The aftermath of Hamas's Oct. 7 invasion in Kibbutz Nirim, near the Israel-Gaza border southern Israel, Jan. 21, 2024. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
The aftermath of Hamas's Oct. 7 invasion in Kibbutz Nirim, near the Israel-Gaza border southern Israel, Jan. 21, 2024. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
featureOctober 7

‘I sent messages to my friends that we were going to die’

Oct. 7 survivor Deborah Mintz spent six hours in a burning house together with her daughter Aimee's family.

On Oct. 6, Deborah Mintz, 60, went to Kibbutz Nirim to visit her daughter and 10-day-old grandson. When the sirens started the next morning, the family went to their secure room. They didn’t know yet that soon they’d have to hold the door shut against the terrorists with their bare hands and then spend hours in that room, with the house burning around them.

England-born Deborah moved to Israel very young and has lived in the city of Eilat ever since. When Aimee, the youngest of Deborah’s two daughters, married, the couple decided to settle in Kibbutz Nirim. They were accepted as members a couple of months before Oct. 7. Deborah loved visiting them and even thought of moving to the quiet and pastoral kibbutz when she retired.

We talked to Deborah at her home in Eilat. The room is filled with sunshine, the pets are walking in and out, the flowers and the Israeli flag outside the window are swaying peacefully in the breeze. Deborah speaks about the time the family spent trapped in the burning house, how they were saved and how she feels weeks after their ordeal.

At 6:30 on that dreadful black Saturday morning, we were awoken by a siren alert. My daughter Aimee, her husband Uriel and the 10-day-old baby, Kai, slept in their bedroom, which was the mamad, the safe room, and I slept in the spare room. Aimee called me to come, so I went in my pajamas. My little dog, Mickey, was afraid, he didn’t come and hid under the couch, but my daughter’s dog, Lemon, came into the room with us. I was laughing and joking. That’s the sort of person I was. 

After 10 minutes we were still in the room, and there were lots of rockets. And then we started to hear shooting outside the house and shouting in Arabic. 

My daughter had a home security camera set up to watch the cats and the dog when she wasn’t there. She accessed it on her phone and she said: The terrorists are outside, they’re trying to get in. And then the camera shut off and the electricity went out, and they started trying to get into the mamad. 

I didn’t know that you couldn’t lock the door of a mamad. But Aimee and Uriel did know, and they were holding that handle in an upright position with their hands to stop the terrorists from opening the door. I was trying to keep the baby quiet. I put my finger in the baby’s mouth for him to suckle. We were lucky he didn’t cry, and the dog didn’t bark, not once. Even my Mickey under the couch didn’t bark.

I believe the terrorists did manage to get the door open just a little bit, but they couldn’t get in. And then they took furniture and put it against the other side of the door and set fire to the house to smoke us out. I believe it was about 8:30, so we’d been there for two hours by then. 

“I heard my little dog scream, burning to death”

The smoke started coming under the door. We had no electricity, no air conditioning, no fans. Aimee put some clothes under the door, but we had no water to wet them. So the room was filling up with very thick,  black, toxic smoke. We now understand they took the gasoline and tires from the cars and used those as accelerants. And then I sent messages to my friends that we were going to die.

Then we heard my little dog scream, and we presumed he was burning to death. I tried to put my fingers in my ears, but I could still hear him. I don’t know how long he was screaming, if it was 10 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute. I have no timeline whatsoever after that.

There were also Aimee’s two cats in the house. Our cats always roamed free, and they always seemed to get run over. So these two cats were never allowed to go out, and they died in the house because they didn’t know how to get out. But cats don’t scream like dogs do, so we didn’t know their fate at the moment. 

Aimee says I gave up after we heard Mickey dying. I don’t remember much, for six hours I was not really part of what was happening. I’ve since learned from my therapist that it is a survival mechanism. I was kind of looking in from the ceiling, completely calm, waiting for death. I really thought we were going to die. We were breathing in smoke, our throats were sore, we were coughing…I didn’t think anybody could get out of that. 

“Kai was the reason his parents fought so hard to survive”

Aimee and Uriel decided that the only way to save the baby from dying in Uriel’s arms was to take their chance and open the window to let in some air. When she felt nobody was near, Aimee would open the window just a crack and put the baby up to it. She’d tell me, Mum, open your eyes, come and get air. I did what she told me to, automatically, just following directives. Then she’d throw the baby back on the bed and close the window when she thought the terrorists were near. They did this many times. Ultimately, Kai’s parents saved his life, and mine. I believe he’s the reason they fought so hard to survive. If it wasn’t for Kai, perhaps none of us would be here. 

