Shabbat at Chabad House in Mumbai

November 24, 2016 22:49

ZAKA, the Hebrew acroym for Disaster Victim Identification, is Israel's main non-governmental lifesaving, rescue and recovery organization. I recently produced a film for British Friends of ZAKA, which includes footage of the organization at work following the tsunami, and the terror attacks in Istanbul and Taba. I didn’t imagine that within days of completing the film, there would be another grim mission for ZAKA abroad.

Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka were innocent, upright people who devoted their lives to helping others. They must have been so looking forward to celebrating their son’s second birthday this Shabbat. Instead, this Shabbat at Chabad House in Mumbai was one that ZAKA volunteers will never forget.

I have just received this report from ZAKA, which includes a harrowing eyewitness account, relayed by telephone, from one of the eight-man team of volunteers:

"We could see grenades exploding around us from our relatively secure position opposite the Chabad House," volunteer Shuki Brief recounted. "We could hear constant gunfire and helicopters hovered overhead. The battle lasted for several hours. The gunfire subsided and we could see the commandos working their way through the building. After a short time, they came out and gave us the 'V' sign".

It was at this point that the ZAKA team entered the building. "I will never forget that sight," said Brief. “Rabbi Holtzberg, Rabbi Bentzion Chroman and Rabbi Leibish Teitlebaum were lying on the floor of the library, with holy books, covered in blood, in their hands. The whole place looked like a slaughter house."

The volunteers covered the bodies with tallitot, including those of Israeli Yocheved Orpaz and a Mexican Jewess (as yet unnamed). The body of the Rabbi's wife was already covered with a tallit, suggesting that her husband had managed to do so before he too was murdered.

With the onset of Shabbat, the volunteers were unable to continue their work but stayed in the house, alert and awake, throughout the entire Shabbat, in order to prevent the Indian police from removing the bodies for autopsy. The team worked in accordance with the halachic rulings of the ZAKA Rabbi Yaacov Roget.

"We remained with the bodies, saying Tehilim (Psalms)," added Brief. "We had no food, no drink, and we hadn't slept in two days." It was only after Shabbat that the volunteers were able to eat, when kosher food was brought to them from the nearest Chabad House.

After complicated negotiations with the Indian authorities by the Israel Foreign Office and ZAKA volunteers, permission was granted to release the bodies to a private mortuary, where the ZAKA team will prepare them for the flight back to Israel and a Jewish burial.

However, the volunteers’ work at the Chabad House is not yet over. "We took the bodies out under fire, but now we must wait until the police clear the area of grenades and explosives so that we can go in and clean up the blood," explained Brief, estimating that this will take place on Monday. "We cannot leave Jewish blood in the house in India."

November 24, 2016 22:49

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