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Midwife, soldier, father, friend: Families in Israel beg for help in finding four missing US citizens

Anguished relatives describe the last time they heard from their vanished loved ones and demand US intervention

A 23-year-old festival-goer texted his parents, “I love you. I’m sorry,” during a blitz of hand grenades and gunfire that blew his own arm off. Hirsch Goldberg-Polin, who lived in Berkeley, California, until he was 7, was last seen being marched away by Hamas militants. 

A 66-year-old grandmother and midwife, Adrienne Neta, who was born and raised in California, has brought thousands of babies into the world. She was abducted from her kibbutz moments after telling her children by cellphone that terrorists had broken in.  

A 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Itay Chen, whose father is a New Yorker, had volunteered for duty last weekend so he could be home this weekend for his little brother’s bar mitzvah. He’s now officially listed as missing in action. 

And Sagui Dekel-Chen, a 35-year-old father of two with a third child on the way, is missing from a kibbutz where 400 people once lived. Just 160 people remain after the pogrom-style bloodbath carried out by Hamas.

The families of these four U.S. citizens, all of whom made their homes in Israel, held an anguished news conference in Tel Aviv Tuesday, begging Israeli and U.S. officials to find their loved ones — or at least provide whatever information might be known about their whereabouts and reveal whatever efforts are being made to bring them back. 

“All we ask from the Biden administration and the secretary of state, Blinken, is to act on the immediate release of all hostages, and remember the U.S. government has direct responsibility to the life of U.S. citizens held hostage by these terrorists,” said Nahal Neta, who’s lived in the U.S. for the last five years but joined his sister at the news conference to publicize the plight of his mother, Adrienne.

Family members took turns describing their missing loved ones and sharing their last known communications, hoping that media attention will pressure officials to divulge any information they have and increase efforts to locate them.

Here are their stories.

Hirsch Goldberg-Polin’s text to parents: ‘I love you, I’m sorry’

Hirsch’s mother, Rachel Goldberg, knew he’d gone camping with friends last weekend but wasn’t sure where. She normally doesn’t use her phone on Shabbat, but after sirens went off in Jerusalem Saturday morning, followed by the all-clear, she needed to know where her son was. That’s when she saw two text messages from Hirsch, both sent at 8:11 a.m.: “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”

“I knew immediately wherever he was, it was a terrible situation,” she said. “I took it to mean, ‘I love you and I’m sorry because whatever is going to happen is going to cause tremendous pain and worry.’” 

Witnesses have since told the family that Hirsch and other festival-goers were in a bomb shelter when terrorists began throwing in grenades and spraying them with machine guns. Hirsch’s father, Jon Polin, said others who were in the shelter told them that Hirsch and a friend of his saved them: “Anybody who’s alive it’s because as grenades were being thrown in, they were tossing them back out, trying to comfort people.” 

But “they were fish in a barrel,” his mother said. Hirsch’s arm was blown off from the elbow down; he used a shirt as a tourniquet, and when the terrorists ordered “anyone who can walk, ‘Stand up and walk out,’ we are told he was completely calm, probably in shock, he got up and walked out with five other young people. They were put on a pickup truck and driven away by Hamas.” The last signal from his phone was on the Gaza border.

His father added that Hirsch was “the kind of guy who’s fun to be around and makes people feel good.” He’d been saving money up to travel the world in December.

Adrienne Neta’s children: ‘She devoted her life to helping others’

“When she walked into a delivery room, she saw a human being in front of her, not a religion, not a race, not a hijab, not an Orthodox Jew — always the human being she saw,” said Ayana Neta, daughter of the missing midwife, Adrienne. “We once calculated that my mother has brought in thousands of lives to this world.” But when Hamas terrorists found her in Kibbutz Be’eri, “they did not see a human being.”

Adrienne’s son Nahal said her children were on the phone with her, trying to calm her, when she heard gunfire outside. “The terrorists barged into her home and we heard a little bit of screaming and that was our last contact with her,” he said. “There was no shooting on the call and the neighbors downstairs also didn’t hear any shooting. My mom used a little bit of Arabic she picked up working in a hospital for 20 years to calm down the terrorists, and it is our hope — which is a little bit ridiculous at this stage to say — the optimistic scenario is that she’s held hostage in Gaza and not dead on the street of the kibbutz where we grew up.”

