The ten Pakistani men came ashore in Mumbai, India, near the Gateway to India monument carrying plastic explosives, grenades, and machine guns. It was Wednesday evening, the 29th of Cheshvan, 5769 (26th of November, 2008), and they were about to launched the most violent series of terrorist attacks India had ever seen. Splitting into small groups, they fanned out across the city, some leaving bombs in taxis on the way. At about 9:30 p.m., the rampage began as some of their number shot into the crowd and threw grenades at a popular restaurant. Others then opened fire at locations throughout the city, including two train stations, a hospital, and two luxury hotels – the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi – where they subsequently barricaded themselves with a large number of frightened hostages.
Among the terrorists' chosen targets was the local Chabad House, known as the "Nariman House." The Chabad House was run by Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Gavriel Noach (Gabi), 29, and Rivkah (Rivky) Holtzberg, 28. The young couple had moved to Mumbai in 2003 in order to offer hospitality and Jewish awareness to Jewish travelers and serve the small local Jewish community there. In the five-floor complex that included a synagogue, educational center, and hospitality suites, visitors found nothing less than a home-away-from-home. The center was especially popular with Israeli backpackers who visit India in thousands every year after finishing their national army service.
Two terrorists proceded to the Jewish target. It was about 9:45 on Wednesday night. Gabi called the Israeli consulate. "The situation is not good..." he is reported to have said. Then the line went dead.
Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg
Concern grew around the world. In the meantime it became known that there were also several other Jews in the Chabad House. Those who personally knew Gabi, Rivky, and the other hostages, as well as those who did not, began anxiously following the news, hoping and praying for a positive outcome.
Chabad leaders tried dialing the Holtzbergs' phones repeatedly but were not able to get through. Finally, sometime before 10 p.m. EST (which is eight and a half hours behind local Mumbai time), the Chabad Crisis Center, located at the offices of Chabad.org, got through to someone who picked up the phone and identified himself as an Urdu speaker. He was immediately connected to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a Chabad emissary in Washington, D.C.
Shemtov called P.V. Viswanath, a religious Jew and Indian who is a Professor of Finance in the Lubin School of Business at Pace University in New York. At around midnight, Shemtov succeeded in getting both Viswanath and the terrorist on a conference call.
It was difficult for the two to understand what the terrorist wanted. Imran spoke in a soft, low voice and his responses were uninformative. He did repeatedly assure the callers that everyone in the Chabad house was uninjured. "Put us in touch with the Indian government and we will let the hostages go," he said.
By the time Shemtov and Viswanath found an Indian police officer ready to join the call, the connection was lost. The final call took place at 5:30 on Thursday morning (EST), and they were not able to get in touch with him again, although they would continue trying for many more hours.
Sandra Samuel escaping from the Mumbai Chabad House with 2-year-old Moshe'le Holtzberg in her arms
By the time Thursday morning dawned in India, a rapid-response team from the Indian military had staked out the area around Nariman House. By then, television cameras were continuously streaming footage from outside the house. Miraculously, early Thursday morning, the Holtzbergs' two-year-old child, Moshe, was saved by his Indian nanny, Sandra Samuel. Sandra had been on the first floor when the terrorists stormed in. She barricaded herself in a storage closet together with another employee until Thursday morning, when there was a lull in the shootings. It was only then that she heard little Moshe crying. Instead of running out to save herself, she went upstairs for Moshe. According to the nanny, she found Moshe near his unconscious parents on the fourth floor (his bedroom was on the fifth floor, where Sandra had put him to sleep before the attack began), grabbed him, and ran out, as did the other employee. The boy was unharmed but wearing blood-stained pants.
As the day wore on, friends around the world continued to hold out for good news, hoping beyond hope. Synagogues held special emergency prayer services, and countless individuals recited Psalms. Little information was available. News reports conflicted wildly at times, with much of the news coming from blogs and Tweets from the streets of Mumbai. Based on the account of Sandra Samuel, the couple and at least two others were believed to be unconscious. In addition to the Holtzbergs, one American rabbi and one Israeli rabbi – both kosher supervisors who had traveled to Mumbai on business – were thought to be in the Chabad house, but the exact number of hostages and terrorists was unclear.
Officials in New York and Israel grew increasingly concerned with each passing hour. A team of Chabad representatives worked the phones around the clock, spending long, sleepless hours awaiting any morsel of information and contacting locals in Mumbai as well as anyone else, worldwide, who might have an impact on teh situation.
Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg and his wife Yehudit, Rivky's parents, departed Israel to India, along with members of the Zaka organization, a humanitarian organization that coordinates responses to tragic incidents in Israel.
