Bound by tragedy

Ten years after a suicide bomber took the lives of Jews celebrating their Passover Seder.

Aftermath of terror attack at Park Hotel dining room 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Aftermath of terror attack at Park Hotel dining room 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Ten years have passed since the gruesome “Passover Massacre” – a suicide bombing that took 30 innocent lives and wounded 140 people, 20 of them seriously. Yet for those personally struck by the attack, whether physically or psychologically, their lives have changed forever.
On March 27, 2002, a terrorist entered the dining room of Netanya’s Park Hotel and set off an explosion, resulting in the worst attack against civilians during the years of the second intifada.
Certainly, life-cycle events and Jewish holidays are among the most challenging times for families who have lost a loved one. Observing the Seder clearly will never be the same for those directly affected by the Passover Massacre.
Batya Weinberg, head of the Hadera branch of the Jerusalem-based One Family Fund, which supports victims of terror, was a volunteer with the organization when the incident took place. On the eve of the 10th anniversary, in most cases, time hasn’t healed the wounds, she asserts; in fact, quite the contrary.
Discussing the horrific event, Weinberg recalls: “One girl was late showing up because she was doing her hair; others weren’t there on time for many reasons. Some couldn’t make it at all and were planning to get together with family members the following day.
“Imagine, you speak to your family, and on that same day you suddenly find out about the terror attack, you go looking for them and find out they were among the victims. They didn’t die naturally, or of any illness. It was timing, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The psychological effects are extensive. For example, an eight-year-old boy who saw the carnage never finished high school and is unsure about his army service. He finally agreed to go for therapy only recently.
Dalia Falistian-Karim, 55, lost her parents that night.
“It feels like yesterday,” she says. “It’s very hard, very hard for me, especially when it comes to festivals and gatherings. My father and I used to celebrate our birthdays together. I haven’t celebrated mine since.
“My family today is One Family,” she states. “It’s like being born again, meeting new families.”
In fact, she still isn’t sure where she’ll observe the Seder this year, though she assumes that One Family will make the necessary arrangements.
Although no longer a child in the literal sense, “being a child [of parents] is ageless. I haven’t gotten over it.”
DR. JACOB (Jackie) Weinberg, director of school psychological services for the Hadera Municipality and a volunteer for One Family Fund, has been helping survivors of the Passover Massacre dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When he made aliya in 1985, he attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in which gunshots were fired in the air.
“I had never heard gunshots before; I shook a little,” he says, pointing out how much more chilling an experience it must be with real ammunition aimed to kill.
He recalls one particular couple of senior citizens who were present that evening at the Park Hotel whom he continues to help today.
“The husband was severely injured to the point that they though he was dead,” says Weinberg. “They even wanted to cover him with a sheet, thinking he was already past tense.”
Fortunately, he began showing signs of life and has recuperated, thanks to rehabilitation therapy. His wife, however, suffers significantly from PTSD.
“Today she’s doing better but still shows definite signs of PTSD,” says to Weinberg. “It happened 10 years ago, but still, when an ambulance goes by, she has flashbacks [and] starts weeping. Watching TV and seeing news of terror attacks and people on the floor, she shows signs of distress, panic, feelings of insecurity – I would even say shock. When she walks on the street, even on the way to therapy, even in sessions, she’ll clutch the table and have a look of astonishment on her face. When you talk about it, she remembers it like yesterday.”
They have married children living in Israel who weren’t in Netanya at the time.
In most families, “children look to parents for support; they’re the anchors of the family,” Weinberg says. “Here, the children are giving the parents support. One Family Fund continues to be in contact with them.”
What’s interesting is that the wife, who wasn’t hurt physically at all, is the spouse in most need of help.
“I don’t think she had a scratch on her body. But it’s emotional, seeing death in front of your eyes, stepping over bodies to get to your husband, stepping over blood.
When Passover comes, it brings back memories; it’s very tense.”
The couple has since gone on vacation to hotels.
“I think it’s very important that she go,” Weinberg states. “Before PTSD [was labeled], it was called shell-shock. They’d put the soldier back on the battlefield as soon as possible so he would function again. In this case, allegorically speaking, she’s the soldier and she needs to feel safe and secure in a hotel.”
Weinberg acknowledges that many people do succeed in going on with their lives, but the symptoms are still there, although to a lesser degree for some. For instance, instead of having flashbacks every night, it might happen once in two weeks.
He offers the following tip: “Never say it’s nothing when a person goes through a traumatic experience; that will double the trauma. Sometimes just listening and showing empathy can be helpful – not therapeutic, but helpful to show that you know what he’s going through.”
“We take every single person registered by the government as a victim of terror – whether emotional or physical – and care for them,” Marc Belzberg, who founded the One Family Fund in 2001 with his wife Chantal and daughter Michal, tells The Jerusalem Post. The support is varied – from legal to financial to emotional – and different divisions cater to specific groups, such as youth.
