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How Mumbai attack on Jews unfolded

The pair who ran a Chabad center are buried in Israel. As details of the assault that killed them and four others emerge, questions still swirl.

December 03, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Boudreaux is a Times staff writer.

JERUSALEM — A somber Israel buried Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives on Tuesday, his body wrapped in a prayer shawl, hers in a shroud.

They left behind 2-year-old son Moshe, who had been with them in Mumbai, India, and many mysteries about the circumstances of their violent deaths.

The Holtzbergs were among six Jews killed last week during a terrorist attack on the obscure outreach center the pair were running in the back streets of the metropolis in western India, part of the calculated carnage that left more than 170 people dead across the nation's financial capital.

Details of the attack that killed the Holtzbergs and the four others, who also were buried Tuesday in Israel, have begun to emerge. The still murky account was provided by the only two adult survivors of the assault on the Chabad-Lubavitch center and by Indians living nearby.

The sketchy information has only raised troubling questions. Why, for example, did Indian police take hours to respond to the first explosions and gunfire at the center? Were any of the Jewish hostages killed by Indian commandos during the final assault to free them, or were they already dead?

There are reports of a terrorist answering overseas phone calls from friends of the Holtzbergs, who were frantically trying to win their release; heartbreaking accounts of a blood-soaked Moshe crying at the side of his slain parents.

And still, no clear explanation of the assailants' aim in attacking a faceless Jewish center on an unpaved back street of Mumbai.

On the day of the attack, the Holtzbergs were hosting a small group in the ultra-Orthodox center, one of hundreds of Chabad houses in 70 countries.

An unarmed Indian guard sat outside as five Jewish travelers dropped in for afternoon prayers, a kosher meal at the Holtzbergs' table and a bed for the night.

Yocheved Orpaz, a 60-year-old Israeli, was en route to join her family on an Indian vacation. Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum, a 37-year-old American resident of Israel, and his friend Bentzion Chroman, 28, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, were in India as part of their international work supervising the preparation of kosher food.

They were joined by David Bialka, a 52-year-old diamond trader and a frequent guest at the center on his business travels, and Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, a 50-year-old Mexican Jew visiting India on her way to start a new life in Israel.

Sometime before 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 26, the center came under attack by at least two gunmen. Rabbi Holtzberg telephoned the Israeli Consulate. "This is not a good situation," the 29-year-old told security officer Ehud Raz before the line went dead.

Upstairs, Bialka had just fallen asleep and was rousted by an explosion. He squeezed through a small fifth-floor bathroom window and shimmied down water pipes, hopping from one air-conditioning unit to another until he reached the ground.

Then his good fortune turned bad. Aroused by the commotion, an angry crowd had already gathered outside the building and mistook Bialka for a militant. They attacked him.

"Twice I tried to get near the building, wanting to go back in and help," he recalled. "But they put me in a cab and took me to the police."

The thwarting of that early rescue effort typified the chaos at the scene. Neighbors heard two blood-curdling screams, one from a man and the other from a woman, and gathered outside the center. A terrorist tossed out a grenade, killing an Indian in the crowd.

By the time security officer Raz and another armed Israeli arrived, the crowd was so agitated that it chased them to the police station too. They were detained for hours.

Israelis and Indians alike ask why it took police so long to respond. Kamaljeet Singh, who witnessed the grenade explosion, said that he rushed to a police station and then to a nearby naval base, but that officers told him they had no permission from higher-ups to act.

The Indian response to the attacks across the city has been widely criticized as under-armed, slow and confused.

It took more than three hours for police to arrive at Nariman House, where the Chabad hostel is located, Singh said. Israeli officials believe that by that time, at least one or two of the eight unarmed adults inside were dead.

The house was quiet the next morning, Thursday, until nanny Sandra Samuel heard Moshe's cries. Leaving her hide-out in a laundry room, the 44-year-old Nepalese ran up a flight of stairs and found the bodies of the rabbi, his 28-year-old wife and two guests. They had apparently been shot, and Moshe was crying at his parents' side, his pants drenched in blood. The gunmen were apparently on the roof.

Samuel picked up the boy and fled the building.

Also on Thursday, the Mexican hostage, Rabinovich, was ordered to place two calls to Israeli diplomats and relay a demand that Indian forces refrain from attacking the building.

That afternoon the rabbi's cellphone rang. A gunman answered gruffly in Urdu.

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