Survivor describes ‘surreal’ experience of Oct. 7 Hamas attack

Matan Boltax, a survivor of the October 7, 2023, attack at the Nova Music Festival in Israel, speaks to a crowd at Moore Hall at Dartmouth on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Hanover, N.H. Boltax is working with Faces of October 7, doing speaking events at colleges across the country. Behind him is a selfie Boltax took with friends at the festival just before the rockets started during the attack. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Matan Boltax, a survivor of the October 7, 2023, attack at the Nova Music Festival in Israel, speaks to a crowd at Moore Hall at Dartmouth on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Hanover, N.H. Boltax is working with Faces of October 7, doing speaking events at colleges across the country. Behind him is a selfie Boltax took with friends at the festival just before the rockets started during the attack. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, Betty Lauer, of White River Junction, Vt., who is a Holocaust survivor, listens to Matan Boltax speak about surviving the October 7, 2023, attack at the Nova Music Festival in Israel.

At Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, Betty Lauer, of White River Junction, Vt., who is a Holocaust survivor, listens to Matan Boltax speak about surviving the October 7, 2023, attack at the Nova Music Festival in Israel. "When will you dance again?" Lauer asked Boltax. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News – Jennifer Hauck

Matan Boltax, at right, a survivor of the October 7, 2023, attack at the Nova Music Festival in Israel, speaks with Dartmouth students including Ruby Benjamin, left, and Shira Elisha after an event at the college on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Matan Boltax, at right, a survivor of the October 7, 2023, attack at the Nova Music Festival in Israel, speaks with Dartmouth students including Ruby Benjamin, left, and Shira Elisha after an event at the college on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-21-2024 9:46 PM

HANOVER — For Matan Boltax and his friends, Oct. 7, 2023, started off as a pretty normal day.

Boltax, 23, who was born in Great Neck, N.Y., and moved to Israel in 2009, and his friends arrived at the Nova Music Festival around 2 a.m. to set up camp. Israel, Boltax explained, has a big electronic music festival scene, and the peak of such gatherings is usually between 6 a.m. and noon.

They were getting ready to head to the dance floor around 6:30 a.m. when they noticed rockets flying overhead. That wasn’t necessarily unusual for the area where the festival was taking place, which is near the Gaza border, Boltax said. Then, the rockets intensified.

“We knew the festival wasn’t going to continue and that was kind of what was on our mind at the moment as we were ready to have an awesome day, and now all of a sudden the festival just kind of is canceled,” Boltax told a crowd of roughly 175 people gathered into Filene Auditorium in Moore Hall at Dartmouth College late Tuesday afternoon.

He and his friends started to evacuate, setting off a daylong journey. During their escape, they picked up two people along the way.

“I mean, potentially, we could have shoved 20 people into our car, but we weren’t thinking about that at the time because it wasn’t really the right place to be a hero,” said Boltax, a speaker with the organization Faces of October Seventh, which brings survivors to college campuses throughout the United States and Canada to share their stories. “I mean, sadly, anyone who was a hero is either really injured or isn’t with us today.”

More than 360 people were killed at the festival, which contributed to the total of around 1,200 Israelis and “foreign nationals” killed during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, the BBC has reported. Gaza’s Mi nistry of Health said that Israeli forces have killed more than 29,000 people since the war began, according to an article published Monday by the Associated Press.

The talk, sponsored by Chabad and Hillel at Dartmouth and co-sponsored by the college’s Jewish Studies Program, came a day after eight Dartmouth students went on a hunger strike to protest what activists characterize as Dartmouth President Sian Beilock’s administration’s ambivalence toward concerns of Palestinian students and student concerns about Palestinians in the war in Gaza — including the arrest of two student activists who are facing misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing related to an October protest. Dartmouth is among college campuses throughout the country that have become hotbeds for political discourse as students and faculty clash about the Israel-Hamas war.

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“You remind us that even in our darkest moments, we possess an incredible capacity to endure, to heal and to find hope once again,” Rabbi Seth Linfield, the Michael Steinberg ’61 Rabbi and executive director of Hillel at Dartmouth, said in his opening remarks before introducing Boltax.

Boltax described how, on Oct. 7, he and his friends eventually made their way to a public bomb shelter at a bus station, then tried to make their way to Boltax’s friend’s house in a neighboring town. The group couldn’t reach his friend, but the family living in the first house they encountered took them in.

He ended up leaving there around 4 p.m., escorted by local security, and made his way home around 6 p.m. He described the drive as “apocalyptic.”

“There were just cars crashed on the side of the road, bodies all over the road,” Boltax said. “I mean, we weren’t stopping to look at anything, but it was just pretty surreal.”

Throughout his talk, Boltax referred to photos and maps on a slideshow. After describing his escape, he projected a group image from the festival.

“This is us, right at around 6:40, right when the rocket started. I remember we were messing around and saying, like, last selfie before we’re killed, obviously sarcastically, but who knew that that would actually be true?” Boltax said, pointing to a photograph on a slideshow projected on a screen beside him. “Not for me and my friends and I, but for many people there.”

Two of the people in the photo had stopped by their campsite to hang out. One of them died throwing grenades back at Hamas from a bomb shelter, and another was taken hostage from that same bomb shelter.

After Oct. 7, Boltax was called up with his Israel Defense Forces reserve unit for around a month and a half. He had previously served as a sniper for almost three years in the forces.

In the five months since that day at the music festival, Boltax has had time to reflect on his experiences.

“This is the first time, really, Jews have to really hide, even in their own country, since the Holocaust,” he said. “So that was just a wild thought, too.”

After Boltax’s talk, he took some questions from the audience. The first came from Betty Lauer, of White River Junction. She wanted to know: “When will you dance again?” He said that people have already started dancing again and going out.

“I was very shaken by what happened in Israel,” Lauer, a Holocaust survivor who wrote about her experience in the book, “Hiding in Plain Sight,” said in an interview after the event ended. “I wanted to hear what this young man had to say, and he told us a lot.”

Boltax’s youth was something that struck students as well. At 23, he is close in age to many college students, Mia Steinberg, a Dartmouth junior and a Chabad board member, said in a Monday phone interview.

“One of the things that’s really striking for us is it was a music festival. We go to music festivals,” she said. She added that many students involved with Chabad have family and friends in Israel. “For us, this event is very personal and very scary.”

Before the talk, Steinberg said her hopes were that people without those personal connections would attend the event to hear Boltax’s story. “Even if one person who isn’t as connected can hear his story, just hear it and be able to share his message, it would be a success,” she said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.