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Living in Terror’s Long Shadow

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.

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7 comments on “Living in Terror’s Long Shadow”

  1. Ellen Calderon

    I understand that fear as I only had it once when I was back living in New York working in Manhattan on 9/11 and being trapped on an island with nowhere to go to escape until late in the day when the Long Island Railroad re-opened and I was able to find my way home. The smell of death lingered over that island for weeks. May G-d protect us from all those animals who want to kill those who do not believe as they do.

  2. Naomi R.

    Living in the US I cannot even begin to imagine the fear, the horror and the impotence of not being able to go backward in time. May Hashem continue to provide you and all Jews with the strength to endure.

  3. Lawrence Wald

    I share your feelings. I have been to Israel once in my lifetime. I spent but one afternoon at the Ben Gurion Airport after my arrival on an El AL airplane in early June of 1976. Initially, I felt the ecstasy and delight at being in the Jewish homeland. Within one hour of my arrival, ecstasy turned to terror and horror as I watched and felt a jarring explosion that occurred when a German(or Dutch) man opened up his briefcase with a bomb in it and detonated it after he had been singled out for interrogation by a young Israeli female security guard. She was killed along with the bomber. This occurred 38 years ago. I had lacerations from flying glass, but I survived. I ran out of the terminal, and I was taken by Israeli security agents to a field for interrogation. I waited 3 long hours in the summer heat to be interrogated. After it was determined I was only an American tourist, I was finally allowed to go to my hotel in Tel Aviv and begin to experience the sights and sounds of Israel.

    Needless to say, I was in a type of shock during my entire stay in Israel. Whenever I would hear a loud noise, I would fall to the ground in fear. However, I was determined to experience the wonders of Israel in spite of my initial experience.

    I was(am) one of the “lucky ones”. However, I think about that afternoon regularly, especially when I hear of a terror attack. It is a strange type of suffering. I feel lucky that I survived. I feel sad that a young Israeli woman died that afternoon. I feel sad when any Israeli or other innocent human being dies or is injured during a terror attack. Like you, I will never be the same…..

  4. Sally Weiner

    I recall the horror I felt reading your original account of the Passover Massacre. I have saved that article all this time and have revisited it occasionally to “experience” ( impossible, I know ) the harrowing minutes of that terror attack.
    You have once again conveyed the pervasive fear and anxiety that can only be felt by living with existential fragility. Loved ones can be lost in a flash in accidents of many kinds, but terrorism’s reach creates victims in the living, as well.

    Thank you for your thoughts and insights.

  5. Warren T. Young

    I am always sorrowful, resentful and terribly disappointed in the absence of humanity constantly being adhered to and energized by the Islamic terrorists against Jews and Christians. How they can see themselves as having any allegiance to God bogles the mind of any honest and just person in the family of humanity. These people continually lie and scheme against all that is good. How can anybody think that peace with them is ever going to be possible with their kind of impaired mentality. HURT is what they stand for – NEVER justice, co-operation or love of their fellow man. What kind of a God do they serve who would condone dishonesty,cruelty, and the sadistic treatment of anyone who differs from their evil persuasions? Pray to the only true God that He might soften their hearts and give them the wisdom to WAKE UP from their participation in such an evil nightmare.

  6. Marjorie Carlson

    In the furthest corner of my imagination, I can not even wrap my head around such an experience as this. I do not know how I would act or react. I believe, as you said, that instinct makes us look out for ourselves and our family.
    I also cannot fathom a human being (made in God’s image) even taking the lives of others without a thought.
    Thank you for reminding us that what we have is really not ours and we can lose it all in a split second.

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