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10 Years After Mumbai: Visiting Moshe Holtzberg, And The Indian Nanny Who Saved His Life

The house on the corner of a side street in Afula, a town in northern Israel, looks much like the other houses in this new neighborhood—two stories, flat roofs, beige stucco walls, Toyotas and Subarus parked in driveways, and bikes leaning against carports. It’s easy to imagine this family is like most others here — five or six kids, dogs, cats, and peaceful Sabbaths; that this garden is similar to the others — a wooden bench under a large pomegranate tree; flower beds with roses, cacti, and daisies, and the fragrance of citrus blossoms.

But appearances are deceptive. Looking in from the outside, it would be hard to know that the family on the other side of this front door has suffered trauma, terror, and tragedy—and received the gift of great heroism. In turn, they became heroes themselves, taking their distraught two-year-old grandson and his Indian nanny — a stranger — into their home.

It’s been almost ten years since the Mumbai terror attacks; ten years since I last spoke with Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg and his wife Yehudit, who live here with their twelve-year-old grandson Moshe Holtzberg; ten years since the boy’s parents, Rabbi Gabi and Rivka Holzberg, were murdered by Pakistani terrorists. Their crime: their religion. The location: The Mumbai Chabad House, a synagogue and Jewish community center in Mumbai’s commercial and tourist district.

Rivka Holtzberg and her husband Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai, are seen. Rabbi Holtzberg, along with his wife Rivka, were slain during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, leaving their 2-year-old son Moshe Holtzberg an orphan. Image by via Getty Images

My friend Orna and I stand outside the wrought iron gate and hesitate. She squeezes my hand. Half-way down the block, teenage boys wearing yarmulkes bounce a basketball in the middle of the road. A kettle whistles, the five o’clock news follows a few high-pitched bleeps on the radio, and the smell of freshly baked babka wafts out the kitchen window. I take off my glasses, wipe them with the bottom of my T-shirt, put them back on, and button my cardigan up to my neck.

The latch clicks and the gate squeaks open. Arm in arm, we walk through and the gate shuts with a clang. I jump, and Orna steadies me even though I feel her arm shaking. Years vanish. The past leaks into the present, and I remember every detail of my meeting with the Rosenbergs, all those years ago, as if it were still happening.

That first time I met baby Moshe was at Beit Chabad, the Holtzbergs’ Mumbai home, where I was invited to celebrate the Jewish festival of Sukkot. At the time, I was living in Mumbai and working as chief learning officer at a global Indian business. My Israeli friends and I feasted on hummus, falafel, pita, and barbecued chicken. The two-year-old baby toddled around the courtyard giggling as we played peek-a-boo, bounced him on our knees, and sang nursery rhymes until he fell asleep on his mother’s lap.

A few weeks later, near midnight on November 26, 2008, ten Pakistani terrorists navigated their dinghy through the maze of fishing boats and snuck onto a dock at south Mumbai. Armed with automatic rifles, hand grenades, and machine guns, they went on a shooting spree, targeting the main railway station, popular tourist hotels and restaurants, and Beit Chabad, the Holtzbergs’ home. One hundred and sixty-eight innocent civilians were killed, and hundreds more wounded.

That first day of the massacre I spent with embassy staff at the Israel consul’s apartment, a mile or so from the mayhem. We sat in the living room, glued to the TV, watching flames billowing out of the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel, bodies scattered on the platforms of the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, and hoping for news of the Holtzbergs. Suddenly a baby’s pale face filled the screen. An Indian woman clutched him. Sweat poured off her face and she panted so loudly that her breathing drowned the voices of the journalists around her.

“My God, that’s baby Moshe, and his nanny, Sandra,” the consul said, jumping out of her chair and knocking over a cup of coffee.

In an alley near the “Jewish House,” Sandra’s lips moved but she couldn’t speak. Then starting and stopping to take a breath, she described how, at the sound of shooting, screams, and then Moshe’s cries, she’d rushed up two flights of stairs, lifted her charge off his lifeless mother’s chest, hid with him in the stairwell, and then rushed out into the street.

“I don’t know how I did it,” Sandra said.

Staring at Moshe’s expressionless face, I didn’t either. Sandra could easily have fled to safety out the kitchen door. Instead, she’d risked her life to rescue Moshe while two terrorists sprinted down to the basement and shot four other Israeli guests.

Orna, who worked at the consulate and was Rivka’s close friend, couldn’t stop crying as we watched. I squeezed in next to her on the sofa and wrapped my arms around her.

Later that day I kneeled down next to Moshe and Sandra in Orna’s apartment. The baby, his T-shirt splattered with his mother’s blood, stood in a corner of the study—eyes blank, fists clenched, and a full diaper, reeking of urine. A sandwich, a cookie, and a lollypop lay untouched on a small plate near his bare feet. Moshe flinched when Sandra reached out to touch him. After a while, as much as he tried to keep awake, his eyelids ceased flickering, closed, and he collapsed into her arms. Sitting down on the floor next to Sandra, I rubbed her back as she rocked back and forth, back and forth. In the fuss of carrying out autopsies, and preparing death certificates, this heroic woman seemed to have been ignored.

