Interview'The citizens are running the war to bring back the hostages'

Holocaust survivor grandmother of hostage Omer Wenkert appeals to Russia’s Putin

Family of 22-year-old budding restaurateur from Gedera looks for any route to help bring their loved one home

Jessica Steinberg

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Tsili Wenkert, grandmother of Omer Wenkert who was taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7 from Supernova, poses next to a portrait of her grandson in the city of Gedera on October 25, 2023 (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Tsili Wenkert, grandmother of Omer Wenkert who was taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7 from Supernova, poses next to a portrait of her grandson in the city of Gedera on October 25, 2023 (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

As the days in captivity keep adding up for Omer Wenkert, 22, and the other 136 hostages still in Gaza, his father, Shai Wenkert, is trying a new tactic, this time with the Russian government.

Omer’s grandmother, Tsili Wenkert, 82, is a Holocaust survivor who was freed by the Russian Red Army on the way to Auschwitz.

The family received a tip that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to help hostages with family members who are Holocaust survivors, as “they have some sensitivity to that,” said Wenkert, speaking to The Times of Israel.

The family met with the Russian ambassador and were aware of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conversation Sunday with Putin, but weren’t privy to the details of that conversation. They were told that Wenkert’s name is on the Russian list of hostages.

Three Israeli hostages with Russian citizenship have been released.

“I’m just doing what I can,” said Wenkert.

Shai Wenkert, father of Omer Wenkert, who was taken hostage on October 7, 2023 by Hamas terrorists at the Supernova rave (Courtesy)

Wenkert said his mother, Tsili Wenkert, who is Omer’s grandmother, views the events of October 7 as worse than World War II.

On that day, thousands of terrorists burst across the border from the Gaza Strip in a shock assault. They killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians, amid acts of horrific brutality, and abducted over 240.

“Then, they killed in cold blood, and here, they assaulted, they raped, they burned people alive,” said Wenkert.

Omer Wenkert was abducted to Gaza on October 7 from the Supernova desert rave when terrorists descended upon it, mowing down attendees with gunfire, grenades and mortar launchers. About 360 people were killed there.

He had been in touch with his parents while the massacre unfolded, telling them he was “scared to death.” Wenkert’s parents scrambled to find any information they could, frantically combing social media and calling friends as they tried to figure out what had happened to their son.

At 11:11 a.m., they were sent a Hamas video of Omer, tied up on the flatbed of a white pickup truck, in his underwear, confirming that he had been taken hostage in Gaza.

Since then, Omer’s family and friends have taken an active part in the efforts to bring home all the hostages, said Wenkert, who spoke at the Tel Aviv rally last Saturday night.

Shai Wenkert, next to menorah, speaking at the December 9, 2023 rally in Tel Aviv, for his son, Omer Wenkert, held hostage in Gaza since October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum was in touch within 24 hours after October 7, said Wenkert, “they’re a lifeline of civilian support that has supported us this whole time. They do magical work.”

Wenkert said he hasn’t had much contact with the government since his son was taken hostage. He believes the families of the hostages should have regular updates from the war cabinet without having “to fight for information.”

“I know they don’t have a lot of time,” said Wenkert. Still, he wants a different cabinet member to meet each week with members of the forum.

“We understood that we the citizens are running the war to bring back the hostages,” said Wenkert.

Omer Wenkert was taken hostage by Hamas terrorists from the Supernova desert rave on October 7, 2023 (Courtesy)

The Wenkerts have also tried to apply pressure on the Red Cross, along with other families of hostages, as Omer Wenkert suffers from colitis and can have very dramatic attacks.

“It gets very bad in stressful situations. He needs to have access to a bathroom and anemia can become an issue,” said Wenkert.

Wenkert met with the Red Cross in Israel and in Brussels several weeks ago, and has repeatedly asked how the humanitarian organization can go into Gaza to visit Palestinian hospitals but not the hostages. He said he was told that the Red Cross can’t enter a battle zone.

The wait for Omer and the other hostages is “harder than ever,” said Wenkert.

“It’s 66 days and missing him becomes more painful,” he said. “Every day it’s important to keep doing this so that this issue will always be in the headlines. So that they come back and no one will ever forget what happened here.”

His son has a lot of plans, said Wenkert. The 22-year-old manages Nina Bianca restaurant in Kiryat Ekron, having worked his way up from waiter to manager over the last five years.

He’s a natural host who has always wanted to work in the culinary world, said Wenkert, recalling a recent family trip to Rome when Omer made reservations at a Michelin-starred restaurant for all of them.

“He ordered it three months before,” said Wenkert. “And it was very impressive.”

Omer Wenkert, a lover of the culinary arts, soccer and music raves, who was taken hostage on October 7, 2023 by Hamas terrorists at the Supernova rave (Courtesy)

Omer Wenkert was supposed to start a restaurant management course at Shenkar College in November.

“He always hosts his friends at home. Now we worry about his friends,” said Wenkert. “In the first two weeks, they went from shiva to funeral to funeral to shiva.”

Besides his love of the culinary arts and soccer, Omer Wenkert regularly goes to music festivals and raves in Israel and abroad, and with his friends, produces their own line of festivals.

They organized the Never Too Late festival last spring and held another one in Tel Aviv in September. The next one was planned for November.

“They had the budget, the production,” said Shai Wenkert. “Now they’re just waiting for Omer.”

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