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Passover Massacre

I actually didn’t want to go to Netanya for the Passover Seder. Even my father and mother-in–law, who live in Netanya, and who invited us to join them at the Park Hotel, where they always stay Passover week, were hesitant following the terrorist slaughter of women and children in another Netanya hotel only two weeks before. There was a high security alert throughout the country, and Netanya’s hotel row was an easy and predictable target, being only several miles away from Arafat-run Kalkilyah.

But Passover is a difficult holiday to prepare for. All the dishes and cutlery in the house need to be changed. All the counters and appliances specially cleansed and covered. It was too much for my 89 year-old father-in-law and my 79 year- old mother-in-law. If they wanted to eat Passover week, they had no choice but to spend the week in a hotel nearby.

Too ill to travel all the way to Jerusalem to spend the holiday with us, they and all their retired friends had been going to the Park Hotel — a homey, moderately-priced spot near the sea favored by religious, elderly immigrants, for years.

My husband, myself and our kids always joked about the bad food and elderly clientele, and studiously avoided invitations to dine there. But this year, somehow, my mother-in-law’s health had been declining steadily from Parkinson’s Disease and my father-in-law looked so frail. Netanya had been the target of so many attacks, isolating them all the more. We felt they needed us. In the back of our minds, too, we wondered how many more chances we would have to spent Seder night with them.

Still, we hesitated.

It was my eldest son who decided the issue. Asher, a doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, ignored our advice to stay in Brookline for Passover week, he and his wife insisting on coming to their troubled and ravaged homeland. Passover is a time for families to be together, he reminded me. Unlike the American-born Jews he encountered in his respectable Brookline Orthodox synagogue, Israel was his birthplace, the home of his wife’s extended family who had founded the country and lived there for generations.

It was in their blood “like a virus,” he often laughed. He was never going to be the type of Jew that sat in America and tut-tutted over Israel’s plight then turned the channel. He called his grandparents, he called us. “What? We’re not having the Seder together?!”

In the end, parents and grandparents decided to overcome the fears of eighteen months of unprecedented and savage terrorist attacks on civilians in Israel, and spend the traditional family gathering time gathered together.

I called the Park Hotel and asked them what kind of security they were going to have. “Just a moment, I’ll check,” the front desk clerk said. “She wants to know about security. How many security people are we having? Two? Three?” I heard her ask someone, and then a male voice in the background say: “Four. Is four enough for her?” There was no mistaking the sarcasm. “Three,” the desk clerk assured me. “Three armed security guards.”

I was less than convinced. But it was a family decision and I was committed to it.

We decided to compromise by sleeping and eating at the more upscale Seasons Hotel nearby, and to walk over to the Park to join my in-laws for Seder night. As I lit candles and ushered in the holiday, I asked God to watch over my family and keep us all far from harm. Then, dressed in my holiday finery, I walked with my husband, and my sixteen year old son Akiva the few short blocks to the Park Hotel. Asher and his wife, chronically late, would join us later.

It was beginning to drizzle as we hurried through the glass door of the Park Hotel. A few minutes later, drying out in the lobby, it occurred to me that no one had checked me as I entered. In fact, I hadn’t seen one security guard, let alone three.

As my son and husband joined my father-in-law at the hotel synagogue for evening prayers, I left my mother-in-law’s side and went to the desk clerk to enquire where the security people were. She pointed to a laid-back fellow in a white sweater seated in the lobby facing the front doors. Why was he inside, instead of outside? I wondered, alarmed.

“Is he armed?” I asked, looking him over skeptically. She assured me emphatically he was.

Perhaps he’s got a gun in his pocket, I thought as I rejoined my mother-in-law in the lobby. By then Asher and his wife Anat had joined us, soaking wet from the short walk from our hotel. We sat and made small talk.

My mother-in-law, Shirley, was delighted to be together with the family as getting around is so difficult for her these days. She is a woman who has survived many adversities in life. As a teenager in Czechoslovakia, she and two sisters, brother, parents and grandparents were deported to Auschwitz. Her brother was murdered before her eyes; her parents and grandparents waved by Mengele to the left, she and her sisters to the right. Starved, beaten, typhus-ridden, emaciated, she and her sisters survived death camps, slave labor, death marches.

My father-in-law, Manny, whose first wife, baby son and daughter, were also gassed in Auschwitz and burnt in the crematoriums there, met her after the war in one of those Czech towns that were so generous to survivors. They married, and my husband Alex was born in 1946, his sister a year later.

