'They thought of themselves last'

Beloved Chabad emissaries Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg are buried on the Mount of Olives.

"I can't believe it. It can't be true," wailed Freida Holtzberg, as she stood in the dark, on the small winding road leading to the cemetery plot while the body of her murdered son, Gavriel, was lowered into the ground at the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem. "I just can't accept it," she said as she cried, bundled in a coat, against the cold night. It was the end of a six-hour funeral held Tuesday for her son and his wife, the Chabad emissaries slain in last week's terror rampage in Mumbai. It had begun in Kfar Chabad, stopped at a Jerusalem yeshiva where her son, 29, had studied, and then wound its way to the cemetery. Unable to stand with the men near the grave, she, along with Yehudit Rosenberg, the mother of Gavriel's wife Rivka, huddled together up the stairs from the graves, surrounded by their daughters. Rivka, 28, who was five months pregnant when she died, was buried alongside her husband, on the edge of hillside plot that overlooks the outskirts of the city. United in grief, the two mothers leaned one upon the other. At times the two women hugged each other and spoke of their loss. Freida recalled how people traveling to India would ask if she wanted to send something to the young couple. "What wouldn't I want to send to them?" she said. "I wanted to give them the whole world." It was a small group of friends, relatives and Chabad followers who crowded near the grave below and on the road above it. Some of them had come hours before the bodies, preferring to sit by the open graves than attend either of the earlier stages of the funeral. Many of those waiting were Israeli travelers who had spent time in the Chabad house in Mumbai. They recalled a couple who loved each other deeply and who had opened their hearts and their table to all who came through their doors. Among those who sat crying by the open graves was David Bialka of Netanya, who had been in the Chabad House last Wednesday when the attacks began, but managed to escape by crawling out a fourth-floor window and down a drain pipe. Now he sat on the concrete slabs that would later cover the bodies, wearing a white kippa and smoking. His daughter Shimrit hovered a short distance away, watching over him. She explained that her father had gone to sleep just a short time before the attack, but was woken by the sound of gunfire. Instinctively he fled, but after he reached the ground, he was arrested by Indian police who let him go only the next morning. By Friday, he was back in Israel, certain that everyone in the building was dead. To those who crowded around him prior to the funeral, he described the events of that day. He and Gavriel had sat and studied religious texts in the afternoon and drank coffee together. At around eight they went to eat, and then he went to his room on the fourth floor, and leaving Gavriel downstairs. At one point, overcome by grief, he cried out, "Why didn't he come upstairs with me. Why did he stay downstairs?" As she listened to him speak, Shimrit said, "God watched over him. There is nothing else that can explain it." One businessman who traveled frequently to Mumbai said that he had often worried about the lack of security at the Chabad House, but that Gavriel had not appeared concerned. One Israeli traveler, Yaakov Aharonoff, said he had heard rumors that the terrorists had actually visited the home and had eaten a meal with them. "Forget about it. No one could have seen them and harmed them," Aharonoff said of the Holtzbergs. "They were like [the biblical] Sarah and Abraham in the year 2008. They did good deeds just like Sarah and Abraham," who were well known for their hospitality, he said. Gavriel was the kind of person who went to extraordinary lengths to help people, said Aharonoff. In the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami, for example, he traveled to Thailand to help the victims of that disaster. In Mumbai, he made himself available to anyone who passed through his home, whether it was to help them with travel details or to overcome a drug addiction. When it came to food, there was no end to what they would put on the table for the guests, particularly on Shabbat. "There was whiskey, vodka, salads, a first course, a main course, a dessert - it just kept coming," Aharonoff recalled. They were able to find a way to feed everyone who came, but they had yet to get curtains for the windows in their apartment. "They were the kind of people who thought of themselves last and everyone else first," he added.