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Daniel Estrin

What a bereaved father, a historian of Israel, believes after 100 days of war

Ilan Troen, a Brandeis University professor emeritus, at his home in Omer, Israel. His daughter and son-in-law, Deborah and Shlomi Mathias, were killed in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023. (Tamir Kalifa for NPR)

OMER, Israel — One hundred days ago, on Oct. 7, American-Israeli historian Ilan Troen stood over his 16-year-old grandson's hospital bed. The bullet that killed his daughter had pierced his grandson's abdomen.

I found Troen in the hospital wearing a Brandeis University t-shirt. He was one of my professors when I studied there.

Three months later, I visited his home in Israel's southern desert, where he is now retired, to hear his reflections — as a historian and bereaved parent — about Israel's deadliest day in history, and the deadliest war that Palestinians have ever faced, still ongoing in Gaza.

A basso continuo of sadness

"How am I?" Troen asks, on his living room couch. "In Baroque music, there's something called the basso continuo. If you listen to Bach, there's that bottom line that continues, and my basso continuo is one of sadness."

Music was his daughter and son-in-law's life. Deborah and Shlomi Mathias were singers who met in music school.

On Oct. 7, attackers from Gaza stormed their home and blew down the door of their reinforced safe room. The parents protected their son, Rotem, with their bodies, saving his life as they lost theirs.

Photographs of Deborah and Shlomi Mathias with their three children are displayed at Deborah's parents' home in Omer, Israel. (Tamir Kalifa for NPR)

Burying them in their home community enveloped in war, Kibbutz Holit near the Gaza border, was out of the question. Instead, the family wrestled with another question: what to write on their gravestones.

"It was the children who decided that they would not put on their parents' gravestone what some other people have done...'may God avenge their blood.' They wanted nothing of that," Troen says.

Instead, their three children inscribed the gravestones with musical notes: the opening bars of Brit Olam, or "Everlasting Covenant," a classic Israeli love song that Deborah, who went by the Hebrew name Shahar, had sung with Shlomi at their own wedding.

"It's a way of saying that the years to come...they will not focus on the tragic," Troen says, "But rather on the beauty in their lives."

Caring for their orphaned grandchildren

Rotem, Troen's 16-year-old grandson who survived the Oct. 7 attack, came to stay with his grandparents Ilan and Carol after he was released from the hospital. A day later, Carol was at her living room table when he screamed from the other room.

"Just screaming, 'Why? Why? Why? It's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fair,'" Carol says. "And I screamed back, 'Why? Why? Why?' Because I had to answer him...I just screamed with him."

Carol Troen at her home in Omer, Israel. Her daughter and son-in-law, Deborah and Shlomi Mathias, were killed in the Hamas attack on October 7. (Tamir Kalifa for NPR)

The day I visited the Troens, their grandson was perhaps looking for answers. He was visiting his home in Kibbutz Holit for the first time since he was attacked inside it. Carol was boiling soup on the stove for her three orphaned grandkids. An Israeli warplane roared above.

"It's on its way to Gaza," Troen said.

"Maybe she would understand"

More than 23,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in Gaza in the Israeli bombardment, according to health officials there. The war came after Hamas led an ambush on Oct. 7 that killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel, according to Israeli officials.

Now the war has reached a crescendo on the world stage. Israel stands accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice.

"Crimes against humanity? We were defending ourselves," Troen says. "This isn't vengeance. This is protection. Self-defense."

Ilan Troen displays a photo from 1975 of his family on the land where they built their home in Omer, Israel. In the photo, Troen holds his daughter Deborah when she was young. She was killed Oct. 7, 2023. (Tamir Kalifa for NPR)

His daughter Deborah believed in the possibility of peace with her neighbors. She sent her children to Hagar, a rare elementary school in Israel's south, where Jewish and Arab kids study together. I asked Troen what his daughter might think about the way Israel is waging its war in Gaza and its high human toll.

"I think she would be appalled and concerned, maybe angry, but maybe she would understand," he says. "If you know of a better way, kindly tell us, what (is) the better, cleaner, nicer way of dealing with the kind of threat that we have to face, that has continually risen to achieve its ultimate divinely-inspired and commanded goal of exterminating us."

The immeasurable

There's something else Troen has thought about more deeply since the October 7th attack: Israel's control over Palestinian lives. His city, Omer, is close to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and less than 30 miles from the Gaza Strip.

"The capacity of one nation, however powerful it is, to totally suppress a movement of popular resistance that is deeply rooted in the population is not a very good record," Troen says. "Palestinians are going to need to obtain what they so desperately want, which is what we so desperately want, which is a state of our own."

Ilan and Carol Troen at their home in Omer, Israel. (Tamir Kalifa for NPR)

Troen calls it an older insight, previously more abstract to him, that became more pertinent after Oct. 7 and the days since.

"It's so palpable and visible," he says. "You're sitting in my house today, which is a 45-second distance in flight time from Gaza by a missile. We could go downstairs, and I could take you to my bomb shelter — 16 inches of reinforced concrete."

Those are the measurements of an intolerable state of conflict, alongside the immeasurable losses Troen's family, and so many others, have endured these last 100 days.

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