Picked up by the Soviets off the streets for forced labor in 1949, my father-in-law decided to leave the keys of his flourishing postwar suit factory in the hands of one of the workers and take advantage of the sponsorship of his much older sister who was living in New York. He arrived, a penniless refugee for the second time in his life, to a strange country, new language, and the kindness of family and strangers. His third relocation came two decades later when he decided to join his son in Israel.

He picked Netanya, because he loved the sea. Often, he and my mother in law said the years in Israel were the happiest years of their lives. After all they had been through, to live in a Jewish country was their dream and their pride. It was a place that when a Jew had to go there, the country had to take them in.

A women paced the lobby nervously. I smiled at her. “My daughter and grandchildren are so late,” she said, shaking her head. “They won’t make the seder.” I nodded sympathetically and asked her where they were coming from. “Tel Aviv,” she said. She had a French accent. “We live here all year round. We’ve moved here,” she added, I don’t know why. I tried to comfort her, telling her how awful the traffic was; how my own daughter and grandchildren had been on their way earlier that day for a visit and had turned back because of it. “I’m sure they’ll be here soon, try not to worry,” I comforted her. “My husband is very worried. Thank you, I’ll tell him what you said,” she smiled. I smiled back, grandmother to grandmother.

Sitting in the lobby of the Park Hotel with my young daughter in-law and aging mother in -law, I watched as the lobby slowly filled with hundreds of people. I kept my eyes on the security guard. To my shock and dismay, I saw him leave his place by the door and walk back into the hotel dining room, leaving the door completely unmanned. I considered walking up to him, complaining loudly, but just then my husband, sons, and father-in-law came out of synagogue. We kissed, exchanged holiday greetings, and I tried to quell my fears.

After all, what were the chances that a suicide bomber would find his way davka to this hotel, of all the hotels in Israel? I tried to think back to the years when a hotel lobby filled with excited voices was a pleasant and cheering experience, something boding conviviality and holiday cheer. I tried not to see the gathering crowd with the eyes of an enemy bent on an opportunity for maximum human slaughter, which is what we Israelis have been doing naturally for the last eighteen months every time we leave our homes.

My husband and I sat together with our loved ones, enjoying each other’s company. It was seven p.m. The dining room was scheduled to begin seating people at seven-thirty.

For no reason, I was suddenly filled with a sudden sense of horror. I envisioned my kitchen, and imagined the smoke rising, blackening the walls, billowing through the house.

“What’s wrong?” my husband asked, watching my face change.

“I think I might have left the fire burning under the kitchen kettle, ” I told him.

“Are you sure?”

“No. I don’t know.”

He looked concerned for a moment, then looked over my shoulder. “People are going into the dining room already.” I stood up. “Let’s go,” I said. It was seven fifteen.

My father in law waved an envelope in front of us. “I know how Alex hates cantors, so I arranged a private seder for us upstairs.” He and my mother-in-law were going to stop in the bathroom first, and they’d join us in a few minutes.

The dining room upstairs was a far cry from the joyful, packed, and noisy crowd in the lobby we’d just left. Only two or three tables were set, and less than a handful of people were seated. We found a table set for seven and sat down. It was seven twenty.

I looked around at the table to see if it had all the things we needed to begin the ceremony when my in-laws arrived.

And then I heard it: A sound, like a roar, rolling through the room, making the floor rumble. I looked up from the table, thinking: “What…?” Then suddenly, there was a deafening crash of sound like no other I had ever heard in my life, a sound that was like an emphatic statement in a language all its own, whose meaning was impossible to mistake for any other, impossible to misunderstand. The wall of windows facing us suddenly blew inwards, crashing, sending slivers of glass flying past our cheeks and legs, littering the floor. I heard my daughter in-law screaming. Screams rose from downstairs. It gave me the idea that I too should scream. And I did, the way I had once screamed in the labor room, giving birth.

“I can’t believe this is happening to me!” my daughter in-law repeated hysterically, held close in my son’s arms.” “Get down!” my husband shouted. As we did, I saw Akiva picking glass from his hand, and I wondered if he’d scratched himself. Someone from another table shouted: “I hear firing!”

We froze. This had been a terrorist modus operandi in previous attacks. First the bombing, and then machine gun fire to finish off anyone who survived. For one moment, my heart, which had previously been filled with the knowledge that I, my family, had survived, felt its first moment of real fear.