Baby Kai on the windowsill of the safe room in his family’s burning house on Oct. 7, 2023. His parents took the risk of opening the window for air despite terrorists still surrounding the house.

The whole time there was shooting and shouting in Arabic outside. Now I know it was six hours after the fire started and eight hours after our ordeal began that we heard Hebrew outside the window. But even then, you don’t know who’s speaking Hebrew, so we weren’t sure. But then somebody called: “Uriel, Uriel!” And we knew we were going to be saved. 

“Aimee said: Mum first”

It was still some time before it was safe enough to climb out of the window, because there was still shooting, they [Israeli force] were still looking for terrorists. When the time came, they took the baby out first, then Uriel, and then they called Aimee but she said, no, Mum first. We climbed out. I’ve since seen a video from the army of Aimee and me getting out the window. Couldn’t believe it was me. 

We weren’t allowed to take Aimee’s dog out. The next day, she found her way to Uriel’s parents. 

They took us to a shelter and brought us some oxygen. The ambulances, the police, the fire brigades—nobody could get in because there were still terrorists all around. So two very brave, unarmed soldiers took us to the hospital in their private car. I saw some horrendous sights on the way. Headless bodies, dead bodies, burnt bodies—just couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I had no idea of the scale. Hamas are evil, they are monsters, subhuman monsters. A normal human being could not do what they did.

Aimee and her husband Uriel in the hospital after being rescued from their burning house in Kibbutz Nirim on Oct. 7, 2023.

“We were coughing up black soot”

I was released from the hospital the same day, Oct. 7, still wearing those disgusting pajamas. They gave me some hospital pajamas to go home in. My ex-husband picked me up from the hospital and took me to my eldest daughter’s.

The baby was in the hospital, on oxygen, for three days. Uriel and Aimee stayed with him. After they were released, they were re-hospitalized for coughing and bronchitis—we were all coughing up black soot. And their eyes were burned. I wondered why my eyes weren’t burned, and later learned that was because I was out, pretty much, and my eyes were closed. It was quite an amazing thing to learn and understand. 

Kai spent three days in hospital on oxygen following his ordeal.

It seems we will suffer no long-lasting effects. The baby will need to have some checks, but he’s big and happy, he’s growing and eating, smiling, laughing. He’s a big boy. He was born nearly four kilos, which is one of the reasons he survived—because he was so well developed. His name, Kai, means “warrior,” and he really is one. 

They told us even babies that young can have problems during their life after going through such horror; they don’t consciously remember, but unconsciously they know something. So the parents have to learn how to deal with the baby so that he won’t have these problems. 

“Just a nice-looking young man riding around the kibbutz”

Q: Do you remember anything else from the hours you’ve spent in the mamad?

A: We noticed that the neighbors’ door was open from a very early time. We learned later they were kidnapped. She has now been released, but her husband has not. Her name is Rimon [Kirsht]. She was the one who was filmed looking that Hamas guy straight in the face as if to say, I’m free. They love animals; they had five dogs. I’m not sure if all the dogs have been found. 

Also, when we opened the window to get some air, I saw somebody riding a bicycle—a young man, very nicely dressed. I know now he was a terrorist, but he wasn’t wearing Hamas clothing. Just a nice-looking young man riding around the kibbutz. 

Q: Do you think it was a Gazan civilian?

A: Probably. From what I understand, there were just a few terrorists, and the rest were Gazan citizens who came over and looted. It seems that they stole the coffee machine from our house. Most things are still there, melted, but the coffee machine is gone, and it’s a light thing to carry. 

We found that out only much later, when Aimee went back to the house to take videos and to remove the bodies of the dog and the cats. She said the dog was just bones with a bit of fur. He must have run from the living room to the kitchen. They found him by the fridge. And the cats went into my bedroom. They were just melted bits all over the place. They were two ginger cats, Honey and Ginger. Which is why they called the dog Lemon. 

She didn’t take a picture of what was left of my dog. As sick as it sounds, I really wanted to go and see him. He was only tiny, smaller than the cats. And he suffered, and he was there for seven weeks before somebody could get him out. And the house is boarded up. The house is dangerous. 

