For the past six weeks, two-year-old Almog Levi has been talking to himself in the voice of his missing parents.
The toddler lost both his parents when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th – his mother killed, his father kidnapped to Gaza. He’s now being cared for by his grandparents and extended family.
“He’s calling for his mum and dad all the time, and says he wants to go home – ‘home home home’,” explains his uncle, Michael Levi.
So far, the family have not found the words to explain the tragedy to the only child. But little Almog feels his parents’ absence and even tells himself the words he knows they would once say to him. “If he’s sitting on the edge of a chair, he’s saying to himself ‘watch out, you’ll fall’. Then he sits again, tells himself again ‘you’ll fall’. Then he stops,” Levi said.
“We can’t tell for sure how he’s feeling and what’s going on with him because he’s so small… [But] you can definitely see that something is different.”
Almog’s parents – 32-year-old Einav and 33-year-old Or – were at the Nova music festival that was the scene of a massacre by Hamas militants on Oct 7. Hundreds of revellers had danced through the night, but Einav and Or had only arrived at 6.20am – “10 minutes before hell started”, Levi said.
Along with a couple of dozen others, they ran to a shelter to escape the onslaught. “Or called my mother from the shelter, he was terrified. My mother heard it in his voice. ‘Mum you don’t want to know’ was the last thing we heard from him, at 7.39am,” Levi said.
Eight days later, the army told the family that 18 people, including Einav, had been murdered in the shelter. Seven others miraculously survived under fallen bodies. Four, including Or, were kidnapped.
While the family waits for news, Almog is one of many young children to be left without their parents following the assault, as extended families step in to help and psychotherapists attempt to grapple with the fallout.
Baby twins Guy and Roi were among those orphaned during the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
When Hamas militia attacked their kibbutz, the twins’ father was shot between their cots, having just heard the news of an attack. Their mother was shot in the kitchen while running to wash her hands after changing the boys’ nappies.
Alone in their cots for 14 hours, at just 10 months old, they were eventually rescued by special forces.
The twins’ parents Hadar and Itay Berdichevsky, both 30, were part of the tight-knit agricultural community of Kfar Aza, which was decimated by the attacks. Dozens were murdered, including whole families burnt alive.
The twins’ survival feels like a small miracle to a community grieving.
“The boys are too young to realise what happened but they’re missing their parents,” their uncle Dvir Rosenfeld said. “They’re constantly looking around, looking for their parents’ faces.”
Rosenfeld lived just three minutes’ walk away from his sister’s family on the kibbutz, and is now among the roughly 150,000 Israelis displaced while the war continues.
Three of Rosenfeld’s sisters and his wife were all pregnant at the same time, so today, the family is brimming with new life with five new babies among the family’s nine children. But what should be the most joyful time is instead full of grief.
“The kids are the reason for us to wake up in the morning and keep ourselves together. We don’t have the time for self pity. It’s a positive way to process our grief because all the nine kids get the attention. All of them have been through the same trauma,” he said.
For three-year-old American-Israeli Abigail Idan, Oct 7 was a series of tragedies. She lost her parents in Kfar Aza that deadly day, but was saved when her father’s body fell on her after he was shot by Hamas militants.
She managed to make her way – blood-soaked – to a neighbour’s house. But from there, she was kidnapped by militants and is now one of 38 children among the 240 hostages being held in the Gaza strip.
Her siblings, Michaeli, 10, and Amelia, 6, survived only by hiding in a wardrobe for 14 hours during the massacre. The two, without their vibrant younger sibling, now struggle to sleep at night, longing for their parents’ and sister’s return.
“She’s a beautiful kid. We are all waiting for her to come back,” said their great aunt, Liz Hirsch Naftali.
Israeli psychotherapist Sarit Zelzer is one of the many volunteers being dispatched to families around the country in the wake of the tragedy, including Almog Levi’s. To her, it makes sense that the toddler engages in an imagined dialogue with his parents.
“Their existence continues within him,” she explained. “That’s how he practices how to take care of himself. It’s so wise and a kind of self healing. Death and separation are there all the time.”
Case workers suggest telling Almog that his parents went away and his mother won’t come back, but at this tender age, the family has chosen to wait for a second opinion.
“We still want another psychologist to help us to make sure we are doing the right thing because we can’t get this wrong. In any case, there is no good way to tell him that his mum won’t come back,” Michael Levi said.
There is no right or wrong way, says Mrs Zelzer. Each case is personal: “The first thing is to talk about the fact that the parents are not here and they will not be back. For myself I don’t think that it’s a good idea to hide that but it’s also not good to say exactly what’s happened. Little by little the sad truth can be told. There is a time to talk about it and make some space for it.”
Though he is just two, Almog now tragically has a wisdom beyond his years. “It feels as if he knows when not to ask things about his parents and when he can. There are certain people who he doesn’t ask and other people he will,” explained Michael. “You can tell that he knows something.”
Mrs Zelzer said children have an innate wisdom that appears during such times. “Young children are very much aware of situations and they understand things even if it’s not said.
“We have mirror neurons in our brains so we understand a situation without words. That’s why when a mother is very anxious, her child is too, even though she’s trying to be very calm. There is no way to hide this grief so being with this sorrow and giving it space is important,” she said.
Almog is the light in a bleak time for a family in deep grief, but meanwhile lavishing him with love. “Almog offers a gift that Or and Einav left us for now,” Michael adds. “Hopefully we’ll get Or back and Almog will be able to grow up with a father. It helps a bit to have someone else to take care of. You can’t be sad all the time with a two-year-old.”
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