The orphan, the nanny, and a tale of hope from Mumbai
Son of the rabbi killed in the terror attacks is building a new life in Israel with the carer who saved his life
Thursday 11 December 2008
Looking at the rosy-cheeked toddler kicking over his building-block tower in an Israeli living room with typical childish abandon, it is hard to imagine that just two weeks ago, and a continent away, he was wailing forlornly, his parents lifeless beside him, their blood soaking into his baby clothes.
Having escaped the clutches of the militants who brought carnage to the streets of Mumbai, Moshe Holtzberg is now – quite literally – in safe hands. They are those of Sandra Samuel, the Indian nanny who heard his cries and whisked him out of harm's way.
The last time the world saw the two-year-old, it was at a memorial service for his parents in the Indian city, his anguished cries for his mother, "Ima, Ima, Ima", reverberating through the hushed ranks of mourners. Now the boy dubbed the Miracle of Mumbai is dancing along to songs ahead of the Jewish Hanukkah holiday, and excitedly exclaiming "big candy" at images of sweets that pop up on television.
"He is like a normal kid, just enjoying himself. He has gotten used to other people surrounding him," Ms Samuel explains. "He loves it here. He is in very good condition, just like normal. He is having his breakfast, lunch and snacks and he sleeps very well now."
The nanny and her charge are staying at the home of Moshe's great uncle, the orthodox rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman, the spiritual leader of this small town in northern Israel and head of its Migdal Ohr educational institution. In a few days, they are due to move to the home of the toddler's maternal grandparents in nearby Afula.
Ms Samuel has been Moshe's live-in nanny since he was 10 days old, tending to him round the clock, feeding him in the morning and reading him nursery rhymes at night. The 44-year-old has two grown-up sons of her own back in India, but has no intention of abandoning her young charge any time soon. Israel will be home for six months, maybe a year, "it depends on how the baby is getting used to his family".
She is clearly satisfied that Moshe is well. But she dismisses the idea she is a hero, saying it is inconceivable that she would not have responded to Moshe's cry. "How could any baby call a person's name and that person not go at once. How could it be?" And she voices deep regret at not having thought about the boy's parents – Rabbi Gabriel Holtzberg and wife Rivka – during the ordeal. All thoughts were on the child. "I'm not an angel. If I was brave I would have given the baby to Jacky [a colleague] and done something for my rabbi and Rivki ... I didn't think. The baby was more important to me so I took him."
The Holtzberg family ran the Chabad Jewish religious centre and guesthouse in Mumbai, buildings that were to witness one of the bloodiest hold-outs in the series of attacks that rocked Mumbai last month. Army commandos rappelled from helicopters on to the roof; others blew a hole in a wall to get in and oust the stubborn militants. Yet despite these efforts, seven people at Chabad House were to die at the hands of the militants. And had Ms Samuel's son come to collect her for the evening as he did most Wednesdays, that death toll would probably have included little Moshe. But her son didn't show and so she was there at the time of the attack. "God kept me there because God already knew what would happen," is the explanation given.
When the militants' assault began late on Wednesday, she hid between two refrigerators in a first-floor storeroom with a fellow worker, and stayed there until she heard Moshe calling her name the next morning. "I heard bombs that sounded like balloons and I came from the kitchen shouting at children, 'Why are you making noises?' As I went to the corner of the first floor, I saw one boy shooting at me and I moved back and closed the door. I still didn't think it was serious but then I heard lots of shots and bombs going off. Even now it seems like a dream, it's not settled in my mind."
In the storeroom, Ms Samuel recalled, "I was saying God's name, Jesus's name, the Holy Spirit's name. There is strength from these names." She said she kept thinking about Moshe. "I was thinking of the baby, I was not thinking of Rabbi Gaby. I had full hope he would come out of it. I was telling the Lord, just keep my baby safe."
On Thursday at 10.45am she heard Moshe crying one floor above her. "He was just crying my name – 'Sandra. Sandra'," she says. When she got to the room from which the cries emanated, she saw the child's parents on the floor. "They were not hurt. Rabbi Gaby had a little fresh blood next to his feet. Rivki was on the floor, it was like she was sleeping. They looked like they were asleep. I gave a look, picked him up and ran. I ran without anything. Just his doll. I picked the doll up because he is used to that doll."
For the first four nights after the attack, Moshe would wake every night, wanting his parents. Now, Ms Samuel says, he sleeps soundly and no longer mentions mum and dad. "He is not even asking for them now because he is too happy. He loves it here. He has swings, a garden, a see-saw." The trappings may be those of an ordinary toddler, but the little boy enjoying them is anything but.
Readers wishing to donate to The Moshe Fund can do so by calling 00 972 4849 5570
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