Israel's daily reality: Aluma

Who can forget November 21, 2002? Aluma got up early, her mind full of numbers. A 17-year-old schoolgirl, she was determined to score high on the morning’s math test.

’Israel's daily reality: Aluma (photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS)
’Israel's daily reality: Aluma
(photo credit: DAVID ZEV HARRIS)
When Aluma Mekaitan Guertzenstein tells me she’s married and pregnant, I burst into tears of joy.
I’ve been asked to update the stories of terrorism survivors, those I met in the years 2000 and 2005 when the horror of bus bombings, restaurant bombings and disco bombings aimed at young people was our daily reality in Israel. Thousands of Israelis were killed and maimed. Jerusalem, our real and symbolic capital, was the target of much of the terrorism. I’ve run into Aluma a few times over the years. Once she’d just gotten her driver’s license and was going to see which cars she could drive. I was glad she’d gone on with her life.
Who can forget November 21, 2002? Aluma got up early, her mind full of numbers. A 17-year-old schoolgirl, she was determined to score high on the morning’s math test, as she boarded Egged bus No. 20 in Kiryat Menahem, a working-class neighborhood of Jerusalem where her family lived. Aluma hugged close her heavy school backpack packed with books and notebooks. Others were waiting at her stop on Mexico Street.
Among them was Na’el Abu Hilail, 23. He’d been driven into Jerusalem from El-Khader, south of Bethlehem, to this bus, deliberately chosen because by 7:15 a.m. it was always crowded with children going to school and office workers going to their jobs downtown. In his backpack were no books, but 5 kilograms of explosives packed with shrapnel. Standing near the driver where passengers lined up to pay, he pulled the switch. The windows were blown out of the bus. The roof was ripped off. The blast wave rolled through the enclosed space, tearing the junctures where air and tissue meet: ear, lung and the gut. Metal fragments flew through the bus. Passengers were thrown from their seats. Fifty passengers were seriously and critically injured. Eleven persons, four of them kids on their way to school, were murdered.
At first the count of dead was 12. But then a paramedic named Raphael, like the angel of healing, made a last check through the bus and saw a schoolgirl’s eyelids flicker.
She was unconscious. She was bleeding from more than 30 cuts from her right arm and leg. A dense and rusty square metal fragment, 14 millimeters on a side, had passed through her ear into her brain. But her school satchel seemingly protected her internal organs from blast wounds.
She was rushed to Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, minutes from the site of the bombing. In the first brain surgery, drainage tubes and a monitor were implanted to measure pressure. For five days she lay unconscious in the intensive care unit. Team members and family shouted her name. “Aluma, Aluma, Aluma,” but she didn’t answer.
Aluma doesn’t remember much. Most is a blur of images of people rushing and calling her name. She couldn’t summon her voice to respond.
“We didn’t know if Aluma was still in there,” said her mom, a now-retired math teacher. Her grandparents had been in Auschwitz; one grandfather had been killed in the War of Independence.
Only a month later, when her aunt brought in a laptop and asked her to write her name, did Aluma surprise and delight everyone by doing so. And when she was given a simple math problem, Aluma got the right answer.
Still, when the neurosurgeons told her parents that the brain damage was so severe, they weren’t sure they could succeed in repairing it, spirits sank. “It was worse than the day of the bombing,” Rachel Mekaitan said.
The projectile had crossed her brain midline and caused severe damage, hemorrhage and a traumatic embolism. They would need to close it off by threading a wire as thin as a baby’s hair into her brain to create a coil which would close off the aneurysm. They’d never done it.
Fortunately, a new immigrant neurosurgeon named Jose Cohen, skilled in endovascular procedures, had arrived from Argentina. Zionism.
The surgery worked. Later, the rusty metal shrapnel would be removed.
At last, she was transferred to rehabilitation in Hadassah-University Medical Center, on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.
After the surgery, Aluma began moving her left leg. Doctors and nurses cheered in the operating room. And over the next months, Aluma started regaining her speech, and her ability to walk.
That’s around the time a British MP by the name of Jenny Tonge came to visit. Tonge had said that if she had to live like a Palestinian she might consider becoming a suicide bomber. She repeated the comments on Sky News. And the next thing we knew, the BBC was bringing her to Israel, eager to introduce her to survivors of bus bombings and their families. The Mekaitans agreed.
While Aluma was having therapy, Rachel Mekaitan talked to Tonge. The MP asked her if she hated the Palestinians and Rachel shook her head no. But she was furious at their behavior and the waste, and what had happened to her beautiful daughter, but she didn’t hate.
That morning, in occupational therapy, Aluma was stringing beads on a wire, fighting to get back her concentration and coordination.
After meeting Rachel and Aluma, Tonge made a rare statement to the BBC that “suicide bombers were appalling and loathsome,” The former MK, now in the House of Lords, hadn’t become a friend of Israel, but the visit may have penetrated like a strand of a baby’s hair.
ALUMA SPENT years of hard work in therapy, gaining back everything but the use of her right arm. She took that math test, and scored 100, then completed her matriculation exams and went on to finish three academic degrees, in education, art and visual communications.
She’d almost given up on finding the right life partner, when she got a message from a man named Mikael Guertzenstein who wanted to meet her.
She told him right off on the phone about her right arm. “I’m a new immigrant. That’s a handicap, too, so we’re even,” he said.
She was coming down with a cold. He promised to make her a soup. He’s a professional chef. Swiss.
The rest happened fast, and they were joyfully wed and are expecting a baby.
Over lunch in a busy mall in Modi’in where they live, Aluma tells me about baby carriages that can be opened and closed with one hand.
I feel like tapping all our fellow diners and waiters on the shoulder and asking, “Do you know who this is? In this café sits one of the bravest young women in the world.”
I want to be like Rabbi Levi of Berdichev, shouting to heaven, “Master of the universe, look down from heaven and see what a wonderful holy people are Israel.”
They don’t like people shouting in a café, so I’m telling you instead.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.