More than 100 bodies were found after the attack on her kibbutz near Gaza, home to 1,000 people.

Heaving and in tears, Nahal added: “My mom devoted her life to helping other people.” He put the responsibility for finding her and other U.S. citizens home on President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “We expect nothing less from the U.S administration,” he said.

Itay Chen’s father: ‘Make our family whole again’

Itay joined the Israeli army a year ago and was serving on the Gaza border. “The last time we heard from him was Saturday morning, where he said they were under attack,” said his father Ruby Chen. He stayed in communication for a little while, “but since then, silence.” The Israeli Defense Forces have officially listed him as missing in action. 

That means, his father said, “he’s not in a hospital and not on a deceased list.” Assuming he’s being held by Gaza, “then he is by definition a prisoner of war, a U.S. citizen, an Israeli citizen. What we are asking for his captors and the U.S. government, as well as the captors, Hamas, is to treat him as a prisoner of war, meaning having someone visit him, have a doctor see him, have a UN or Red Cross representative see him.”

Ruby said he and his sisters grew up in New York City and still have family in New Jersey and on Long Island. He said he’s identified “10 other families like us that have a U.S. citizen missing.” 

He added: “We are asking on behalf of my family, for President Biden, who we are sure his heart is in the right place when it comes to Israel, and the secretary of state, to do what they can to make this end for us as soon as possible, to make us become family, to become whole again.” 

(Itay Chen’s family is apparently not related to Sagui Dekel-Chen’s.)

Sagui Dekel-Chen’s father: ‘It’s a pogrom’

“Kibbutz Ner Oz is no more,” Sagui’s father, Jonathan Dekel-Chen, said of the border community where their family lived. “It was destroyed in a barbaric, inhumane attack in which dozens of my friends and neighbors were killed. Many dozens more were known to be hostages or were missing,” including his son Sagui. 

Nir Oz was a community of 400 before the attack. “We know of 160 survivors,” he said. “The rest have either died or are, as we said, prisoners or missing. The survivors call this a pogrom, what happened to us. It’s not a war. It’s not a fair fight. It’s a pogrom. Hundreds of heavily armed, well-organized terrorists walked, rode, ran over the border with one object in mind: to kill, maim and destroy civilian life along the border.”

His son, he said, is “an arm’s length away in Gaza evidently, but couldn’t be farther from me and my family. Sagui is exactly the kind of son that every father would want to have: a leader, a friend, a loving man. He and many other such young men on the kibbutz are now missing after having tried to repulse the attack by evidently hundreds of Hamas terrorists and looters. Many died in the process. Sagui was not found. We have heard or seen no trace of him since then.”

He added that they “do not know what fate he met, along with dozens of other people from the kibbutz. And just so you understand, these aren’t all 35-year-old men,” like Sagui. “These are children, these are aged people and everything in between.”

He said three other Americans are among those missing and presumed abducted, and two other Americans were murdered.

Sagui’s father is from Connecticut. The U.S., he said, “my original home and still a very beloved place to me, always wants to be and must be on the side of good. Hamas is evil. It’s difficult for me to say. I’m what is called a peacenik in Israel.”

But having “witnessed this type of savagery, this type of inhumanity,” he said, it “must be stopped.” 

Begging for US intervention

After telling their stories, the family members reiterated their request for intervention by the U.S. At one point, Ruby Chen asked whether anyone from the U.S. embassy was in the room with dozens of media, and no one responded, to cries of “Shame!” from those in the room.

“There has been no formal or concentrated attempt to talk to us,” he said. “I think it is a legitimate request for a representative from the State Department to update us.”

Jonathan Dekel-Chen agreed that there had been “little to no contact” from officials, with all the information they had coming from civilians trying to “make sense in this fog of war as to what happened.”

Nahal Neta said he wasn’t educated in the U.S. so he was going to be “Israel blunt”: “I can appreciate the total mayhem and mess that the combat environment is creating, but I think that after three days, more than three days now, it is more than a reasonable request to have somebody from the Israeli government or the U.S. administration approach us with any type of information that they may have on our family members.”

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