“Wait here,” my husband told us. “I’m going to find my parents.”

It was only then I thought of them, downstairs. I knew that they must both be dead. And I thought: I have to get out of here with my children, alive. We took an impromptu vote, those in favor of waiting for my husband to return versus those who wanted to flee. The women, flee-ers all, won.

I went towards the staircase we’d come up from, looking down. Acrid, black smoke and twisted metal filled the space for as far as I could see. I hurried back to my family gathered at the other end of the room. The two young boys who had been seated near us shouted that there was another staircase, and pointed out to the adjoining patio. Just then, two waitresses suddenly walked in from the staircase we’d originally used. One was drenched in red blood, her long dark hair and pretty face staring at her upraised bloody hands.

“Let’s go!” I told my children, heading down the emergency exit. It emerged into the hotel’s outdoor pool area. A high fence kept us from leaving. We, and others, milled around desperate for a way out. Suddenly, we caught a glimpse of the blown out glass doors of the main dining room. For a moment, I just stared.

I remembered how it had looked when I’d first arrived: the red chairs surrounding tables set with white tablecloths. The literal translation of Seder means “order.” The carefully placed ritual foods: wine, matzo, the ceremonial seder plate, the wine glasses, and plates for the eventual gala dinner. Every object had meaning, each one commemorating the birth of the Jewish people into nationhood: the unleavened bread which had not had time to rise as the Hebrews were chased out of Egypt by their plague-weary slavemasters. The green parsley dipped in the salt water, a bowl of tears, to remind us of the diet of slaves; the bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery, the roasted bone and egg, to commemorate the ritual Paschal lamb eaten by each family, whose blood on the doorposts signaled to the Angel of Death to pass over the homes of the Godfearing.

What I saw now was incomprehensible: the carefully proscribed ritual, reminders of freedom and joy and deliverance — the Seder – transformed into an ugly chaos of destruction.

There was no way out at the pool level, we discovered. Wandering with my family through the desert of destruction, I was no Moses. I could not give direction or help to anyone. We took the staircase down one more flight and found ourselves in a labyrinth of rooms labeled: “DO NOT ENTER!” rooms full of pool equipment and ugly machines. Water poured from the ceiling, and I thought of electrical wires, and having come so far only to die here of another danger altogether. I was the adult, the mother, and I didn’t know where I was going, or what to do.

My eldest son, a former army instructor, took over. “Come back!” I yelled to him as he forged down the darkened, twisting corridors. He didn’t listen, but soon he called us to follow him, and moments later we emerged into the lobby. I didn’t look around. I didn’t want to see.

In fact, only days later did it even occur to me that I should have tried to be helpful to the hundreds of wounded and dying, most of whom were in the dining room further back. I will never, ever, again take for granted the person who assists, stops the bleeding, carries the wounded, calls the police – things all of us assume to be natural reflexes in such an emergency. In fact, to think about others in a terrorist attack is the most unnatural thing in the world. Those who are able to do so are truly heroes with a strength of character and courage that I find inconceivable.

I looked straight ahead, outside. And there, to my shock, I saw my mother-in-law standing in her white sweater, which was unsullied in any way.

I stared at that white sweater. How was it possible? I thought. A woman who can barely stand, to have survived untouched such a blast?

I looked down at the floor of the lobby I needed to get through to reach her, and safety. Water, ankle -deep and dyed red with blood, covered the floor. I realized I had no choice but to step through it if I wanted to get out. As desperate as I was, I hesitated, steeling myself to take the plunge. The cold liquid defiled my feet like a curse. Even now, thinking about it, I cringe. Whose blood, I wonder, was it?

Outside the hotel, I joined my in-laws and my husband. “Where is Akiva?” my father in -law implored, counting us. “He’s here,” I assured him , staring at them both, unbowed and distinguished in their miraculously unstained holiday clothes. Intact as when I had left them at the bottom of the stairs a lifetime ago.

Thank God, thank God. I thought. Alive, unharmed , both of them ; people who had survived the worst maniacs of the century, Hitler, Stalin, and now Arafat. People who had lost their families and rebuilt; had been refugees and resettled. And yet, despite all the evil that they had witnessed, had remained the kindest, most generous and gentle of human beings; people without hatred, who loved life and other human beings.

And I thought: Nothing had changed since Hitler. For all the Holocaust Museums, and lectures, and lip-service, people were still trying to kill them and theirs simply because they were Jews. Only by an act of God, had they failed, the way Hitler failed before them.

I thought of the reporters who had spent the past eighteen months filling the airwaves and print columns with learned and sympathetic analyses of the Palestinian cause and its unfortunate, but understandable by- product—according to CNN and BBC and NPR and many, many others– Moslem suicide bombers. Mike Hanna of CNN, Sam Kiley of the Times of London, and Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian, who actually got an award for her sympathetic, tear- stained articles on suicide-bomber museums set up in Arafat-land to honor “shahids,” and for her understanding, compassionate interviews with their mothers and uncles and cousins….

All of these people, and so many, many others in the media and in Foreign Ministries all over the world had conspired to make sure Abed Al-Basat Odeh of Tul Karem, a Hamas terrorist on the most wanted list given to Yasir Arafat’s so-called security forces more than a year ago, would have nothing to fear. With their help, neither he, nor the Palestinian cause he espoused, would suffer should he succeed in killing me and my family as we gathered around the Seder table to observe the most sacred of Jewish family rituals, a ritual that reminds us where we Jews came from, the land that God promised us, and the freedom that is the right of Jews, and all decent members of the human race, from oppression, fear, and enslavement to evil ideas, and evil leaders.

Nurtured with hatred for a past that largely never existed, a land that was more myth than reality, a history doctored to instill in him the idea that he — and only he — and his people had suffered, had been refugees, had lost land and family; and that the only solution was bottomless hatred, death, self-destruction and murder, his prize would be a victory over a foe conjured from the worst excesses of primitive race hatred. It was a foe that didn’t exist.

There was nothing one could have done, no compromise one could have offered, to have talked him out of his plans to kill two elderly Holocaust survivors, their only son and his family.

The sound which I will never forget of Abed El-Bassat Odeh detonating ten kilo of explosives around his waist in a room full of grandparents and their children and grandchildren can never be answered in words. It is a language all its own.

We have been negotiating in Israel for the last eight years. We have been answered in another language. If we want to survive, the Jewish people in the land of Israel needs to speak the same language being spoken to us. This, I’m afraid, is my opinion, as unpopular and unpleasing as it may be to the ears of Western lovers of the concept, if not the practice, of peace.

Shell-shocked, we wandered into the lobby of the Seasons hotel. Only around the corner, yet in parallel universe, families were gathered around beautifully set tables with ritual objects, singing traditional songs of the Passover Haggada. My daughter-in-law’s eyes darted around the room, looking at all the entrances and exits. My son embraced her. Akiva went back to our room and I joined him, wanting most of all to take off my soaking wet shoes and stockings. I sat in the bathtub, scrubbing my feet.

For the first time, I saw the bloody napkin Akiva had been holding against the cut on his hand. Without a scratch, I’d kept thinking. All of us. And now I realized, it wasn’t true. We too had been harmed.

I learned from police when I gave evidence the next day, that there had been two hundred people in the hotel lobby waiting for their Seder. Out of that number, 159 had been injured and twenty two had been killed (another six were to die within the days to come). Among the dead was the woman I’d comforted in the lobby; and my father in law’s good friend, the one he would have been sitting next to if we, his family, hadn’t joined him for the Seder this Passover.

I thought of the bomb that had turned the downstairs of the Park Hotel into rubble as I cleansed the tiny scratch in my son’s soft young flesh. And then I put my arms around him, his angular teenage body, and hugged him, allowing myself to think for the first time what could have been. And when my husband came in a moment later and my son retreated, embarrassed, to his own room, we held each other. Our two sons, I told my husband, repeating it like a mantra. Our two sons. Finally, I allowed myself, for the first time, to cry.

We rejoined our family in the lobby. It was suddenly very clear to me what I had to do. I went to the front desk and told them that we needed a Seder table set for seven.

Eventually, we gathered around it, pouring the wine, making the blessing over matzo, eating the bitter herbs and saltwater-dipped parsley. If we were still alive, if we had escaped death, injury; if God himself had granted us deliverance from the horror and shielded us beneath His wings, what better way to give thanks than with the ancient words of the Passover Haggada? It was, after all, what we Jews do. Survive. Generation after generation.

“For not one time alone have they risen up against our fathers and ourselves to destroy us, but in every generation have they risen up against us to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivers us from their hand.”

(From the Passover Haggada)

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