The Israel consul, who knew I’d trained decades before as a trauma counselor, asked me to help the family. Even though I wasn’t sure there was anything helpful I could do or say, I couldn’t refuse after Sandra’s extraordinary feat. And I knew there was no one more qualified available.

Later that day, I met Moshe’s grandparents, Rabbi Shimon and his wife Yehudit Rosenberg—Rivka’s parents and now Moshe’s legal guardians. They’d flown in from Israel to take Moshe home with them and escort the remains of their daughter and son-in-law to be buried on Jerusalem’s holy Mount of Olives.

The elderly couple, eyes swollen from lack of sleep and grief, sank into a sofa in the living room, oblivious to the security agents and embassy staff milling around us. The rabbi tugged at his beard and stared into his lap. He didn’t try to stop his yarmulke sliding off his balding head. Yehudit’s crumpled black skirt reached down to the floor, and she clutched a Kleenex in her clenched fist, her whole body tense and stiff.

Sitting on a chair facing them, I put my hands under my thighs so no one could see them shaking. When I asked them if they would come and play with Moshe, they stared at me as if I were crazy.

“We’re too old,” they agreed, and repeated again, and again, in Hebrew. Looking at their slumped shoulders, dull expressions, and calcified wrinkles, I almost believed them. They told me they were too exhausted to care for Moshe at home. A Chabad-run boarding school was the solution to his well-being. For his own good.

The air-conditioner droned on, cell phones rang. Someone must have placed a mug of black Nescafé in my hands because I remember tasting the sweet warm liquid. A cheese sandwich wrapped in a paper napkin landed in my lap. I took a bite but couldn’t swallow. The soft white bread stuck to the roof of my mouth. Looking over at Moshe sleeping in Sandra’s lap as she sat cross-legged on the floor leaning against a wall, I shook my head. He was all I cared about. A jumble of syllables shuffled around in my head.

“Sandra should come back with you and help you take care of him,” I heard myself say, a little too loudly. My eyes didn’t flicker—I looked straight at them. “She says she wants to stay with him.”

It was unusual for me to be so insistent. Words that weren’t mine seemed to come from someone else.

When Rabbi Shimon grunted and stood up, my voice became a murmur. Trickles ofsweat channeled down the deep wrinkles in his face and into his beard. He looked at the catatonic boy and sat down again, with a long sustained moan. Yehudit looked down at the floor and shook her head. I rushed to the bathroom, turned on the faucets to drown out the sound of my retching, splashed cold water on my face, rinsed out my mouth, and spat into the basin. I felt totally out of my depth.

When I came back, Shimon looked at me and nodded.

The last time I saw Moshe in India was at his parents’ memorial ceremony, at the main Mumbai synagogue. Sandra was absent, preparing for travel: a passport, visa, and family farewells. Moshe was distraught without his mother and or nanny. His screams, “Ima, Ima,”—mommy, mommy—echoed in the dome, drowning out the prayers of hundreds of mourners.

For almost ten years, I’ve worried that my advice to Moshe’s grandparents was too directive, too demanding, inappropriate—even wrong. Often I’ve asked myself if they complied with my instructions only because, tormented by the murder, they were too exhausted to disagree. It’s taken all this time for Orna and me to pluck up the courage to find out.

Yellow and pink hues from the setting sun glint on the glass panel of the Rosenbergs’ front door. When I finally raise my hand to press my index finger against the doorbell, it’s as if I’ve come from another world—a Gehenna, where terrorists annihilated this family’s sanctuary. A silence follows the piercing chime. Inside the house, a chair scrapes against the stone floor, footsteps come toward us, and I bite so hard into the inside of my cheek that I taste my own blood.

A woman I don’t recognize opens the door, stretches out her arms, puts her hands on my shoulders, and draws me into her arms. For a few moments we sway together in a grandmother’s embrace. She stands back and presses her palms into my cheeks. Yehudit looks so much younger than when I last saw her. No heavy bags hang under her eyes, no wrinkles pull at her skin, and no deep furrows line her forehead. Her shoulders, erect and strong, exude vitality, and she laughs as she says my full name. Again and again.

Rabbi Shimon rises from his chair and walks forward to greet us. Observing Orthodox protocol we can’t shake hands and we can’t hug, but our minds unite as his eyes moisten, and I can’t stop blinking. Then he smiles and says my name, telling me that he says my name in his daily prayers. My chest feels heavy and light all at the same time. Finally, I release my breath.

Silence. Broken by the sound of flip-flops on the floor above: Sandra Samuel, Moshe’s nanny, runs towards us, smiling. A few minutes later, twelve-year-old Moshe, home from school, rushes into the living room, throws his backpack into the corner, picks up his soccer ball, and starts to bounce it on the floor. He barely mumbles a “shalom” to our greeting.

