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NY Post
New York Post
18 Nov 2023


NextImg:American survivors of Hamas terror grateful for ‘second chance’

For the American survivors of the Oct. 7 Hamas slaughter at the Nova music festival in Israel, gratitude is on the menu this Thanksgiving. 

Natalie Sanandaji and Lee Sasi both survived the shocking terrorist attack on the “unity” festival in near Kibbutz Re’im on the Gaza border, which left 260 dead and scores taken hostage.

“I’m going to be very thankful for the fact that God gave me a second chance at life,” said Natalie Sanandaji, who lives with her parents in Great Neck, LI, and survived a harrowing, “endless” four-hour escape – “being shot at, rockets exploding over your head” – until she was rescued by a stranger helping pile people into his truck.

“I’ll be thinking about the purpose of that, and about what purpose I want to give to my life. After being given a second chance like this, I need to make it meaningful.”

The holiday puts a fine point on blessings and what it means to be alive, said the 28-year-old recalled running frantically and not knowing if it was in the direction that would save her or lead to death.

Long Island native Natalie Sanandaji survived the terror attack which left 260 dead.

“It definitely gives giving thanks a whole new meaning. This year, I really have so much to be thankful for.”

It will be a double celebration for Sanandaji, who will reunite with six friends, some of whom she hasn’t seen since before the massacre, for a Wednesday “Friendsgiving” – complete with wine and games – followed by a “quiet” Thanksgiving day with a Persian-style, rice-filled turkey with her parents in Great Neck.

“After everything that happened, I really want to be with the people that I’m closest with – and take time to appreciate those relationships – as opposed to doing something big,” said Sanandaji, an only child. “After all of the chaos that’s been going on, during and after the attack, I want something quiet and peaceful.”

Even with a quieter celebration than usual – “it was always big, always laughing and lighthearted” with lots of friends and cousins around – Thanksgiving will surely hold more meaning.

“They almost didn’t see me again – it’s a very intense thing to think about.”

The personal belongings of Nova music festival-goers after the attack
REUTERS

In between cooking and reconnecting, there will be serious stock-taking.

“It’s going to be the most joyous for me and my mom because of the fact that we didn’t lose each other, but it’s going to be very bittersweet in a way,” she said, expecting to think about fellow festival-goers “dancing right next to you who are now trapped in Gaza or killed and their parents don’t get to celebrate the holiday with them.

“A lot of Americans lost their lives or were kidnapped and their parents won’t get to hold them and laugh with them during the holiday,” she said. “I think about how fortunate I am to survive, but I think about all the other families.”

She looks at life differently now.

Lee Sasi and her uncle Avi, who was killed, at the festival near Kibbutz Re’im.
Courtesy of Lee Sasi

Since returning home, she left her job in real estate to pursue full-time Jewish and Israel advocacy work as a public affairs officer for the Combat Antisemitism Movement, or CAM, a job that takes her on speaking engagements around the country. 

“Before, I would really live in the moment,” she said, noting that it’s a quality she liked about herself.  “But I’m happy I get to add more meaning to my life. I didn’t necessarily have a purpose or something I was passionate about before – and now I do.”

Giving thanks also takes on a whole new meaning for Lee Sasi, 25. It is a mere six weeks since she hid under a pile of dead bodies for hours in a bomb shelter before being rescued.

The bomb shelter where Sasi was hiding out for seven hours, under dead bodies.
Courtesy of Lee Sasi

“I’m really excited for Thanksgiving,” she told The Post. “It will be a special dinner, just being with my loved ones and being grateful to be alive.”

The LA native attended the music festival in a group of seven.

Rockets started to rain down around 6:30 in the morning, she recalled. Sasi and some of her group made it to a nearby bomb shelter she recalled seeing en route to the festival. About 40 people piled into the “five-by-eight foot” structure made for about eight people.

Sasi said the bodies inside the shelter kept her alive.
Courtesy of Lee Sasi

For seven hours she tapped into “survival mode” and averted the grenades, RPGs and constant spray of “thousands” of gunshots. Aside from the blasts “messing up my ears,” Sasi recalled “the smoke from the grenade was choking me to death.”

The sound of terrorists laughing during their slaughter – “you could hear the joy in their voices, it was their high” – will always stay with her.

“People exploded into pieces,” she said of the excruciating deaths – some instantaneous, some dragged-out – from being hit by grenades the terrorists tossed inside the shelter. 

Sasi watched her beloved uncle, Avi, “blow up” as shielded her from the impact of a grenade.

“Hell is nothing compared to what I went through – I was in Satan’s belly,” she said.

She and two relatives were among 10 survivors to emerge from the shelter. Four of the friends and relatives with whom she went to the festival perished.

“I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful that I came out of that bomb shelter – those bodies saved my life.”

An avid chef, she can’t wait to cook for some 15 guests at her parents’ home this Thanksgiving, and is hunting online for new recipes and preparing a menu that will include “fall-style foods,” including green beans, roast beef, “the juiciest” baby hens — turkey is “too dry” — yams and sweet potatoes.

“Cooking is a way for me to show my love and gratitude to others,” she said.

“I think it’s going to be a bittersweet Thanksgiving this year,” said Sasi. “I’ll be grateful to be with my family, but you think, ‘Why was it you who made it out alive?’ It hits you suddenly.”
Courtesy of Lee Sasi

But the festivities will invariably be clouded by “waves of highs and lows. I think it’s going to be a bittersweet Thanksgiving this year,” said Sasi. “I’ll be grateful to be with my family, but you think, ‘Why was it you who made it out alive?’ It hits you suddenly.”

“I look at myself differently now” she said, noting that she discovered a strength she didn’t know she had, buoying the spirits of others in the shelter, encouraging them not to give up.

“God made me survive that bomb shelter for a reason,” said Sasi, who’d gotten engaged in Israel a month earlier but whose fiance was not at the festival.  “It was the best time and the worst time in my life.”