In the blink of an eye, Yossi Chitrit lost his wife and three of his children.
Close to 50 years later, he sobs as he recalls standing outside his apartment building, knowing that terrorists had stormed inside and opened fire on anyone they came across.
On that day in April 1974, three terrorists crossed the border from Lebanon into Israel, walked into a building in Kiryat Shmona and ultimately killed 18 people inside. In the decades that have followed, the horrific massacre has largely faded from the public consciousness, with many unaware that the terror attack ever happened and little national remembrance.
A new film titled “A Haunted Home” (“The House in Kiryat Shmona” in Hebrew) seeks to restore the incident in public memory and explore why it ended up forgotten. The movie, which premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July, will air on Sunday in Israel on the HOT cable network.
Co-created by Lisa Peretz, Robby Elmaliah and Ilanit Baumann, and co-directed by Peretz and Elmaliah, the movie revisits the painful events of 1974 and examines the deep trauma it left behind on residents of the northern border city, which less than a year earlier had been terrorized by hundreds of rockets fired during the Yom Kippur War.
“It was an open wound, but it wasn’t spoken about,” Elmaliah told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “The people who experienced it, the eyewitnesses, distanced themselves from the building, from the trauma.”
Piecing together archival footage with testimony from survivors and bereaved family members and some illustrations, the film deftly draws viewers into the heartbreaking story. Arguably the most painful recounting comes from Iris Chitrit, who was 9 years old during the attack, in which her mother and all three of her siblings were killed.
She recalled how she hid behind a closet door with her 4-year-old brother, holding onto his hand, as she heard the gunmen shooting the rest of her family. “There was a moment of silence and Motti pulled away from my hand,” she said. “And then I heard another volley of bullets… I wasn’t holding him tightly. Not tightly enough, apparently.”
Elmaliah said once they tracked down the bereaved family members — all of whom left the city following the massacre — not all were willing to speak about their experiences.
“Not everyone wanted to take part in the film,” he said. “It was very hard for them, how it brought them right back.” But for some of the survivors, he added, “it was very important to them to do this movie — for them it was coming full circle.”
Peretz, a journalist with the Globes business daily, grew up in Kiryat Shmona, arriving there a few years after the massacre took place. She recounts in the film how she felt the lingering effects of the attack on the city throughout her childhood. Elmaliah said he personally felt drawn to the story and the town as a native of Sderot, near Gaza.
“Kiryat Shmona might be the only place [in Israel] where you can see the PTSD,” he said. “In Sderot we’re still experiencing ongoing trauma… so I was very interested in the film and its topic.”
Former Shas MK Yigal Guetta, whose brother and pregnant sister-in-law were murdered in the attack when he was 8 years old, said the city barely knew how to deal with the aftermath.
“The school didn’t deal in any way with the fact that I was a child from a bereaved family, and what I was going through,” he recalled in the film. “They told me that a therapist was going to come and sit with me. I’m still waiting for her to this day.”
The terrorists, affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, crossed into Israel early on the morning of April 11, 1974, managing to go undetected for more than an hour. Their first target was an elementary school, but the classrooms were empty since it was the intermediate days of Passover.
They then crossed the street, entered the apartment building at 13 Yehuda Halevi Street and killed a number of residents before moving to the building next door, No. 15, killing first the gardener, then climbing the stairs and shooting everyone they encountered.
The three terrorists barricaded themselves in an apartment on the top floor, where an exchange of gunfire ultimately blew up the backpack of explosives they were carrying, killing all three. Two IDF soldiers were also killed in the incident, alongside 16 civilians, including eight children.
The film raises difficult questions about the failures of the police and IDF to respond to the attack in a timely manner and even possibly to save the lives of those who were wounded. Eyewitnesses recount that security forces were gathered outside for some time before they entered the building.
Iris Chitrit recounted screaming for help from the window while her mother and sister were wounded but still alive, “but nobody was talking to me.” Her father, Yossi, who was at work when the attack began, raced to the scene: “I tried to go inside but they stopped me… the Border Police, the army, the police, watching — and nobody dared to go up.”
Yossi Daskal, a retired IDF colonel who at the time was an intelligence officer called to the scene, said it was clear many mistakes were made.
“It was a failure,” he said in the film. “We didn’t rescue anyone. The army didn’t rescue anyone from there.”
Almost 50 years later, Elmaliah — who had not heard about the attack before his work on the film — said he believes the story did not fade from public memory but was deliberately forgotten.
“I think one of the reasons why this event isn’t covered — and not just not covered, but barred, hidden… I think it’s mostly because there is no story of bravery here,” he said. “There are no heroes in this story… there’s nobody who saved anybody. Ultimately, 18 people were killed, and the soldiers [only] entered the building at the end.”