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Parents of injured Israeli American hostage say Hamas video offered 'painful' proof of life

The parents of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, spoke to NBC News in an interview Thursday.
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JERUSALEM — The last glimpse they had of their son was a shaky video showing him in the back of a pickup truck with part of his left arm blown off by a Hamas grenade.

Now Rachel Goldberg-Polin, 54, and Jon Polin, 53, have the relief and distress of seeing him in a new video released by the militant group — proof of life they waited 201 days to see.

“Initially, we were just crying,” Goldberg-Polin said in an interview in Jerusalem on Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after Hamas released the video of her son, Hersh. The video shows his arm is visibly severed below the elbow, and he calls on the Israeli government to make a deal to release the remaining hostages in Gaza.

“On one hand, this was a tremendous validation,” she said, but “on the other hand, we see him — he is in captivity, he is obviously suffering.”

She added: “That is very painful. I mean, ‘painful’ is too small of a word of what it's like for any parent.”

It was not immediately clear when the video was recorded or what conditions he was under when he spoke in captivity. Although he refers to his nearly 200 days in captivity and a holiday, it is not clear whether he is still alive.

Goldberg-Polin said that when she first saw the video, she was not paying attention to what Hersh was saying. “I was just looking at him and hearing his voice,” she said.

Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg-Polin in Jerusalem on April 25, 2024.
Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg-Polin speak to NBC News in Jerusalem on Thursday.Dave Copeland NBC News

Hersh’s father said that it was a relief to finally see his son but that they immediately recognized that he has changed: looking pale, swollen and like he has been losing weight. That may be unsurprising after more than six months in captivity in Gaza, where Israel’s assault after the Oct. 7 attack has killed more than 34,000 people, according to local health officials, and aid groups warn a famine may be imminent.

“He certainly doesn’t look like himself,” Polin said. “But it was amazing to see him and amazing to see that he speaks like himself with clarity and strength. So a lot of mixed messages.”

Hamas took Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, hostage at the Supernova music festival in early Oct. 7. The family knew he was taken into Gaza after he tried to run away from the militants, but it had been given no proof of life since then.

The family said it got a 45-minute notice from Israeli and U.S. intelligence sources that the video would be coming out Wednesday. A source familiar with the situation said Qatar, the Persian Gulf state that has been helping mediate talks over a hostage deal, received the video several days ago and passed it onto the U.S. government.

A U.S. official confirmed that the Biden administration received the video Monday and was in touch with Goldberg-Polin’s family. The administration has been working under the assumption that five U.S. hostages are still alive and unaccounted-for, a U.S. official said this month. On Thursday, President Joe Biden issued a joint statement with the leaders of 17 other countries calling for "the immediate release of all hostages held by Hamas in Gaza."

The family does not know whether Hersh spoke in his own words or whether his appearance was scripted, especially as he spoke in Hebrew, not English, in which they communicate at home. But his mother said they were happy to just “take the words,” especially as he referred to his parents and his two sisters, who she said were both “broken” when they heard their names.

The family has been relentless in its efforts to bring Hersh back, launching a social media campaign and making regular media appearances. Goldberg-Polin has met with the pope and spoken at the United Nations, advocating for her son and other hostages. She has been wearing a small piece of masking tape emblazoned across her heart every day with the number of days Hersh has been in captivity. 

Now that they have seen their son alive, they feel new motivation to keep that fight going.

“Seeing that video just further lights the fire that we need to push all leaders, all of the world, every leader in this region, everybody who has been involved in negotiations,” Polin said. “We need to get all these people home.”

Negotiations to free the more than 130 captives who still remain in Gaza have stalled, prompting growing frustration and anger from their families.

Asked what her message to the negotiators at the table is, Goldberg-Polin said she is just a mother who misses her son.

“He went to a concert with his friends, and he was stolen from his life and stolen from our lives,” she said. “And his wound is such that he will now be disabled the rest of his life. I want him home.”

She said that she is no geopolitical wizard or someone with military powers, only that the families of the hostages have been in “slow-motion” trauma for 202 days. As has everyone in the region to some degree, she said.

“It’s time to diffuse and release the pressure and the tension in this region and to put a stop to all the suffering,” she added.

Asked how she remains hopeful, Goldberg-Polin said the family feels there is simply no other option. “We say all the time that hope is mandatory. So it’s not really a choice. It’s mandatory.”

Raf Sanchez reported from Jerusalem and Yuliya Talmazan from London.