Cats Ginger and Honey were burned to death on Oct. 7, but Lemon the dog survived.

“The terrorists went in with tools to cut the doors”

It’s funny that it’s easier to tell the story now that weeks have gone by than it was in the very first week. But then, you hear people were in the same situation as us and were found dead in their mamads, burned to death, kidnapped. The doors were sawn open—the terrorists went in with tools and cut the doors. They came prepared. They came with cameramen, they knew what they were doing. But I guess the ones that came to our house didn’t have the tools. They had guns, no doubt about that.

“These pictures and thoughts run through my mind 24/7”

I know I’m supposed to say “aren’t we lucky we got out.” But you can’t rewire the way that your brain works. I’m constantly thinking, if Hamas had got to us, if they had opened the door, or if we decided that instead of dying in that room we would get out the window—what would they have done with us? Would they have shot the baby in front of us? Would they have beheaded the baby, as they did with so many babies? Would they have raped us? Kidnapped us? Shot us? These pictures and thoughts run through my mind 24/7. I wish they didn’t. I’m a mess.

My daughter says to me: Pull yourself together, life goes on, we’re out, we survived. But I guess it’s just the way I’m made. I do take a lot of things to heart and I do have a lot of what-ifs.

Q: What about your daughter and her husband? How are they doing?

A: They seem to be coping very well. I guess we have different mindsets. And they have their beautiful, amazing son, who has no idea how his life began. Had he been a smaller baby or a premature baby…again, what if?

They were evacuated to a hotel in Eilat with most of the kibbutz. Of course it’s not pleasant—they’re in a hotel, they lost everything. Credit cards, drivers’ licenses, passports, all those little things. They [the terrorists] burned all our cars. But so many people have donated: a baby carriage, brand-new clothing, everything. There was even a vet who checked our Lemon to make sure she was all right. She was coughing black soot, like the rest of us.

Burned-out cars in Kibbutz Nirim, Oct. 7, 2023.

All the people from the kibbutz want to go back and build up their home again, that’s for sure. But safety has to be absolutely guaranteed. Otherwise, people can’t live there. 

“I’m from Eilat, so I fell between the cracks”

Q: Are you getting the same benefits as your daughter’s family?

A: Not at all. Since I’m not from that area, but from Eilat, I kind of fell between the cracks. It’s been quite a battle. 

I had to find my own therapist. I’m trying to organize payment for her. And I’m not working—can’t work, I’m not able to focus or concentrate. I’m not bodily disabled, but I’m suffering from mental issues: I don’t sleep, eat, or function very well. I’m very angry quite a lot of the time. I cry a lot, mostly when I’m on my own. There are triggers all the time. 

I’m just not the same me. I’d love to go back to the person I was, but I just think I went through too much. 

Q: Did anybody from the authorities talk to you or your daughter?

A: I believe that [former Israeli premier Naftali] Bennett spoke to my kids. At least, he visited the hotel. Me, no one. Not from my local government or my local council. Only Lindsey Hoyle, the speaker of the House of Commons in the Parliament in England. He called me, which was very nice. Nobody else has bothered. I hope one day somebody in authority will explain to me personally why we were left in a burning house for all those hours. Why did it happen in the first place? Why was the response so delayed? The full story will one day come out. 

“That’s all the Jews have ever done, try to survive”

Q: What is your opinion on the pro-Palestinian propaganda in Europe and in Britain, your native country?

A: It seems to be such a fashion, it’s the in thing to be pro-Palestinian. But most of these people are uneducated, and they have no idea. They don’t even know how small Israel is. They think Israel is the size of the USSR. They have no idea that we are smaller than Wales. Yes, we produce great brains, we have high-tech. So they think that we are an enormous country that controls the world, and we’re not. All we do is try to survive. That’s all the Jews have ever done, try to survive.

Also, I think there are some people for whom it is natural to protest, to join protest groups. You hear of college students, who are supposed to be very intelligent, and throughout history they’ve always protested something. And I think it’s also just a very fashionable thing to do.

If my story could change the opinion of just one person and make someone see what it’s like from our side, what we went through, then I think I’ve done a good job. Maybe that’s what I was put on this earth to do.

Photography: Eli Elagin, Andrei Boguslavsky, Deborah Mintz’s archive.

Film: Eli Elagin, Andrei Boguslavsky

Video editing: Masha Turchaninova, Denis Zevakhin

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