‘We were on the phone with her’: Brandeis professor says his daughter died shielding her son in Israel

Local News

“What you have to understand about this war — it’s being mislabeled. It is a pogrom.”

The daughter and son-in-law of a Brandeis professor were among those killed on Saturday in surprise attacks by Hamas militants in Israel. 

Ilan Troen told CNN he was on the phone with his daughter, Deborah, when she and his son-in-law, Schlomi, were killed. His daughter died shielding her 16-year-old son, Rotem, he said.

“This is not a normal war,” Troen said. “It isn’t like there’s a front and a rear. We were on the phone with Deborah as she was killed. We were on the phone the entire day with our grandson, Rotem, as he lay first under her body and then found a place to escape under a blanket in a laundry.”

Deborah Mathias (50), and Shlomi Mathias (49). – Family handout obtained by the Boston Globe

Troen said his grandson suffered a gunshot wound to his stomach and spent 12 hours hiding, texting with his grandparents and other family members as he waited for rescue.

“The last words from [Deborah] were, ‘I hear glass breaking. They’re speaking in Arabic and I hear shots,’” Troen told MSNBC of the last communication with his daughter. “That’s the last words we heard from her. After a hiatus, we heard Rotem, her son, say, ‘I am shot, there is blood on me,’ and he was instructed then not to speak. The rest of the day … was texting. He had to be quiet, because these terrorists came back several times to the house. And at the final time, they threw in a grenade and tried to burn it down. Because in the event that there were any survivors, they wanted to shoot any survivor who would walk out the front or the back door.”

Troen said his grandson will recover from his wound, but the trauma of what he experienced “is going to last his lifetime.”

“The brunt of the shot was borne by his mother,” he told CNN.

Three days after the violence began, the death toll of the war had risen Monday to nearly 1,600, according to the Associated Press. An estimated 900 people have been killed in Israel; in Gaza, more than 680 people have died. Thousands on both sides have been wounded. 

As of Monday, the toll includes the deaths of 11 Americans. 

Troen told MSNBC his daughter is among those being counted as an American casualty. She was born in Missouri but grew up in Be’er Sheva, a city in southern Israel, where her husband was also from.

He described Deborah as a “child of light and life,” who studied music and organized the festivals and parties on the kibbutz where her family lived, according to CNN.

She and her husband sent their children to a school where the students learned both Arabic and Hebrew with “the hope that somehow Jews and Arabs would learn to understand more about each other and be able to come to an accommodation and change the course of history here,” Troen told MSNBC.

“So there’s a special bitterness in what has happened to them,” he added. “These idealistic kids.”

In his interview with CNN, Troen described the incursion by Hamas in Israel as “an unbelievably well-prepared attack on a civilian population” focused on taking hostages.

According to The New York Times, at least 150 Israelis have been taken hostage by Hamas fighters, including older people and children. 

Israel on Monday ordered a complete siege of the Gaza Strip; officials with Hamas have threatened to execute the hostages each time an Israeli airstrike hits Gaza.

“What you have to understand about this war — it’s being mislabeled,” Troen told MSNBC. “It is a pogrom. It is the kind of event that brought my grandparents to the United States a century ago. It is an event where militarized people purposefully attack and intimidate civilians, not other military targets. Hamas attacks Jews just because that is their faith and that is their identity. The taking of civilians is their intention. And it is a particularly cruel intention.” 

According to The Boston Globe, Troen is a graduate of Brandeis who taught Israeli studies at the university before moving to Israel to be closer to his family after he retired as a full time professor.

“We at Brandeis are deeply saddened to learn that Professor Troen has lost his daughter and son-in-law in the tragic events that are currently taking place in Israel,” Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz said in a statement obtained by 7News. “Ilan, a Brandeis alumnus, and his family have long been treasured members of the Brandeis community, and we hold Ilan, his wife Carol, and his entire family in our thoughts. We condemn in the strongest way terrorism such as we have seen today perpetrated against innocent civilians and what has amounted to a multi-pronged war launched by Hamas.”

Thousands of people gathered Monday afternoon on Boston Common to show support for Israel, according to Boston 25 News. Gov. Maura Healey, Sen. Ed Markey, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu were among those who spoke during the rally.

“There is no justification for terrorism, ever,” Warren reportedly said. “I am here to grieve with you.”

Across the Charles River in Cambridge, hundreds of people gathered in support of Palestinians caught in the ongoing conflict, with organizers of the event saying they condemn the killing of innocent civilians on both sides of the war, according to 7 News.