Friday, August 11, 2006

11-Aug-06: Remembering the Sbarro massacre

An edited version of this essay by Frimet Roth was published yesterday by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Additional information about the events of August 9, 2001 can be found on the website established by Frimet and Arnold Roth in their daughter's memory: The Malki Foundation

Remembering the Sbarro Massacre

With war raging against Hizbollah, it is easy to overlook Israel's other existential threat. The events of this day, five years ago, provide a stark reminder of the thriving demon across our southern border: Hamas.

On 9 August, 2001, Izzadin al-Masri, the 22 year old son of a well-to-do restaurateur, and Ahlam Tamimi, a 20 year old university student and part-time journalist, set out to murder a lot of Jews. Hamas had trained and equipped them. Tamimi had scouted for and located the target. They were primed for a successful mission.

Tamimi, in revealing Western clothing, was disguised to look like a young Israeli woman. Al-Masri had a guitar case slung over his shoulder, packed with five kilos of explosives - along with nails, screws and bolts to exacerbate the injuries. Chatting in English and carrying a camera, they looked harmless enough for an unsuspecting soldier at the Israeli checkpoint between East and West Jerusalem to allow them to pass. The Jerusalem police force, previously alerted to a planned terror attack, failed to locate them. They strolled freely through Jerusalem's streets.

At the city's busiest intersection, the unguarded entrance to a crowded restaurant beckoned. Tamimi and Al-Masri parted. He entered the eatery alone and surveyed the dozens of women, children and babies. Satisfied with the numbers, he detonated his bomb. My fifteen year old daughter, Malki had entered moments earlier with her friend, Michal Raziel. I know from speaking with a survivor that the girls were standing on line waiting to order. Each was urging the other to go first. That was all I knew about what happened inside the restaurant at 2pm that day.

Until I interviewed Esther Shoshan.

"I was upstairs with one of my daughters," Esther recalls. "We'd wanted to sit downstairs where it's roomy, near the windows. But it was too crowded. Two of my daughters had gone to park the car. Two others, Miriam and Yocheved, went down to the lower level to get our food."

Esther speaks quickly. "Then there was an enormous blast. The place went dark. People started screaming 'Pigua! Pigua!' (terror attack) But at first I didn't believe it."

"People shouted 'Get out! There may be another blast.' Finally, we ran downstairs. There was a terrible stench. I saw body parts everywhere. Here a limb, there a head. The bodies were bloated. There was water everywhere; I have no idea where it came from. I searched for my children."

"My two daughters who had gone to the car-park arrived seconds later. The older one came inside and found Miriam and Yocheved. They were on fire. She managed to put out the flames but then was rushed away by rescue workers."

"I couldn't leave. I was torn. The rescue workers kept dragging me to the door. I'd start to go, then run back screaming, 'My girls, my girls!' I wanted to help them."

Esther was taken to a local hospital. She left shortly afterwards to keep searching for the two children she had left at the scene.

Rushing from one hospital to another, she located Miriam at Hadassah Ein Karem. Her fifteen year-old had suffered third degree burns over forty percent of her body. Sixty nails were lodged inside her, many only millimeters from vital organs. Her spleen was ruptured and there was a gaping hole in her right thigh.

Yocheved, the younger child, could not be found in any of the city's hospitals. Later that day a cousin and uncle identified her body at the Abu Kabir morgue. She was buried at midnight.

"I was torn between grief and Miriam's rehabilitation", Esther recalls. "She came home only a year later after five operations."

All told, fifteen died in the Sbarro massacre that day, among them eight children. 130 were injured.

Since then, sixteen families have been grappling with grief. They do it every day, silently, far from the cameras and microphones of the media. Many have never before been interviewed.

Shifra Hayman and her husband are among them. In 2001 they were living in Los Angeles when their married daughter, their only child, Shoshana Greenbaum, spent a few weeks studying in Israel. The Haymans are very religious and wanted Shoshana buried according to Jewish tradition as quickly as possible and in the Holy Land. Since they do not travel on Shabbat, this meant they were unable to be here in time for their daughter's funeral.

Shifra, a medical social worker, sat the entire week of mourning in her Los Angeles home holding and caressing a toy dog in her lap. She had bought it because it was identical to a larger one she had given Shoshana many years back when, as a teen, she had undergone a tonsillectomy. Shoshana was three months pregnant and Shifra had eagerly envisaged new mother and baby holding the matching furry toys.

It is an image she can only dream of now. Yet Shifra seeks the positive in remembering Shoshana's life and death.

"Everyone was there for us from the moment we arrived home after hearing the news of her death," she begins, "Fortunately we had strong connections with three LA Jewish communities who all stood by us.

"Shoshana's wrist-watch, which was sent to us after the attack was, miraculously, still running when we got it," Shifra recounts, "which must reflect some gentleness in the way He took her life."

