Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Netta Epstein, 21, during a 2018 visit to family in Montreal.Courtesy of family

An Israeli-Canadian man who was killed in this month’s Hamas attack died after throwing himself on a grenade to save his fiancée, his family says.

Ottawa has identified the man, 21-year-old Netta Epstein, as one of six Canadians killed during the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas fighters. He grew up in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz, or co-operative community, a few kilometres from the border of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. That was also where he died.

The kibbutz was one of several communities caught up in the recent violence, which has killed more than 1,400 Israelis, according to Israeli government figures. More than 2,800 people have been killed in Gaza by retaliatory Israeli air strikes, according to Palestinian officials.

In an interview from Israel this week, Mr. Epstein’s mother, Ayelet Shachar-Epstein, spoke of the circumstances of his death, and also of less troubled times in Kfar Aza. Years ago, she recalled, southern Israelis and residents of Gaza, a small coastal enclave that is home to more than two million Palestinians, would simply cross into each others’ communities. “I lived there since I was a very young child,” she said. “For many years, the proximity to Gaza really wasn’t such a big deal for us.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced Tuesday that the sixth confirmed Canadian victim of the Oct. 7 attack is Tiferet Lapidot. Ms. Joly met with the 22-year-old woman’s family members in Tel Aviv last weekend after they begged for Canada’s help in tracking down Ms. Lapidot, who had been missing since attending the Supernova music festival, an event in the Negev desert that was a focal point of the Hamas assault. Her family feared she had been abducted, but Oren Zlotnik, one of her relatives in Montreal, said her body was found with those of other festival attendees.

Ms. Lapidot is among four Canadians who died at the festival. The others are Shir Georgy, a dual Israel-Canadian citizen; Alexandre Look, 33, who had recently moved to Israel from Montreal; and Ben Mizrachi, a 22-year-old raised in Vancouver’s Jewish community who left to serve in the Israeli army soon after graduating from high school.

Adi Vital-Kaploun, 33, a Canadian with ties to Ottawa, was shot in her home in Holit, another kibbutz, in front of her two sons, according to Dina Zaslacski, a family friend.

Two Canadians are still considered missing.

Mr. Epstein grew up as a third-generation kibbutznik. Ms. Shachar-Epstein said he strived for normalcy, despite rockets intermittently fired by Hamas militants. His family routinely posted videos of their everyday lives on YouTube. They show Mr. Epstein and his siblings riding bikes and playing music.

Ms. Shachar-Epstein said her family has had an abiding attachment to Kfar Aza since her mother moved to Israel from Montreal in the 1960s. It is inconceivable that Israel’s security structures failed as badly they did, she said. “What happened on that Saturday was something that none of us ever imagined.”

When Hamas hit the community, Mr. Epstein spent hours in a safe room in his apartment with his fiancée. His texts with his mother revealed a compounding sense of horror.

Ms. Shachar-Epstein, who was hiding in her own apartment on the kibbutz, told him that she was learning of close relatives and family friends having been shot.

Mr. Epstein, who had recently completed his mandatory Israeli military service, replied that he could hear the attackers drawing close. “He says, ‘There’s a lot of shouting in Arabic outside, and there’s shooting,” Ms. Shachar-Epstein said, recalling her son’s messages.

“Then he wrote me, ‘Mummy, they’re here.’”

Ms. Shachar-Epstein said the family later learned, when they spoke to Mr. Epstein’s fiancée, how he had died.

Three Hamas militants broke down the apartment door and lobbed grenades inside. The first one did not explode. The second explosion fizzled. But the third blast was a powerful one. Mr. Epstein was shot as he threw himself upon it, Ms. Shachar-Epstein said.

Mr. Epstein’s fiancée stayed hidden under a bed for hours, behind his body. “He hid her with his body. He protected her so she could be safe,” Ms. Shachar-Epstein said.

Stuart Lubarsky, Mr. Epstein’s cousin, who is a neurologist in Montreal, remembers taking his nephew around town as a teenager. He recalled visits to Chinese restaurants, and to Notre-Dame-de-Grâce to play soccer.

He said the family’s ancestors came to Quebec in the early 1900s to escape pogroms in Eastern Europe. Mr. Epstein’s grandmother emigrated from Montreal to Israel after finishing her nursing studies. She was enchanted with the idea of living on the communes then popping up in Israel, where young people were finding community by turning desert into farmland.

Mr. Lubarsky added that Mr. Epstein should be remembered for his courage.

“I cannot think of a more heroic way to die,” he said.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to state that Stuart Lubarsky is a cousin of Netta Epstein and a Montreal neurologist.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe