“We’d walk into a room full of blood and see no sign of shooting or bombing. There, Hamas terrorists didn’t use a gun to kill their victims, they used an axe to chop them into pieces,” said Simcha Greiniman, a 47-year-old veteran ZAKA.
Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre of 1,200 people in Israel, 800 ZAKA volunteers have worked around the clock to recover the remains of the dead.
“I am there every day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. to make sure that these families get the closure they need to properly mourn their loved ones,” Greiniman told JNS.
Founded in 1995, ZAKA deals with instances of unnatural death, and works in close cooperation with emergency services and security forces.
Over 3,000 ZAKA volunteers are currently deployed cross the country, on call 24/7, to respond to terror attacks, accidents or natural disasters.
Greiniman has been volunteering for ZAKA for the past 32 years and oversees groups in charge of conducting Chesed Shel Emes, honoring the dead by bringing bodies to burial, which is considered one of the greatest mitzvot [commandments] in Judaism.
“In the Bible, there is a special need to make sure bodies get a proper burial and that no part, not even blood samples or small bones, are left behind,” explained Greiniman.
As part of ZAKA International, Greiniman has volunteered both in Israel and overseas in scenarios ranging from natural disasters to accidents and terror attacks. In recent years, ZAKA International flew to Haiti, India, Turkey and Morocco.
During the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York City, Greiniman sat at the airport for two weeks waiting to get approval from the United States to assist emergency teams on site.
“This time, it happened in our backyard. Hundreds of people who supported Palestinians by giving them a place to work, taking them to hospitals, were massacred in their homes and captured into Gaza” on Oct. 7, said Greiniman.
He recalled one instance in which he entered a house and on the living room table found a birthday cake.
“A cake is supposed to be something happy. But we didn’t come to eat cake, we came to take care of bodies,” said Greiniman.
“My eyes went looking for pictures of the family who lived in that house and who should have been celebrating,” he added.
Greiniman described a very strong smell of burnt flesh emanating from the house’s safe room. When he turned on his flashlight upon entering the pitch-dark room, he found charred remains.
“Everything was connected, glued together. At the top, there were three adult-sized skulls and at the bottom two small skulls attached,” Greiniman told JNS. “They were burnt to death while hugging each other—it was extremely hard to take them apart.”
Later, Greiniman deduced that these were the skulls of two children, their parents and grandmother, who all lived in the house.
“When we took out the bodies, we had to walk by that cake every single time,” he recalled.
He recalled another house which had been burnt to the ground on Oct. 7. In one of the rooms, the ceiling had collapsed and cement was covering the floor.
“In the cement, I saw a lump. Underneath, there was a dead child who was about five years old,” he said.
“In a separate room, I found the skull of another young child with the metal part of a hammer still attached to it. The wooden part of the hammer had burned [away]. Every house has a story,” he added.
Collecting human remains from a house into which Hamas terrorists lobbed grenades could take up to 18 hours, especially if more than one person had hidden in the same room, Greiniman explained. Once collected, the body parts are sent to a special morgue for DNA testing.
“Nothing prepares you for it,” he said. “I have dealt with blown-up buses, restaurants, hotels and butchered synagogues, but seeing hundreds of bodies at a rave laying in a field… you can’t ever train yourself to be ready for that,” he continued, in reference to the Supernova Music Festival, where some 360 revelers were slaughtered on Oct. 7.
Greiniman told JNS that he had been shocked to hear people deny Hamas’s crimes against humanity, a phenomenon he chalked up to antisemtiism.
To raise awareness of the massacres, Greiniman spoke at United Nations headquarters in New York City on Dec. 5. In 2005, the United Nations recognized ZAKA an international humanitarian organization, and in 2016, the U.N. Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations granted ZAKA Search and Rescue advisory status as an official body.
“I was the one who took out the bodies; I could not let anyone deny these crimes, especially as a volunteer for ZAKA, which the U.N. officially recognizes,” said Greiniman.
“I came into houses and saw women naked from their stomach down leaning over their own beds, with their hands tied behind their backs and bleeding from different areas,” he said.
“It if had happened anywhere else in the world, humanity would be screaming for justice,” he added. “I invite whoever denies what we have dealt with to come and let me personally walk them around the scenes, show them what happened and where it happened,” he added.
While ZAKA generally refrains from photographing the deceased out of respect for their privacy, Greiniman was told by his commanders after two days in the field to take pictures as evidence of the horror.
Nearly three months after the attacks, ZAKA’s work to identify the bodies is far from complete.
“Bodies were burned so badly that no bone marrow or teeth were left to cross-reference for DNA purposes,” Greiniman explained.
After 9/11, the U.S. built a special device to recover DNA from the ashes of the World Trade Center buildings. While Israel is working on a similar machine, ZAKA is currently sending samples to America to identify some remains.
“You can’t give up. There are families who can’t carry on living without knowing what happened to their loved ones, thinking they might be held in Gaza,” said Greiniman. “We understand how important our work is for the Jewish nation and the Jewish people around the world. We are not going to stop until those bodies are in the right place and until those families are at peace knowing their loved ones are buried there.”