She mentions G-d frequently. "That she died in Israel and was able to be buried in Jerusalem with so many friends and relatives in attendance reflects G-d's 'hands-on' involvement", she says.

Shifra recalls her last conversation with her daughter, a night before her murder: "I remember how grateful I was for the conversation I'd had the previous night with Shoshana. She'd been so happy."

Now, she consoles herself with the thought that according to Jewish tradition a teacher's students are deemed his children. In the ten years that Shoshana was a Bible studies teacher, she nurtured many such 'children', some of whom live near the Haymans in their new home in Ramat Beit Shemesh. A few of them, now parents, are raising their children to call the Haymans 'Bubbie' and 'Zaidie' (Yiddish for grandma and grandpa).

Shifra is human, though. "I'm working on the envy I sometimes feel," she concedes. "It's particularly difficult when I see a pregnant woman. I'm working on that too."

Like Shoshana's unborn child, Chana Nachenberg is omitted from the official toll of Sbarro victims. Technically, she is one of the 130 injured in the massacre. But she is not actually alive. Deep in a five-year-long coma, she is neither wife to her husband nor mother to her daughter, now eight years old. Her parents visit her in the hospital every day.

David Nachenberg works as a sports journalist and as a child-care assistant close to his home so he can be available for his daughter. He does not allow her to be interviewed. Even while we speak, he pauses time and again and, with the utmost patience, tends to her requests.

While he recently obtained a rare 'dispensation of 100 rabbi's' to re-marry, he has not been able to bring himself to begin dating. "Who would want to go out with me?" he asks. "I'm not like a widower or a divorce? Women will be afraid that my wife might wake up one day and that I'd divorce them to return to her," he explains. "Besides", he adds "I would feel like a bigamist. I just wish I could go back to our happy life before."

Of course pain cannot be measured and tragedy cannot be ranked. Yet the blow that struck the Schijveschuurder family is undeniably on a level of barbarity all its own.

Mordechai and Tzira had brought five of their eight children to Jerusalem for a break from the tense security situation at home in their settlement of Talmon. Only two family members, Leah and Chaya, survived Sbarro.

Elisheva Moshkovitz, Mordechai's sister, and her husband, Moshe, Tzira's uncle, are raising the orphaned girls. Three older brothers who were not at Sbarro that day live independently.

"We moved into my brother's home in Talmon immediately afterwards and stayed there for six weeks." Elisheva begins. "It was a very difficult time for us, even financially. I had been in an accident and wasn't working. We had trouble paying the grocery bills. There was almost no help from anyone."

An ensuing custody battle resulted in the girls going to live with Elisheva's brother in Switzerland for a year. Eventually, after Elisheva and Moshe's perseverance in court proceedings, they were awarded permanent custody and the girls came back to Israel.

"Many friends and family broke off ties with us. But colleague of Tzira's, a bright, practical woman, would come and talk to me often. She'd stay three or four hours each time. I could speak about everything with her. She was a 'gift from G-d.'

"Another person we went to is the Talner Rebbe. He helped a lot. One couple, friends of ours stuck by us too. Then there was a friend who came by once and gave me a massage. That was very nice. The truth is many have left, have avoided us But then were we ourselves any different before?"

"The girls and I used to talk about their parents and their older sister. But never about the babies (Avraham Yitzchak and Chemda). Because, you know, the babies, well, that is just too painful."

"Has it affected my faith? Well, my parents and my in-laws all went through the Shoah. My mother lost her entire family when she was eighteen years old. And they all stayed alive and frum (religious) afterwards. I think about them and that keeps me going."

Encountering other Sbarro victims strengthens my personal resolve to keep the memory of this crime against humanity alive.

When, as happens a lot these days, the government mentions the possibility of a prisoner release, a shiver goes down my spine. One of the names on the list of candidates for release is that of Ahlam Tamimi. She is serving 16 life sentences in an Israeli prison.

Remorse or repentance could not be further from that woman's mind. She made this clear five months ago when she told journalists:
"I'm not sorry for what I did. I will get out of prison and I refuse to recognize Israel's existence I know that we will become free from Israeli occupation and then I will also be free from prison."
Along with the other Sbarro families, I remember Shoshana, and Yocheved and Chana and Malki and Michal and the Schijveschuurders.

We are determined to help keep their murderer, Ahlam Tamimi, behind bars until the end of her days.


Gharqad Tree said...

Behind bars for the rest of her life is better treatment than she deserves.

I thought I would feel anger after reading this post. Instead I feel cold and saddened.

There can be no compromise with people who shred the bodies of teenage girls with nail bombs. One can only negotiate when we speak the same language as our adversary, and clearly we do not.

Thank you for this testimony. Anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish terror is sanitised in the UK (when it's covered at all), so this witness to the terror and physical horror of the event redoubles our support for Israel's fight against those who coldly and calmly plan these obscenities.

Rob said...

May her memory be blessed, Frimet and Arnold, and those who died with her.

There's nothing else one can say.