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Confirming Fears, Jewish Couple Found Dead After Tsunami Disaster


Two young Jews missing since the Southeast Asian tsunami struck have been confirmed as dead. Nikki Liebowitz, 30, of Sydney, was formally identified by her boyfriend’s cousin and brother-in-law on the Thai island of Phi Phi after a positive DNA test.

The body of her boyfriend Avadya Berman, 31, also an Australian resident, was also found. Both Berman and Liebowitz are slated for burial in South Africa.

Berman had planned to move to Sydney at the beginning of February to start a new life with Liebowitz.

The couple had been working in their native Johannesburg before Liebowitz left in July to start a new life in Australia.

She left Sydney at the beginning of December to attend a friend’s wedding in Johannesburg, where she met up again with Liebowitz. From there the couple traveled to Asia for an extended holiday and planned to settle down in Sydney.

A three-day scuba-diving holiday on Phi Phi was a scheduled highlight, but those plans came to a tragic halt on Dec. 26.

Liebowitz and Berman had just finished breakfast with South African friends Ilana and Gary Sweidan. Berman headed for the pool and Liebowitz headed for Ilana Sweidan’s room. Ilana Sweidan stopped in the lobby of the Phi Phi Princess Hotel to make a phone call.

Tanya Bensimon, 29, and Leonard Hammersfeld, 37, of Melbourne, who had just announced their engagement two days earlier, were sitting by the pool and gazing out at the normally still waters of the lagoon.

“Suddenly there was this one wave in the middle of the lagoon … such a strange sight that people were laughing … but the locals looked quizzical,” Hammersfeld said. “Then my mobile rang. A friend from Melbourne was holidaying in Phuket where the tsunami had already struck, to warn us of the imminent danger.

“The wave hit the beach, sweeping everything in its way. It sounded like a jet. Twenty of us headed for the roof of the building, but five didn’t make it,” he said. “We were stuck there for three hours and watched the other five tsunamis hit the low-lying island. For those down on the beach, there was no escape.”

Back at the hotel, the first wave of the tsunami had struck. Ilana Sweidan struggled to keep her head above the water flooding the lobby.

When the wave receded, Liebowitz was nowhere to be found. When the second wave struck, a stranger dragged Ilana Sweidan to higher ground. The Sweidans spent hours looking for their friends, to no avail.

Hammersfeld said he didn’t know Berman, “but I can tell you, anyone who rushed down to the beach to look for family or friends was doomed. Six tsunamis struck Phi Phi that morning.”

“Phi Phi was like a war zone,” he said. “There were bodies everywhere.”

Hammersfeld, now back home in Melbourne, added, “The first help came in from the Israel Defense Forces, closely followed by Chabad from Thailand, before we saw assistance arrive from other countries. We feel so much for the families” of Berman and Liebowitz.

Berman’s sister Rama Klevansky, 35, told JTA from her home in Sydney, “I had been looking forward so much to my brother joining us in Sydney.”

Berman had visited Sydney many times and was there in July for Liebowitz’s birthday, she said.

“He has South Africa in his soul … but he was looking forward very much to the challenges of setting up home in a new country,” she said.

Klevansky told JTA that Berman was a wonderful sportsman and soccer player. But most of all, she said, Berman and Liebowitz “loved nature and spent lots of weekends together going native.”

Klevansky has 20 photographs of Phi Phi on the walls of her home in a Sydney suburb.

“It will always remain one of my favorite places in the world. It stole my heart,” she said, “and it stole my brother. He was my heart.”

Klevansky’s husband Howard and a cousin flew to Thailand with a sample of Klevansky’s DNA. They met up with Interpol, which had collected DNA from Berman’s parents in Johannesburg.

Ronnie Figdor, spokesman for Australia’s Jewish Emergency Management Plan, told JTA that all other members of the country’s Jewish community known to be in the disaster area have been accounted for.

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