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Family, friends talk about the Americans killed or missing in Israel-Hamas conflict

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Among those killed in Israel and Gaza are at least 27 Americans. Fourteen Americans are unaccounted for, a small number of whom are believed to now be hostages of Hamas in Gaza. NPR's Laurel Wamsley spoke to families and friends of those searching for and mourning their loved ones.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: As the bomb sirens went off in Jerusalem last Saturday, Rachel Goldberg woke her daughters, and they all hustled into their apartment's safe room. She turned on her phone, which she normally keeps off on the Sabbath, and there were two text messages from her son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin.

RACHEL GOLDBERG: The first one said, I love you, and the next one said, I'm sorry.

WAMSLEY: Through her son's friend, she learned that Hersh, who was born and spent his early years in California, had been at a techno music festival in southern Israel, where reports were emerging of hundreds of young people killed or taken hostage. She didn't know if Hersh was alive or dead. Then, the family received a photo a friend had seen on social media taken in a bomb shelter near the rave, and Hersh was in it. With the help of friends, they figured out the identities of others in the photo and made contact with three people who survived the attack in the shelter with Hersh and his friend, Aner Shapira, who told the family what had happened.

GOLDBERG: What we were told is the terrorists were throwing in hand grenades. And Aner, at the doorway, was picking them up and throwing them back out. Some of them did get in, and those exploded. And then they came in with machine-gun fire, just spraying the room of these, you know, barefoot, crunchy granola hippies who were all defenseless. It was shooting fish in a barrel - just a massacre.

WAMSLEY: The Hamas militants asked for those who could stand to stand, and Hersh did. Witnesses said Hersh's arm below his elbow had been blown off, and he had made a tourniquet out of a shirt. The attackers put Hersh and two other young men in a pickup truck and drove them toward the border with Gaza.

GOLDBERG: And the police were able to tell us the last place that they saw Hersh's cellphone was just at the border with Gaza, and that's the last we've heard of him.

WAMSLEY: A funeral was held in Jerusalem today for Aner Shapira. Goldberg says the U.S. embassy has been extremely supportive, and President Biden held a call today with the family members of the Americans unaccounted for. Also among the missing are Judith and Natalie Raanan, a mother and daughter from Evanston, Ill. Natalie recently graduated from high school, and they were in Israel to spend the Jewish holidays with Judith's mother. Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein of Habbad of Evanston knows Judith well.

DOV HILLEL KLEIN: Judith is such a kind, caring, giving person. You know, when she walks into the room, her eyes just light up. She wears her soul in her eyes.

WAMSLEY: Klein says the last the Raanans were heard from was a text from Natalie to her father, saying they were holed up in a bomb shelter about a mile from the Gaza border. Hamas militants were going house to house, killing people.

KLEIN: The assumption is that they broke into that bomb shelter and took them as hostages.

WAMSLEY: For some families, the worst has already come to pass. Daniel Ben-Senior (ph), 34, was also at the music festival, says her aunt, Clara Ben-Senior (ph). Danielle grew up in Los Angeles and became a nurse and a few years ago moved to Israel, near Haifa, to take care of her parents.

CLARA BEN-SENIOR: She loved music. She loved dancing. She loved the nature. She loved life. She loved people. She was very special girl.

WAMSLEY: For days, the family didn't know what had happened to Danielle.

BEN-SENIOR: Finally, they found her body. They couldn't go in the field because there was bombing. And finally, they got to her. It was four days later.

WAMSLEY: The family held a funeral for Danielle, and now they sit Shiva for seven days at her house until the burial.

BEN-SENIOR: She was part of us, and she was like a flower blooming. (Crying) And they took our flower.

WAMSLEY: Danielle Ben-Senior went to Israel to nurse her parents. But now, as the war intensifies, her parents are among many who will mourn their children.

Laurel Wamsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.