Josef Avi Yair Engel and his grandson, former captive Ofir Engel, who was released as part of a weeklong ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas in late 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
Josef Avi Yair Engel and his grandson, former captive Ofir Engel, who was released as part of a weeklong ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas in late 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
featureHolocaust & Holocaust Survivors

‘From the Holocaust to Oct. 7, history is repeating itself’

Josef Avi Yair Engel's father survived the Nazi genocide, and his grandson recently spent 54 days in Hamas captivity in Gaza.

As Israel began commemorating on Sunday the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, Josef Avi Yair Engel, whose father survived the Nazi genocide and whose grandson recently spent 54 days in Hamas captivity in Gaza, told JNS that history is repeating itself.

This year’s remembrance of the Shoah is conjoined to the savage Hamas onslaught on Israel on Oct. 7, he said.

“I have been very busy over the last 25 years giving lectures about the Shoah, I speak about my family and the Nazi ideology. I usually mention the phrase ‘from Shoah to revival.’ This year I say, from Shoah to revival to the Shoah of Oct. 7,” he added.

“During the Shoah, an organized group of people wanted to kill all the Jews, and on Oct. 7 Hamas tried to do exactly that when they killed 1,200 Israelis,” said Engel.

Just as the Jews of Europe had no land of their own or military of their own to defend against the Nazis, so the Jews of southern Israel effectively had no land or military of their own protecting them against Hamas on Oct. 7, he added.

Shraga and Winnie, Josef Avi Yair Engel’s parents. Credit: Courtesy.

Engel’s father Shraga was born in Czechoslovakia and moved to Holland at the age of 20 to study agriculture. In 1942, the Dutch police expelled him since he was not a citizen. He went to Paris, worked at a bakery and helped other Jewish families move from Holland to Switzerland. 

On Dec. 24, 1942, Shraga, betrayed by a coworker, was arrested by the Nazis, and sent to Auschwitz. In early 1945, as the Soviet army approached Auschwitz, the Nazis sent him on the death march to Germany.

Three and a half months later, he reached the German town of Flossenburg, where he managed to escape. He was saved by Allied forces.

Winnie, Shraga’s wife and Josef Avi Yair Engel’s mother. Credit: Courtesy.

Shraga returned to Holland, where he met his future wife, Winnie. Together they immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and in June 1946, Yosef Avi Yair Engel was born in Moshav Yokneam. Shraga set up a pioneering dairy farm on the moshav.

Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps.

“I studied agriculture at Kfar Galim. On completion of my studies, I moved to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel on Jerusalem’s southern border [with Jordan at the time],” he said. In Ramat Rachel, Engel met his wife. Together, they built a family and now have five children and 14 grandchildren.

He eventually studied hotel management and started helping kibbutzim branch out into the tourism industry. Engel worked with Israel’s tourism minister and helped develop bed and breakfast accommodations and tourist attractions. At the peak of his career, he became an adviser to former Israeli President Shimon Peres. He is still a member of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.

While his entire family resides in Ramat Rachel, his grandson, Ofir Engel, 18, was celebrating the Simchat Torah holiday at Kibbutz Be’eri with his girlfriend Yuval when he was kidnapped by Hamas together with Yuval’s father, Yossi Sharabi. Sharabi was killed.

Ofir was released as part of a weeklong ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November, after being held hostage in Gaza for 54 days.

‘Did you look to see where the money is going?’

According to Engel, the Western world must open its eyes to the new reality in the Middle East after Oct. 7.

“Over the past half year, I have given a lot of interviews in Dutch and English. Many ask me about the poor children of Gaza. I say to them, ‘Why do you start to talk with me from Oct. 8 and not from Oct.7?” he told JNS.

“The world gave so much money to organizations such as UNRWA and UNICEF and food for poor Gaza people. Did you look to see where the money is going—to building Hamas’s arsenal and 700 kilometers [435 miles] of tunnels?” he asked.

In 2005, Engel, who worked with Shimon Peres at the time, said when Israel disengaged from Gaza, Peres had a dream to build up Gaza as “the Singapore of the Middle East. He set up a committee for it and asked me to head this committee to develop tourism in Gaza. I am still waiting for somebody to call me to make the plan,” Engel said.

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