A few years ago (could it actually be more than a decade?), in 2002, I was in a terror attack at the Park Hotel. At that time, terror attacks were happening almost every day. Someone even calculated that there was one every hour or every day, 24,000 in all.
Before I was in an attack myself, I had been sitting back in horror watching them on television, or reading about them in the newspapers. But as bad as the scenes were, they were never as bad as they were in the flesh. I remember passing by the Sbarro Pizza Parlor on the corner of King George and Yaffo in downtown Jerusalem a day after it was blown up by terrorists. Its charred remains, so recently emptied of the dead and wounded, was like an open wound. It was visceral, horrifying.
But even seeing the remains of a terror attack with your own eyes is never even remotely similar to actually being in one. Until then, you are truly a virgin when it comes to fear.
The tragic and horrifying attack in a Har Nof synagogue has brought back to me, and I am sure to countless others also never included in the statistics of terror victims, just what it feels like to lose your virginity when it comes to terror.
I was nervous even before I walked into the Park Hotel on Seder night 2002. Another hotel in Netanya had been targeted just few weeks earlier. I really didn’t want to be there. But my in-laws were not well, my father-in-law, may his memory be blessed, over ninety. The only way we were going to spend Passover together was for our family to join them at their usual Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya.
As I sat nervously in the lobby, I decided to explore the subject of hotel security. “I called you earlier this week,” I told the person at the front desk. “You told me there would be three guards. Where are they?” She pointed to an unarmed man sitting quietly inside the lobby watching the front door from a safe distance. At just that moment, I felt a chill of fear. Inexplicably, I was suddenly filled with fear that I had left the kettle on the fire back home. I closed my eyes and envisioned the stovetop billowing smoke to the ceiling, the walls of my kitchen, the cabinets, blackened, my home destroyed.
“I think I forgot to turn off the stove,” I whispered to my husband, who cocked his head and looked at me oddly. “We checked the kitchen. Nothing was on. Don’t worry.”
Still, I became convinced that I had left it on, and that soon my home would be destroyed. I was so worried I even considered making a phone call to a neighbor, even though such a thing was absolutely forbidden according to religious law, except in a matter of life or death. Why had that even occurred to me, I wondered.
I tried not to think about it as I sat in the lobby which was filling up with children and grandchildren joining their elderly parents and grandparents. Maybe it would be all right, I thought. Or maybe I should get up on a chair and scream: “Get out of the lobby. This hotel has no security. You are all in danger for your lives!” I actually considered that for about a quarter of a second, until reason took over and I imagined my family’s utter humiliation at my behaving like a madman.
After all, what are the chances that when you go to a Passover seder at an obscure little hotel mostly used by elderly Holocaust survivors, or you go to say your morning prayers at the little synagogue around the corner from your house, that anything bad will happen to you? That dafka you, and those around you, of all the people in the country, and the world, will find yourself in the middle of a movie scene of bloody, senseless carnage directed by Tarantino or Scorsese?
I kept trying to reason with myself, without much success until an elegant woman in the lobby, a stranger, turned to me with a worried look. Could it be that I was not being irrational, that there was someone else who shared my misgivings? Was she also terrified, I wondered?
But she only said: “My daughter is so late.”
I exhaled. “Don’t worry,” I remember comforting her. “The traffic is just terrible. I’m sure she’ll be here soon.”
I think of that woman often these days, wondering what happened to her and her children. Because soon after that brief conversation, I hurriedly got up, insisting to my family that we go upstairs where our table was waiting for us, one of only two or three private seders to take place outside the main dining room that night. My in-laws wanted to use the restrooms and so my husband suggested that we wait for them. But I was adamant, even rude: “They can meet us upstairs,” I told him. And with that, I ushered husband, my two sons and my young daughter-in-law up the steps as fast as I could. To this day, I don’t know why.
We had no more than three minutes of light banter when the world exploded in our faces. Tall, glass windows shattered, sending sharp slivers flying at us like something out of a cartoon. “Get down!” my husband ordered, and we all went down on our knees on the glass-strewn floor. For a moment, under the table, as I looked at my family, all unharmed, a wave of relief went through me, until someone said: “I think I hear shooting.”
My blood froze in horror. What if the attack wasn’t over? What if we were just at the beginning?
While in the past, I always took it for granted that anyone in an attack would help all those around them, in that moment I have to admit, I did not give a single thought to anyone outside my own family and myself. Forever afterwards, I have looked at people who stop to help others in a terror attack as unbelievably brave and heroic. For if you have never experienced such a situation first hand, you can’t begin to imagine how powerful and overwhelming the instinct for self-preservation is at such a moment, and how impossible to overcome. You have tunnel vision. All you want is to walk out of there with your loved ones, alive. As my husband bravely went down to the lobby to search for his parents while the threat of a second terrorist still hung in the air, I and my children were sent to a backstairs exit by the children of the hotel’s owner, who were waiting for him at the second private Seder. They never saw him alive again.
As I passed through the lobby, I told my children not to look, and I tried not to look myself, terrified at what I might see. By then, paramedics and ambulances were already there helping the wounded. Soon, our family gathered, physically unharmed but psychologically devastated, outside the hotel.
Every time a terror attack happens, I think about that night, and about the people involved, about how even the luckiest of them, the ones to escape with not a scratch, will never ever be the same again.
Soon after, I sat down to write down my thoughts: “To live with terror is to wake up each morning and to feel that nothing belongs to you – your mate, your children, your life, the streets you walk through, the coffee shop you sit in with friends, the building which houses your office, your computer, your new stockings. Everything can be taken from you in the blink of an eye – destroyed, ravaged, turned into a rubble of torn metal, flesh, fabric. And that it will happen without a trial, lawyers, jury, the right to appeal: you, yours, all you ever thought was yours by birth, by right, by law, by simple human decency will be stolen from you by someone you never met, who doesn’t even know your name, who will become your self-appointed judge, jury, executioner.”
May God help to heal all the obvious victims of terror attacks and their families. But may He also help to heal the “lucky ones”, those often overlooked, who enter no statistics, who will live the rest of their lives in terror’s long shadow, struggling silently with memories no human being should have to face.
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 28 November 2014.