Indian commandos fortify their positions on the top two floors of the Chabad House in Mumbai. (Photo: IBNlive.com)
Beginning early Friday morning in India, Indian commandos began a full-fledged assault on the Chabad House, with troops airlifted in by helicopter while snipers trained their sights through windows from locations surrounding the building. The crowds grew around Nariman House, jostling for a glimpse. And people around the world were glued to their televisions and computers, which streamed live video from outside the Chabad House. As of 3:30 in the afternoon, the military was reported to be in control of the upper two floors of the building and working their way downward. Numerous shots and apparent grenade explosions rang out throughout the day.
As Shabbat started in Mumbai, the terrorist were killed and the siege was over.
Rivky's parents spent Shabbat at the home of an Israeli consular official, where they also marked little Moshe's two-year birthday. Although they knew that the chances were slim that their daughter and son-in-law were still alive, they welcomed the coming of Shabbat with joy, with a meal for all those present.
Recovery crews now moved into the building. There they found the bodies of Gabi and Rivky, Rabbis Bentzion Chroman and Leibish Teitelbaum, Nora Schwartzblatt-Rabinowitz and Yocheved Orpaz. May G‑d avenge their murders.
Inside Nariman House after the seige ended.
The rooms were in disarray, the furniture overturned. There were bullet holes everywhere. Due to explosions during the long standoff between the terrorists and the commandos, portions of the building were completely destroyed, leaving gaping holes. The members of the recovery team found bullet holes in the Torah Ark. Upon opening the ark, they found the bullets had pierced a Torah scroll just below this verse: "G‑d spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they came close to G‑d and they died" (Leviticus 16:1).
The sad news arrived in the United States on Friday morning.
In total, 179 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in the Mumbai attacks. The vast majority of those killed were Indian citizens, but among them were many foreigners. One terrorist was taken alive.
On Monday morning, a special ceremony commemorating the men and women murdered in the Chabad House took place in the central synagogue in Mumbai. More than 100 members of the local community attended. Also in attendance was little Moshe. Heartrending video clips of him crying "Ima! Ima!" ("Mother! Mother!") were broadcast around the world.
An Israeli air force plane transported the bodies of those killed in the attack to Israel. Also on the plane were Rivky's parents and their now-orphaned grandson, and Sandra Samuel, the Indian nanny who saved him.
On Tuesday, the funeral for Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg was held in the village of Kfar Chabad. It was attended by President Shimon Peres, government ministers, Knesset members, Chabad emissaries from around the world, and official Indian representatives, as well as many thousands of teary-eyed mourners.
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of the educational arm of Chabad Lubavitch, spoke. "What can I say, Moishe'leh?" he cried. "You don't have a mother and a father to hold you in their arms. No parents to hug and kiss you. You will be the child of the entire nation of Israel..."
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Chabad-Lubavitch's educational and social service arms, stated that the work of Chabad must not only continue, but grow. "We will continue to reach every single Jew until no Jew is left behind," he pledged.
Partial view of the crowd assembled for the funeral in Kfar Chabad.
Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the worldwide umbrella of Chabad-Lubavitch, struggled to find some sense in the tragedy. "No one can know the ways of G‑d. But if 10 murderers can accomplish so much of their desire, how much more can be accomplished when all of us who were so concerned about the outcome [in Mumbai] act together in the positive?"
President Shimon Peres also spoke at the ceremony: "The entire world, and certainly the Jewish world, owes an answer to the question of one two-year-old child named Moishe'le. We must explain to him why his mother was murdered. Anyone who has a child must ask this question. Those who have no pity for children will not pity mothers or fathers."
He went on to say, "Moishe'le bears not only a question, but also solace. He will grow up and carry on with this great and important mission… an entire nation weeps today…the entire Jewish people is a one, big family whose pain knows no boundaries, but nor does its hope."
Click here to watch video footage of the funeral.
Following additional eulogies, the funeral procession departed for the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, where Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg were buried.
Jewish communities around the world united in mourning and sought to draw meaning from the horror. At hundreds of memorial services, Jews from all walks of life concluded that the best response to the darkness of terrorism is the shining light of a groundswell of good deeds.
Since the attack, little Moshe has been living in Israel with Rivky's parents and his loving nanny, Sandra. He still sometimes asks about his parents, and is told that they are in Heaven. Despite all that he has experienced, he is a thriving little boy.
Gabi and Rivky gave up the comforts of being near their own families, in familiar surroundings, in order to serve others. For five years, they humbly and happily offered their friendship to whoever chanced across their doorstep. And then they made the ultimate sacrifice.
Their selfless love lives on with all the people they touched. And their work will be certainly be continued.
May their memory be a blessing.