Remembering and Rebuilding: Sandra, the Righteous Gentile

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When I heard the news that Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai massacre, was recently released from a Pakistani prison on bail, I stared at the TV in disbelief.He had been accused of personally planning and directing the three-day rampage at India’s commercial capital that killed hundreds of people. Yet the Lahore High Court had dismissed the detention orders issued by the Punjab government, claiming insufficient evidence for a conviction. Lakhvi’s meticulously executed plan had destroyed the lives of many deliberately targeted Westerners and Jews. Bullets were sprayed at local bystanders, including commuters at the crowded train station, and anyone who just happened to be in the path of Lakhvi’s well-trained gunmen.
His release made no sense. Confessions of two of the terrorists — recently executed, Ajmal Kasab and American jihadist, David Headley –confirmed that the accused had personally directed the gunmen by satellite phone from a safe house in Karachi. What was the judge thinking?
Lakhvi’s release drew an angry reaction from India and sharp criticism from the international community. Was Pakistan giving up on the war on terror? Were the rumours that the Pakistani military had been in league with Lakhvi, military chief of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), really true? After all, Lakhvi had rather a comfortable five-year stay in jail. He’d fathered a child and enjoyed the pleasures of a TV and dozens of visitors every day. Worryingly, he’d also been armed with a cell phone and internet connection. Who knew what Lakhvi would do next? Should India expect another attack?
Political spats and military skirmishes have been commonplace between India and Pakistan since the end of British rule in 1947. Armed forces from both sides continue to clash in an attempt to defend Kashmir’s sovereignty near India’s northern border. But the ferocious attack on civilians at the heart of India’s modern acropolis had been different.
Outside the prison walls, Lakhvi raised his right fist in triumph and seemed to smile smugly for the cameras and cheering crowd. His mocking amber eyes enraged me. All I could see in my mind were the dull green eyes of two-year-old Moshe Holtzberg, who was the sole member of his family to survive the massacre in Mumbai. All I could hear was Moshe screaming, “Ima, Ima,” for his mother during his parents’ memorial ceremony. During the massacre, Moshe’s parents, Rabbi Gabi and his wife, Rivkah, had been butchered by the terrorists in the sanctity of their home, Habad House – a Jewish learning sanctuary and community center in downtown Mumbai. Rivkah was five months pregnant.
During my time in Mumbai, I’d made friends with some of the local Jewish and Israeli Consular community and become acquainted with the young rabbinical couple who were renowned for their warmth and hospitality. We celebrated Israel’s Independence Day at their home. The very building that would be meticulously targeted by the terrorist group. In their moonlit courtyard, little Moshe had clapped his hands and joined in our singing.
That fateful night, I was living and working in corporate India when a boatload of eleven jihadists from Pakistan, armed with explosives and AK-47’s, stole into Mumbai. They fanned out, intent on a murderous assault on India’s financial center. Corpses, debris and burnt out cars littered streets stained with blood. From my apartment, I watched flames leaping from the legendary Taj Mahal Hotel. It was hard to believe that I’d dined there on the elegant marble patio only a few hours earlier.
Some of the tragic images of that three-day siege have blurred. But I will always remember the moment that Moshe’s ashen face flashed on TV screens around the world. His courageous Indian nanny, Sandra Samuel, had picked him up from near his parents’ bloodied bodies and miraculously escaped through smoke and gunshots from the beleaguered Jewish House, whispering Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd…..”
Hours after Moshe’s rescue from the besieged building, the Israeli Consul asked me to meet with Moshe and Sandra, the only survivors of the attack on Habad House, where six people died. She hoped that my training as a trauma counselor during the Yom Kippur war might help Moshe and Sandra with their move to Israel to live with his grandparents.
Moshe, his diaper heavy, cringed in the corner of the Consul’s assistant’s study. Matted golden curls were glued around his ashen face. His lifeless green eyes stared blankly ahead. Sunk in a catatonic-like stupor, he would not respond to Sandra’s attempts to feed him or clean him.
“I’m not knowing myself how we got out, ” Sandra sobbed squatting next to him. She wiped her face against her blood-spattered, olive shirt. “I just did it without thinking. Thanks to God, I got the boy. But just look at him. He is soooo scared from what he saw. Many bad thoughts also wander through my mind all the time.”
