After 10 minutes, the girls and I came out, and even though normally on the Jewish Sabbath I never used my phone, I knew it was an emergency—a life-and-death emergency, possibly, because there must have been bombs dropping somewhere—and I knew the boys were sleeping outside. So I ran, and I turned on my phone. This was at about 8:20 a.m. Immediately on my screen, two WhatsApps popped up. They had both come in consecutively at 8:11 a.m.

This was at about 8:20 a.m. Immediately on my screen, two WhatsApps popped up. The first one said, “I love you.” And the second one said, “I’m sorry.”

The first one said, “I love you.” And the second one said, “I’m sorry.” Immediately, my throat closed and my stomach clenched up because I thought, Something terrible is happening. I tried to call him back. He didn’t answer. I wrote three quick WhatsApps in a row: “Are you O.K.?,” “Tell me you’re O.K.,” “I’ll leave my phone on. Tell me you’re O.K.” Those [messages] have never been read. Initially, we didn’t even know where [the boys] were. We found out that they were at the Nova music festival. We found out over the next couple of days what unfolded with Hersh and Aner specifically.

Right away we could see online—kids were filming the massacre that was taking place there, which ended up claiming 364 young people’s lives. There were about 3,000 young people there. Ironically, it was called the Festival of Unity and Light.

What we ended up finding out is that Hersh and Aner and two other kids ran to a car when the shooting first started. The problem was that Hamas was blocking the main road going north and south. When cars were approaching a certain point, they were just at point-blank range with machine guns shooting everybody in the cars. There’s a picture of maybe 50 cars that were just on the road with the doors flung open, and the kids all went running out. There are bomb shelters next to public bus stops in the south of Israel because unfortunately, there are times when rockets are being launched. It turns out that 29 of these young music lovers mashed themselves into this windowless concrete bomb shelter; my husband Jon just went last week to see the bomb shelter for the first time. And he measured it: It’s eight feet by five feet.

First Hamas came and threw in hand grenades. Aner was standing in the doorway. The eyewitnesses who survived told us that he kept picking them up and throwing them back out, which is absolutely incredible because I’ve since learned that you have a four-and-a-half-second window from when you pull the pin on a hand grenade until it explodes. He managed to throw out seven. But three did get in and exploded in this tiny windowless room with all these people mashed together. And there was instantly a lot of carnage. Then they came in and shot an R.P.G. [rocket-propelled grenade] into the room, and then they came in and were spraying machine gun fire.

Most of the kids in there were dead right away. A lot of them were dying and badly wounded, and some lucky ones were trapped under the dead bodies. We call them lucky because they call themselves lucky; they were able to pretend that they were dead. Hersh and two other young men were slumped against the wall, wounded but very clearly still alive. Hamas walked in after the dust settled and, at gunpoint, said to those three boys, “Stand up.” When Hersh stood up, all of the people who witnessed what was happening told us that they saw that his left arm from the elbow down had been blown off and that he had tied some sort of bandage or a tourniquet of some sort around his arm.

They all said that all three of them walked out completely silent, which we really couldn’t believe because I thought: My gosh, if your arm’s blown off and you’ve just witnessed 19 people getting blown to bits, including Aner, who was killed in the doorway; this is one of his childhood best friends.

I will talk to anyone who’s open to talking to me. I don’t know what’s right. And I don’t know what’s wrong. But sitting and waiting for someone to come and help us was not an option.

Several days later, we were interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN. And at the end of the interview, Anderson said to us, “You guys, I’m gonna call you.” And we thought, why is he calling us? He said to us, “I have video footage of Hersh being abducted.”

The footage didn’t necessarily tell us any more information. It did confirm that he did calmly walk. I’m sure he was in complete shock and traumatized, but he does walk on his own two feet. He gets himself up onto the truck. He is left-handed, and his left hand was gone. He uses his non-dominant hand to get himself up. And when he turned to sit down, we saw the stump where his left arm used to be. You see a piece of jagged bone sticking out. That is the last time that we visually saw Hersh. His last phone cell signal was picked up at 10:25 a.m. inside of Gaza. We’ve been living on another planet of despair and anguish and terror and trauma since then.

AM: You haven’t been silent or sitting still for the last 60 days. How are you able to pick up the pieces and keep walking?

The first answer is, I don’t know how I’m able to actually do it. The second answer is that it is a real primal maternal and paternal drive; it’s almost this innate, animalistic need to try to save his life. If you’ve ever hiked and you run into a bear, and if there’s a bear with a baby bear, you’re supposed to really run and make yourself big because that animal thinks you’re coming after its baby. And they’re gonna do whatever they need to do to protect it. I think that there is a very primal piece of me that is constantly thinking: I will run to the end of the earth for this child. I’m going to turn over every single stone. I’m gonna throw a dart in every direction.

