Forty years later, Tzipi Cohen still remembers sprinting across the tarmac to the IDF Hercules waiting to rescue her from captivity in Entebbe, Uganda.
She remembers how her mother gripped her hand tightly, yelling, “Run, run, run!” until they made it to the plane as gunshots resounded. She remembers gazing up at the IDF soldiers helping her aboard the plane and feeling a strong affection for them – a love that persists to this day.
And she remembers, before the dash to the plane, how her father, Pasco, lay down unconscious with his wife’s bloody shirt wrapped around his bullet wound. Later, when Tzipi was back at home, there would be a knock at the door.
Her father had died in a hospital in Kenya.
“I think more about it now, about my Dad and how he never met my children,” says Cohen, now 48. “But 40 years is a long time and you learn to live with it.”
To celebrate and reflect on the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe operation Monday, Cohen and others shared their testimony about their experience as children hostages at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa.
The operation came in response to the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris on June 27, 1976. Terrorists boarded the plane at a stopover in Athens and re-directed it to Entebbe, Uganda. Of the 248 people on the flight, the 94 Israelis and the 12-person Air France crew were separated and threatened with death unless certain terrorists held around the world were released.
However, rather than cave in to the demands, the IDF mounted a successful counter- terrorist mission at Entebbe Airport on July 4. IDF commandos rescued all but three of the 106 hostages, losing only one man in the process – Yoni Netanyahu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother.
Cohen was one of seven former child hostages who spoke at the event, along with then-defense minister Shimon Peres and Dalia Rabin, the daughter of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who oversaw the Entebbe operation.
“Today we honor you,” Peres said, referring to the child hostages. “When we made the difficult decision to move forward with this operation it was you, the children, who were foremost in my mind.”
While to most Israelis the event symbolized the nation’s military genius and chutzpah, for the child survivors it represented something deeper – a loss of innocence and an end to childhood.
“We thought that the whole world was filled with only good things,” said Shay Gross, who was six at the time. “And then we came face-to-face with hatred.”
Though grown up now, each witness vividly recalled certain moments which remain stuck in their minds and continue to echo in their lives to this day.
For Shay Gross, it was the old woman with the number on her arm, shoved by a kidnapper.
For Dana Zuckerman, then 10, it was the sense of paralysis, the fear that shot through her when the captors said, “You are our prisoners. You have been taken hostage.
For Ada Atzman, then 16, it was the moment when the Israeli soldiers broke into the airplane hangar where she and the others were held, announcing, “We have come to take you home.”
But the most emotional part of the day at the Peres Center, for most of the former hostages, came from the chance to reunite with Sorin Hershko, the IDF soldier who became a quadriplegic from an injury sustained during the operation and who was on hand to witness the celebration and receive an honorary certificate from the Peres Center for his bravery and heroism.
“After 40 years to see the children, to see the kids…”
Hershko said, trailing off, a broad smile on his face.
“I still them call children, despite the fact that they are all grown up and have families and their own children.
For me it is very important to see them and I am very satisfied that they are all here and well.”
Yet the children are not the only ones who still bear the weight of the memory.
Their parents worked hard to keep their children sheltered as much as possible from the danger they were in.
“I don’t believe that any of the hostages thought we were going to survive,” said Hannah Cohen, Tzipi’s mother.
“Even my late husband said that we would all be killed.
But I came out much stronger from this because I didn’t have any choice. I had to be strong for the children, I had to continue to live.”
Benny Davidson, who as a 13-year-old had been traveling to celebrate his bar mitzva, recalls the lasting influence of the ordeal.
“It was a very difficult experience, but not a trauma,” Davidson said.
“The big thank you for that goes to my parents and to the other kids’ parents as well, because they built a shield around us, protecting us by keeping us busy – telling us stories, letting us play, giving us various chores and cleaning shifts. That, I’m fully confident, helped us to maintain our sanity and get out of there not traumatized.”