What a stark contrast to the cherubic Moshe who only a few weeks before had run around giggling in the family’s living room and then flopped contently in his mother’s lap. In his baby’s mind and body, he’d seen and heard more horror than most of us endure in a lifetime.
When the chaos cleared somewhat, it was revealed that the death toll had reached 166. A few survivors, including Moshe and Karambir Singh Kang, the General Manager of the Taj Mahal Hotel, were actually named in the news media. Other victims became nothing more than numbers. To add to the despair there was little mention of the people who had been devastated at a profound emotional level. Friends, neighbors, and relatives had been lost, inflicting inexplicable pain to all those around them – a husband who lost his hand and then his job as a carpenter, a young girl who lost her sight and was unable to go to school. Sadly, in a country where government aid is minimal, they faded into the black smoke that enshrouded the city after the attack.
For weeks after the carnage I could only think about the many families I’d known whose lives had been destroyed. Like my neighbor Vijay, who’d been dining at Leopold’s restaurant when bullets shattered beer bottles, and human limbs were scattered on the floor amongst tandoori chicken. He’d survived, but his new bride, Sunita, did not. Vijay continued to be haunted by visions of his beloved’s aquamarine sari stained with curry sauce and blood. Their lives, like the Holtzbergs’, were changed forever. Emotionally, physically and financially. How many more “Moshes” were there?
Many people were affected by the Mumbai massacre even if they had not lost a loved one. At work an unreal sense of normalcy prevailed. We carried on designing strategy plans and recruiting new staff. But during coffee and lunch breaks we could talk about nothing else. I felt fragile, violated, and bewildered. The nights were interminable. I tossed and turned on damp sheets struggling to sleep. I’d moved to India to work on an organized retail project to help me heal after the loss death of my husband. Like most of the victims, I lacked the personal experience or understanding of how to begin to rebuild my life. But just when my back felt straighter, and my voice stronger, the pain around me seemed to ignite my own despair again. Just scratch the surface and there it was. A country filled with color, enthusiastic colleagues, and exciting business plans had become grey and lifeless. After the massacre all I wanted to do was to be near my family and play with my own grandchildren before they grew up. It was time for me move on again.
These seven years later, here in Seattle, the controversy surrounding Lakhvi’s release was barely mentioned. The Mumbai massacre had been buried under the Boston Marathon and ISIS beheadings. I empathized with the Holzbergs and all the other families who’d lost and suffered so much in the aftermath of the attack. It didn’t seem fair. While Lakhvi enjoys his freedom, we the witnesses will never be free from the memories and torment. Flashbacks of those horrific events return to us, uninvited.
And yet each of the people I knew who had suffered severe trauma during that dark time in Mumbai found a different way to move forward. Vijay found solace in his Hindu religious beliefs – the cycle of death and rebirth – and soon gained strength in the knowledge that Sunita’s soul was born into a new body. He remarried and is now the father of a baby boy.
The Rabbi, who helped the Hevra Kadisha collect the Holtzbergs’ remains, had witnessed the brutality first hand. It took months before he stopped worrying that his black coat and hat so symbolic of the Habad community would be a “dead” give away. He found that talking to me, a voluntary counsellor, helped him recover from his panic attacks
Although I have not stayed in touch with Moshe’s supportive grandparents, images of a playful child feature now on the Internet, describing him as a ‘typical, rambunctious kid.’ Years of support by the social services, therapists and pediatricians in Israel, no doubt played a role to keep him emotionally healthy.
Moshe’s nanny, Sandra, emigrated to Israel in 2008 to be at Moshe’s side. She was honored as a righteous gentile by the Israeli government for saving a Jewish life. Humble Sandra remains an inspiration to me and to many. She does not see herself as courageous and wishes she could have done more to save Moshe’s parents. She now works in a center for children with special needs and visits Moshe on weekends.
“We will always be close,” she tells the CNN cameras, who describe the rescue as a story of hope and survival.

Mumbai and its aftermath has taught a hard lesson. Whether the perpetrators are brought to justice or not, we cannot afford to remain trapped in an abyss of despair and hatred. There may not be enough evidence to keep Lakhvi in prison — so how can we free ourselves from the trauma of terrorism? Physical rehabilitation and emotional rebuilding is challenging. All the Moshes and Sandras out there can teach us.

Susan is an executive coach and writer. She recently spent four years working in India.