Testimonies from Oct. 7 attack on Israel are now part of Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust archive

A young woman who watched her boyfriend die as she hid behind a dumpster; a former hostage who spent 55 days in captivity; a grandmother who lost two generations of her family. Stories like theirs have been shared around the world since the Hamas-led attacks on Israel of Oct. 7 but are now being preserved for posterity by a foundation originally created to document the horrors of the Holocaust.

The Shoah Foundation was established 30 years ago at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles by filmmaker Steven Spielberg as a way of preserving the stories of survivors of the Holocaust while they were still alive.

Since then, it has documented the testimonies of more than 56,000 victims of the Holocaust, housing them in an online archive along with testimonies from other mass exterminations, including the Armenian genocide, the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda and the ethnically motivated violence against the Rohingya.

The foundation had recently expanded its archive to include testimonies from victims of acts of antisemitism committed after the Second World War, and it decided soon after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that the events of that day fit within that mandate. Around 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 were taken hostage during the attack, which prompted a retaliatory military operation by Israel that has so far claimed the lives of more than 31,000 Palestinians in Gaza.

“It’s the largest antisemitic attack since the Shoah,” said Robert Williams, the foundation’s executive director and the UNESCO chair on antisemitism and Holocaust research. “And [it] represents the unfortunate reality that antisemitic violence can even occur in the one country where it was never meant to.”

Mourners embrace during the funeral of Meni and Ayelet Godard, in Kibbutz Palmachim, Israel Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. The Israeli couple were killed by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, in Kibbutz Be'eri near the border with the Gaza Strip. More than 1,400 people were killed and some 220 captured in an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel by the militant group that rules Gaza.
Mourners embrace during the funeral of Meni and Ayelet Godard in Kibbutz Palmachim, Israel, on Oct. 29, 2023. The Israeli couple were killed by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 in Kibbutz Be’eri near the border with the Gaza Strip. (Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press)

‘Everyone was trying to help’

As Israeli families impacted by the attacks fled the south to hotels and relatives’ houses, the foundation mobilized resources to begin recording their experiences as quickly as possible. That’s where Natalie Mann stepped in.

Mann, a former intelligence officer with the Israeli military, now an interior designer near Tel Aviv, was approached by a colleague about the opportunity to conduct interviews with the victims and gather as many testimonies as possible. When she was asked to volunteer, she said, she did not hesitate.

Natalie Mann helps an interviewee get set up for an interview about  her experience of the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel.
Natalie Mann helps Beatriz Vilensky, 62, get set up for an interview about her experience of the Oct. 7 attack. It was one of 250 such interviews Mann, a former intelligence officer with the Israel Defence Forces, conducted. (Shoah Foundation/University of Southern California)

“Everyone was trying to help,” Mann said. “My friends who were therapists or doctors, everybody, just threw a pillow and a blanket in their cars and drove down to help. So, there was really not too much thought to it.”

Mann was sent to the Dead Sea region of Israel, where many of the displaced residents of the kibbutzim that were attacked were seeking refuge and started documenting testimonies of survivors and family members on camera. 

To date, she’s heard the stories of 250 people over the course of the last four months. Some days, she listened to the stories of three or four different people. 

A woman, member of the Israeli forces, visits the site where revelers were killed and kidnapped on Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas militants at the Nova music festival near the kibbutz Reim, southern Israel, Tuesday, March 5, 2024.
A member of the Israeli forces visits the site where revellers attending the Nova music festival were killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7. Mann interviewed one attendee who described seeing her boyfriend killed as she hid behind a dumpster nearby. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

“I felt like it was my calling to hold space for these people, to hear what it is they have to say and to record their story for historical purposes and … to help them share their pain,” she said.

She set the interviews up in a quiet, outdoor spot, giving interviewees all the time they needed to relay their experiences. Building trust with the victims was crucial, Mann said.

“Many of them referred others to come talk to us after they did,” she said. “I made sure to make them as comfortable as possible and just give them space to let their experiences pour out of them.”

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As one of few people who’s spoken to so many different victims, Mann says, she was quickly able to piece together stories into an interconnected tapestry of a day her country is likely never to forget. 

And what she heard, she says, was horrific.

“Nobody ever imagined that children would be killed in front of their parents’ eyes, and the opposite,” she said. “Or the parents were shot and the children suffocated to death from fire, but this is what I heard.”

Although she hesitates to talk about which testimonies were the hardest to hear, the stories she does relay are harrowing.

Mann said she spoke to one woman in her 60s whose two sons were murdered, one along with his wife and children. A young woman in her 20s described how her boyfriend was killed by Hamas fighters outside a dumpster at the Nova Music Festival site after he hid her behind the structure to keep her safe. 

Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza hold their photos and shout slogans during a rally calling for their release, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023. More than 100 Israeli hostages are held in Gaza after being abducted in a Hamas cross-border attack on Oct. 7
Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza rally for their release in Tel Aviv last December. More than 100 hostages are still being held in Gaza more than five months after being abducted. (Ariel Schalit/The Associated Press)

She also spoke to one of the 112 hostages who were released from captivity in Gaza in November, 55 days after they were abducted by Hamas and other militants. The woman, Mann said, recalled walking for hours through underground tunnels and being told repeatedly by her captors that no one was looking for her or negotiating her release.

Mann says in the early days of taking victims’ testimonies, emotions were raw. 

“The first couple of weeks when we were interviewing, you know, people were still shell-shocked,” she said. “They still had, you know, no idea really what happened to them or to their loved ones. They didn’t know people were missing … Nobody knew what was going on. So, it was very raw.”

In some cases, victims brought family members to support them.

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With translation provided by her daughter, Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, describes being abducted from her kibbutz by Hamas militants during the Oct. 7 attacks and taken into Gaza.

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Mann said she understands that she is absorbing the trauma of others just by hearing their stories but insists she is lucky to get the chance to do so.

“I’m privileged to be able to be strong and to be able to do this and to be able to be a part of this phenomenal time in history, to be here now.”

The testimonies of the victims of Oct. 7 will form part of 10,000 new testimonies from around the world that the foundation aims to collect. They will also be available to schools and universities and are accessible in Israel through the National Library.

Mourners grieve beside the body of Mapal Adam during her funeral in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. Adam was killed by Hamas militants on Saturday as they carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack that killed over 1,300 Israelis.
Mourners grieve beside the body of Mapal Adam during her funeral in Tel Aviv on Oct. 11, 2023. Adam was killed at the Nova music festival. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

“We hope that these testimonies, because they are taken so immediately after the event, will allow for a more accurate reflection of what transpired on that day and provide a source of healing for the people of Israel as well as for people in the wider world who have been so affected by what happened,” Williams said.

For Williams, the hope is also that hearing personal stories from a wide range of people impacted will allow those around the world listening to them to identify with the victims.

Dr. Robert J. Williams, Executive director for USC Shoah Foundation poses for a photograph, Dec. 7, 2022.
Robert J. Williams, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, hopes the online archive can be ‘a source of healing’ for those affected by the events of Oct. 7. (Gus Ruelas/University of Southern California)

“These people are just like us. They have hopes, they have aspirations, they have diverse perspectives on the world,” Williams said.

“They have mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, all of whom fell victim in one way to conditions completely beyond their control, living normal lives one moment, uprooted the next and uprooted because of the ideology of antisemitism, something that’s plagued us for thousands of years.”

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