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(photo credit: AP [file])
The narrow lane of Hormusji St. was transformed overnight from an obscure Colaba neighborhood, dotted with local shops and low-rise apartments, to a place of tribute Thursday for the victims of the Chabad House terror attack one year ago.
Hundreds of guests, including Jewish dignitaries from the Chabad World headquarters, Indian politicians and parents of the slain Chabad House director Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, were present to honor them and the four other victims who were brutally murdered in the building that night by the Islamist Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
"This event is a tribute to the memory of the precious lives that were brutally cut down a year ago," said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, director of the Chabad Mumbai Relief Fund - which is charged with rebuilding the Chabad House in Mumbai. "This is a rededication to the life and legacy of Rabbi Gabi and Rivka Holtzberg, whose example serves as a beacon of light to humanity."
Dozens of security guards carefully watched every individual who entered the white canopy that blanketed the street. Neighborhood residents piled onto their balconies to observe the media spectacle occurring on their doorsteps, which was also telecast live on the Chabad Web site. Roughly 10,000 viewers were watching globally.
The memorial began with a song by vocalist Benny Freidman and a short prayer by Rabbi Holtzberg's brother, Moshe, whose lips trembled as he read.
Dr. Shashi Tharoor, India's minister of state for external affairs, spoke of how the attacks were the first time it became "unsafe to be Jewish" in the country.
"This tragedy at Nariman House provided one more proof that the terrorists were not Indian, because the people of India live for community and have no conflict with the Jewish people in any way," he said.
A year later, the walls of the Chabad House are still riddled with bullets - a solemn reminder of the carnage. From the outside, the five-story building looks like any other low-rise apartment, but inside, as Berkowitz has said, "it still looks like a war zone." Interior walls and staircases blown out by grenades and rocket launchers are unrepaired, and glassless windows are still patched with plastic tarp.
"The extent to which evil can do the damage that one can see inside this house... evil, hatred, have manifested itself on the walls, stairs, the windows of this house," he said. "There is a clear message from this place tonight... It's that Indians and India will not be terrorized again."
The Chabad House, also known as the Nariman House, was started by the Holtzbergs in 2003. It became a destination for Jewish travelers and backpackers who sought a home away from home, offering kosher meals and a hostel for rest. The Holtzbergs taught Torah and Hebrew lessons and even married young couples here as well.
Bernard and Simone Golstein, who currently reside in New Delhi, were the first couple to have a wedding ceremony and celebration at the Chabad House in August 2006.
"They were just such loving, simple and open-minded people," said Bernard. The couple were married on the first floor and had a small party on the terrace. And their daughter was born two weeks before three-year-old Moshe, the Holtzbergs' young son, who was one of only three survivors from the Nariman House terror.
"Their charity and joyful spirit will not be forgotten," said Simone.
In the midst of the series of emotional speeches, Rivka's students lifted spirits with a song in English and Hindi about overcoming challenges. As they sang, they clutched each other's shoulders and kicked their feet in the air.
On an afternoon tour of the Chabad House, Rivka's father, Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, and her sister, Pnina Gross, took a moment to offer a prayer for the couple.
Pain and tears welled in Rosenberg's eyes as he walked into the couple's top-floor bedroom, slowly opening and closing their cabinets.
"Every inch (of this house) has sentimental value and every inch is packed with memories," he said, explaining how the house reminded him of all the work the couple did to help others.
Walking into Moshe's largely unscathed blue-and-yellow-painted room, also on the top floor, Rosenberg's eyes quickly lit up.
"They brought this from Israel," he said, pointing at the child's pull-out bed, which still has his toys strewn on it.
"Over here, this is where [Moshe] would pretend he was a shopkeeper," he said, smiling at the child's playset.
Before he left the room, Rosenberg crouched next to the door and placed his hand on the pencil-marks next to the exit where Moshe's parents had measured the boy. The last markings reached 73 centimeters. "That's how tall he was when he was here," said Rosenberg.
Moshe is currently in Israel under the care of the Rosenbergs' and the toddler's heroic Indian nanny, Sandra Samuel, who carried him to safety.
At the podium, Rosenberg spoke of how his heart breaks every time Moshe asks for his parents. "He would say, 'Where is Daddy, where is Mommy?'" he said, adding that the child says 'hello' and 'goodbye' to his parents every time he sees their picture.
Rabbi Holtzberg's parents, Rabbi Nachman and Freida, spoke fondly and proudly of their son.
"He was a good boy and always did as he was told," said Rabbi Nachman, who said he was surprised when Gavriel expressed his desire to settle in Mumbai. Both of them hope the center their son and daughter-in-law worked so hard to build will be preserved.
Words offered by representatives from the Chabad World headquarters were filled with confidence that they would be able to move on from the tragedy.
"We will rebuild, and we will rebuild stronger than ever," said Moshe Kotlarsky, who helped the Holtzbergs acquire the building. Right now, the Chabad House needs $2.5 million to start anew.
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