I will talk to anyone who’s open to talking to me. I don’t know what’s right. And I don’t know what’s wrong. But sitting and waiting for someone to come and help us was not an option.

ZD: In the 61 days, you’ve been talking to a lot of people. One of those people was Pope Francis. How did that come about?

RG: This lovely man named Roberto came from the Vatican News to interview us in our apartment. We had a very nice interview. And at the end, he said, “Would you like to send a message directly to the Holy Father?” And I said, “Sure.” I gave a very short message because I had heard Pope Francis speak about the hostages. I think he’s a very unifying figure. He’s an extremely wise, learned man. I like the idea that he feels that everyone is God’s children. And so I just thanked him for the message that he had put out there and was hopeful that it could have some influence. The following week, the Vatican reached out and said, “We would like to extend an invitation for 12 hostage families to come to meet with [the pope].”

I felt extremely blessed and grateful to have that opportunity because I’m aware that there are 1.3 billion Catholics in the world who probably would give anything to have that opportunity. The actual meeting was pretty quick. But I was able to share with him the video of Hersh being abducted and explain what happened to him. The other families were able to explain a bit about what happened to their loved ones.

And [Pope Francis] said something to me that really gave me such consolation because I had started to sort of lose faith in humanity because of what happened on the seventh. He said something very simple. He said, “What you have experienced is terrorism, which is the absence of humanity.” And all of a sudden it was like he reframed it for me, and I could have faith again in humanity because what happened was the absence of humanity. And it really brought me a lot of comfort to hear that from him.

After he spoke to us, he spoke to a group of Palestinians, which I thought was really important. He is a very universalizing and unifying figure, and he has a lot of influence.

AM: You mentioned having your faith in humanity tested. I’m wondering how your faith in God and your Jewish faith has been tested or been a source of strength during these last two months.

RG: I have continued praying every morning, and I say Psalms throughout the day. I always say that Psalms are like a self-help book. You can go through and find [a Psalm for] when you’re feeling, “Hallelujah, praise the Lord” and when you’re feeling, “Where are you? Why is this happening?” We have words for that, and that’s important. It’s validating. I’m very cognizant of which part of the prayers I’m saying for Hersh. I do call out to God—my kids kind of make fun of me—I’m talking to God, my hands are up in the air, and it is really challenging.

Such horrible things happened on Oct. 7, and part of being a religious person is saying: “It doesn’t make sense. And I still believe.”

And on the other hand, I also feel like having the conversation with God is part of the relationship, saying: “Why are you making this child suffer? Why are you making us suffer?” But that’s belief. Having a conversation is being in a relationship. So my faith is still there and my curiosity of saying, “Why is this happening?” Such horrible things happened on Oct. 7, and part of being a religious person is saying: “It doesn’t make sense. And I still believe.” There’s a very famous poem; it was written inside of a cattle car that used to take people to Auschwitz. The last line is something like, “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.” And it says, “I believe in God even when he is silent.”

As religious people, we struggle, we see hard things happen, horrible things happen in this world. And our job is to figure out: How do you reconcile and keep going on within that?

ZD: You’ve been meeting with lots of different groups, throughout this time. What has that experience been like for you?

It’s very validating when I meet with other hostage families because, as I’ve said, we live in this other galaxy. I appear normal. I look normal. I’m speaking, I’m functioning, but it’s really a bifurcated existence because I’m in agony at all times. But I also have to be a human being. I have to function because I have two other children. I have to function because I have to save him, and I can’t save him if I’m on the floor in a puddle all day long. So when I need those moments to go be in a puddle, I just say to the team, I’ll be right back. If I have to have a good cry or a scream into a pillow I do it, and then I wipe my face and say, we’ve got work to do, get going.

This past Sunday, I met for the first time with this really interesting group of Muslim-American women. They gave me a lot of hope, because I think that it’s hard in their communities to show support right now—to either the Jewish community or anyone who’s associated with Israel. I thought it was super brave, and it gave me a lot of hope.

Then I realized that it was Advent starting on Sunday. I had a Christian roommate in college, and she had explained to me about Advent. I knew that in the first week of Advent, the theme is hope. And I thought, wow, this is great because I’m having hope from this other branch of religion and hope is the Christian theme. And tomorrow night starts the holiday of Hanukkah, which in Judaism is a festival about miracles and light when things are dark. All those things galvanized inside of me, and I’m trying to stay as positive as I can.

ZD: Rachel, thank you so much for the bravery that you’ve shown and you have shown these 61 days. We’re praying for you, your family, and for Hersh, for his safe return.

RG: Amen. I hope that the next time I see you he’s sitting next to me and he can talk to you himself. But I really believe in the power of prayer. So your prayers are very appreciated. Hundreds of thousands of Christians and Catholics have reached out to us who are praying for Hersh and for the other hostages, and it means the world to us.

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