“I love you, stay strong, survive.”
These are the words Rachel Goldberg utters daily since Hamas terrorists kidnapped her son Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, during the organization’s Oct. 7 massacre of 1,200 people in the northwestern Negev.
Goldberg was having a cup of tea in Jerusalem when sirens blared warning of incoming rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. She quickly woke up her daughters and rushed to the bomb shelter inside her apartment.
Goldberg-Polin had spent the night out with one of his closest friends, Aner Shapira. When the sirens stopped, Goldberg grabbed her phone, which is normally off on Shabbat, to check in with her son.
“Two messages popped up; both were from Hersh. The first one said, ‘I love you’ and the second, ‘I’m sorry.’ I knew right away that something horrible had happened,” she told JNS.
Soon, Goldberg found out that her son had attended the Supernova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, where more than 360 young revelers were slaughtered by Hamas terrorists.
Goldberg-Polin, Shapira and a few others tried to escape together by car, but they realized that Hamas terrorists were setting up roadblocks and shooting at approaching vehicles.
They instead ran to a nearby bomb shelter. Soon, Hamas terrorists converged on the tiny space.
“First, they started throwing grenades which Aner, positioned in the doorway, would pick up and throw back,” Goldberg related. “He managed to throw back seven but three more detonated. It was a carnage; 29 people on top of each other in a very tight space,” she said.
The terrorists eventually fired a rocket-propelled anti-armor grenade into the shelter and sprayed it with machine gun fire. Most inside were killed. Others, who took cover under dead bodies, survived to shed light on Goldberg-Polin’s fate.
“When the dust settled, we were told that three boys, wounded but still alive, were ordered to stand up and when they did, someone saw Hersh’s left arm had been blown off from the elbow down,” Goldberg said. Goldberg-Polin’s cellphone was last tracked at 10:25 a.m. on Oct. 7, inside the Gaza Strip.
Seen walking out of the bomb shelter
A week later, Goldberg was being interviewed, together with her husband, Jon, by CNN’s Anderson Cooper when the journalist realized he had come across footage of Goldberg-Polin while making a documentary about the music festival.
“Hersh is seen walking out of the bomb shelter on his own two feet and hoisting himself up on a Hamas pickup truck. Nobody was dragging him,” Goldberg-Polin said. As he turned around to sit down, we saw a jagged bone sticking out where his arm used to be. This was the last time I saw my son—more than 70 days ago,” she related sadly.
Hamas took some 240 hostages on Oct, 7, ranging in age from 9 months to 87 years. While 105 were released as part of a weeklong ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas in late November, and others were freed in side agreements, 129 are still being held in Gaza.
“We now know that they endure torture, starvation, sexual abuse and unsanitary conditions. They are dying. No international aid organization has gone to see them. We live in anxiety, despair, torment and anguish at all times,” Goldberg said.
Relating to reports of renewed negotiations over a possible follow-up deal with Hamas, she expressed hope.
“We saw three weeks ago a pause in fighting and that desperately needed humanitarian aid made its way to Gazans. We were able to get some of the hostages back. We have the formula that worked in the past,” Goldberg said.
“Every second is a second closer to death for all of them.”
Goldberg acknowledges that none of the released captives could confirm that her son was still alive. “They did not recognize his picture or know his name. They also had not seen anyone with one arm,” she said.
“Those who were injured but still conscious and functioning seem to have been taken for medical care on their way into Gaza,” she said, adding that she had been told by medical experts that if her son had received treatment, he would have been in terrible pain, but could have survived.
Since her son’s abduction, Goldberg has met with all members of Israel’s War Cabinet and with other government representatives. She also met with U.S. President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 25 Republican and Democrat senators and seven U.S. governors.
She was invited to speak at U.N. headquarters in New York and Geneva, and met with Pope Francis in Rome and with U.S. entrepreneur Elon Musk.
“As the parent of a young man whose only crime was going to a music festival on his birthday, it is an excruciating existence. On Oct. 7, my heart was blown out. But we will not save anyone by sobbing on the floor,” Goldberg told JNS.
“We go to sleep every night feeling that we failed because Hersh and the rest of the hostages are still not home. We only sleep for three to four hours, haunted by horrible nightmares,” she said.
While realizing the huge challenges, she remains committed to bringing her son home.
“I believe that he is strong and that he can overcome anything. When he gets home, we will provide him with every form of help that he needs. The arm will probably be the least of it,” Goldberg said.
“I talk to him all day long. When I’m feeling nervous, I say to him: ‘I love you, stay strong, survive because we are coming for you,” she said.