The day of the suicide bombing of the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001 occurred the day of Michal’s bat mitzva. The Belzberg family had made aliya from North America several years before, and close family and friends didn’t want to come to Israel during the intifada.
“So instead, we took money that we would have spent on a party and gave our daughter a project to visit the bereaved and wounded in hospital and to figure out how to allocate the funds,” her father explains.
“There was a major bus bombing the following week… Within a couple of weeks, it evolved from a one-event project to a lifetime project.
“The overriding methodology of One Family is really the notion of being together,” he says. “Some people become completely dysfunctional because of PTSD. A psychologist explained to me the importance of group therapy. A victim’s life is changed forever. You have different friends – new friends who can relate to you.”
Each year a memorial for the murdered victims is held at the Park Hotel.
“What their families need is recognition,” Belzberg stresses. “They need to know that they’re remembered. Memorials are very, very important.”
The murder of a rabbi and three children in Toulouse, France, occurred just a week before the 10th anniversary memorial event.
“Every victim of terror relives what they went through,” Belzberg acknowledges. “It adds extra trauma and revives the pain.”
Among the elderly guests who witnessed the Passover terror were a number of Holocaust survivors. “For them, it was like the Shoah happened for the second time,” Batya Weinberg comments.
MOSHE VAKS, a ZAKA rescue and recovery volunteer for several years, lives near Laniado Medical Center in Netanya. He recalls going home for the Seder in 2002 and getting a knock on the door; police were there to inform him of a major terror attack. He and the other local volunteers immediately left their families.
“Everything was dark; the electricity was gone. There was lots of water, and it was full of blood. We worked our way through, little by little, until 2:30 a.m., and then went back to continue the Seder.
“When we’re busy, we think of nothing else but taking care of the dead,” he asserts, explaining how he deals with the unspeakable horror. “The police helped us and provided group therapy for three hours. dealing with difficult cases all the time, including accidents and other emergencies.”
A few of the volunteers have left the organization over time, but most have stayed on.
“I’ve been doing it for 15 years; I can cope with it,” he says, adding that his wife is a senior nurse at Laniado and that they are used to dealing with death. “But it’s not for everyone.”
ZAKA and Magen David Adom volunteer Yossi Landau clearly remembers Passover eve 10 years ago.
“I was living in Bnei Brak. It was a time of a lot of terror in Israel. I was on my way home from synagogue to celebrate the Seder, and the radio said there was a big explosion at the Park Hotel in Netanya and they needed a lot of help. I didn’t think twice. I told my kids to go on ahead of me, took my car and flew to Netanya. I got there in 17 minutes. We saved a few people, thank God. I was there the whole night, of course.”
Each year at his family’s Seder, Landau tells the assembled participants that the bondage is “not over. We know the king of Egypt in those days killed Jewish children, and we still have this issue.
“I was going into blood up to my knees. I’ll always remember the blood,” he says, noting the symbolism in relation to the Ten Plagues recounted at the Seder. “Two people died in my arms, hoping I could help them…
“We’re not free. We have missiles every day… murder in France, the funerals in Israel. We’re waiting for peace and true redemption.”
In 2003, the Palestinian Authority sponsored a soccer tournament, naming it in honor of Abdel Basset Odeh, the suicide bomber who perpetrated the Passover tragedy.
In Marc Belzberg’s view, “we have two dramatically opposed cultures living in the Middle East together, and if you don’t understand that, which many in the world do not, then you don’t understand the plot.”
This lack of comprehension could be one of the main reasons for anti-Israel sentiment around the world, he says, adding his prediction that terrorism in the form of missiles and rockets will continue to be fired all over Israel and not only in the South.
The deal to free kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit several months ago, which included the release of 1,027 terrorists – including Nasser Batima, mastermind of the Passover terror – got mixed reaction among families of those murdered.
“It gave us a lot of additional work,” concedes Madelaine Black, One Family Fund’s vice president of marketing. No matter what a victim thinks about the prisoner swap, there’s still “a sense of injustice and a renewed sense of grief.”
“We’re in touch with them all; some were for the deal and some were against,” Batya Weinberg says. Unwilling to express her personal opinion on the subject, she prefers to focus on the well-being of the families. “We don’t discuss religion or politics.”
Another issue she acknowledges is the extreme trauma felt by terror victims living in the South of the country – especially those dealing with PTSD – where rockets have been flying continually.
“Life goes on,” Landau says, citing the Torah commandment to be joyous on the festivals. “There’s a lot of stress, but we have to continue. If you think about [tragedy] all the time, you won’t be able to cope. There has to be total separation. Many people will need special psychological support to manage it.”