“Don’t be upset,” Shimon says. “He knows you were both there at that time, and he doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“Sandra, come and play soccer with me,” Moshe says tucking his white shirt tails into the back of his pants.

During the massacre, I’d only spent three or maybe four hours with the Rosenbergs, while they, tortured by the images of the last moments of their daughter and son-in-law’s lives, decided what to do about Moshe when they returned to Israel. When they decided to invite Sandra to live with them in Israel, they made one of the bravest decisions of their lives. They took a foreigner, a woman from another culture, country, and religion, who spoke a different language, into their home to live with them. Sandra, too, had made a courageous decision. She would leave India, her two adult sons, and her church community to move to an unfamiliar country to care for the boy whose life she saved. It couldn’t have been easy to live here on her own, with no friends and no members of her own family.

Moshe Holtzberg is handed over to his Indian nanny Sandra, who has followed him to Israel, during celebrations after Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai (2nd R) granted her Israeli citizenship, on September 13, 2010, in Jerusalem at the Ministry of Interior. Image by Getty Images

Sandra stands up and walks outside to play. Moshe’s yell, “Yay, goal,” filters in from the yard. Then “Nahin,” — no, in Hindi — followed by their laughter.

When Sandra comes back inside, we sit around the wooden dining table for a while without looking at one another and without speaking, as if in silent prayer. Shimon begins to talk. The details of their emotional journey are intimate, and I feel so at home, as if I’ve found a new family. I can see that Sandra has too. The way Yehudit touches Sandra’s forearm, the space they give her to share her story about how she’d rescued Moshe, the way Shimon describes how Moshe slept on Sandra’s chest for the first year.

We knew Sandra had been honored as a righteous gentile for saving Moshe’s life, that she has a full-time job as a caregiver in a school for physically challenged children, and that she spends weekends with Moshe at the Rosenbergs. What I didn’t know is how at home she is here, with the family, chatting in Hebrew. She has a place at the table — not as a nanny or a helper but as an aunt, a sister. I want to laugh and cry all at the same time.

Yehudit gets up to turn on the lights. She brings a folder with newspaper cuttings of their visit to Mumbai earlier this year. Beit Chabad has been rebuilt and the clipping shows Moshe flanked by two Prime Ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi. Shimon tells us Moshe had a difficult time revisiting the site where his parents were shot.

Moshe Holtzberg (C), son of slain US Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg who was killed along with his wife in the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks, stands with grandparents in the lobby of The Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on January 18, 2018. Moshe returned for the first time on January 16 to the house where his parents were killed in the Mumbai terror attacks almost a decade ago. Image by Getty Images

“It was a mistake to take him.” Shimon’s voice is low and soft.

“Please come to Moshe’s bar mitzvah next year,” Yehudit says.

“We’ll be there,” Orna and I answer in unison, without hesitation.

The sound of a clock chiming enters our silence. In a neighboring house, someone is playing the piano, and a familiar Chopin nocturne blows in through the window. It’s time for us to leave.

Yehudit and I hug again. I want to stay longer, but I’m leaving to go back home to Seattle, where, because of my experience with Moshe in Mumbai, I chose to live near my own grandchildren.

Orna and I link arms as we leave. Two bikes—one adult and one teen size—lean against the side of the garden wall. A bed of orange marigolds lines the path back to the iron gate, reminding me that in India, where I first met the Rosenbergs, these flowers symbolize courage and sacrifice.

On our drive back to Tel Aviv, I look at the photos on my phone. There is one of Orna smiling at Sandra, and Yehudit’s arm firmly on Sandra’s shoulders. Moshe, serious, erect, stares straight ahead as if declaring his future. In another, Yehudit and I sit leaning over a photo of Gabi and Rivka, arms around one another, heads touching. In a third photo, four women—Orna, Yehudit, Sandra and me—stand close, as if we’d always been family. Framed, they now stand among my own family photos in my Seattle home.

My plane ticket is booked a year in advance for the celebration of Moshe’s bar mitzvah. I can already envision Moshe standing in front of the ark, praying for his parents. While he reads his Torah portion of the sacred script, I hope that the Holtzbergs rest peacefully, knowing how their parents have stood in for them, and how Sandra saved his life.

We may not live near one another, but after those fateful hours in Mumbai, we’ll forever be tied to one another.

A staffperson places a traditional Jewish memorial candle in front of a photograph of slain Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah,at the Chabad (Nariman) House in Mumbai on November 26, 2012. Image by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

Susan Bloch is a freelance writer, international executive coach, and avid traveler. Her essay “The Mumbai Massacre” received notable mention in Best American Essays 2017. Susan’s work has been published in a variety of magazines, including The Citron Review, Entropy, Huffington Post, Bella Literary Review, STORGY, and Tikkun.

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