Interview with Sharon Galsurkar, who worked with the security forces in the operation to free Nariman House.
SHARON GALSURKAR knew Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka from the time the couple came to live in India six years ago. He is a community programmer with the Organisation for Rehabilitation and Training, a Jewish outreach society. He was closely involved with assisting the Army and the police during the operations to flush out the terrorists from Nariman House, drawing them a sketch of the layout of the interiors, liaising with the security forces and the Israelis, and interacting with local residents who pointed out various approaches to the building. When Sandra Samuel and baby Moshe escaped, he took them home for a while so that the child could be “in a relaxed atmosphere”.
Three days after the carnage, in which 11 people, including two terrorists, died, Galsurkar and a ZAKA team went in to collect the belongings of the dead and to clean up. (ZAKA, an abbreviation for Zihuy Korbanot Ason, which means Identification of Victims of Disaster, is an Israeli voluntary organisation. It works along with law enforcers in response to terrorism, accidents or disasters.) Their task included cleaning the blood on the floor, on clothing and on bedsheets. Galsurkar described this as the “most horrible work I have ever done in my life” .
He spoke to Frontline about these experiences and his concerns as an Indian Jew. Excerpts:
You took Sandra Samuel and baby Moshe home after they escaped. What was her account to you?
Sandra and Zakir [Hussein, the cook] were in the kitchen on the first floor. They were preparing dinner – some beans and chicken. Sandra said that the rabbi and two other men and Rivka were in the synagogue on the second floor, which is also a library. And the child was sleeping on the fifth floor. Two women were on the fourth floor…at least that’s where they were found…. Sandra didn’t say where they were when the gunmen entered. Sandra said she came out when she heard firing. They fired in her direction and she and Zakir ran into the kitchen and shut the door. They both hid in a storeroom behind some fridges. That’s how they survived the grenade too. There was firing all through the night. All the glass was smashed, so they could figure out people’s movements because of their footsteps on the glass. Around 1.30 that morning she heard Rivka crying. She cried very loudly for about 25 minutes or half an hour. And then she stopped and after that they only heard gunfire and explosions.
In the morning Sandra said both she and Zakir decided to take a chance. They came out and she heard Moshe crying on the second floor. She said she could not go without the child… so they both climbed slowly up to the second floor… this was very daring of them… Zakir kept watch on the landing and Sandra picked up the child. He was on the floor with blood splattered all over him. Then they slowly climbed downstairs and came out of the house.
She said the rabbi and his wife were unconscious and needed help.
Yes, that’s what she said, but judging by the amount of blood she described I felt they were gone. I am a trained social worker. I know how people react when they are in trauma and I understand their reactions. My feeling is that Sandra knew that the rabbi and his wife were dead. There was just too much blood around for them to still be alive. I felt that when Sandra said they were unconscious she was hoping they were still alive. Maybe if she had conveyed her fears to the police, it might have helped finish the operation earlier.
You worked with the ZAKA team.
Yes, it was quite by chance. It was Friday evening, about one hour before Sabbath. We have very strict rules during Sabbath, which can be broken only in life-threatening situations. It was great luck that before Sabbath we discovered the ZAKA team. They were about six of them waiting in one of the lanes near the Chabad. We offered our help. By 8.30, the operations were over. Three bodies were taken out – the rabbi, Rivka and Bentzion [Chroman, a kosher food superviser]. One body had already been sent to JJ [Hospital] and one of us went there to stop the post-mortem [forbidden under Jewish religious law]. The other bodies couldn’t be brought out because there were hand grenades around them. The Army finally exploded eight hand grenades that night. The bodies were in terrible shape. It took till 3.30 on Saturday morning to finish the procedures at the JJ mortuary.
The bodies were sent to Pinto’s [mortician who prepared the bodies for travel]. We read psalms, asked for forgiveness from the rabbi – this is a ritual we have. On Sunday, we collected the blood-soaked clothes and bedsheets from the Colaba police station. Then we sorted them out because they had to be buried with the people they belonged to. On Monday we got police permission to enter the Chabad house. That is when I did the most horrible work I have ever done in my life…. picking up blood… it was semi-liquid – it was thick, a terrible stench came from it when we picked it up. There was the smell of decomposition all over and our eyes burnt terribly…maybe the Army had released some gas or something during the operations. We had the right gear but still…. This is on the fourth floor [shows photograph] – this is the room where the two women were tied. They were tied together so that the head of one was at the feet of the other. I don’t know why this was done.
The floor of the synagogue was covered with blood. Even the material with which we cleaned the blood was put in with the bodies. We took away the four Torah scrolls and some religious articles. Nothing was desecrated but one of the scrolls had a spray of bullets over it.
What were your general impressions while you assisted the security forces?
The Army and the police did everything they could. Experts may say that the operation failed, but I saw them working – they took all risks, they worked hard.
ZAKA was unhappy with them.
That’s because they were thinking from the Israeli perspective. They face this sort of situation so regularly. Part of their response is not to waste time. We know our problems. I can’t comment on the details of the operation, but I know our people were working hard. Our commandos and policemen were at a range where they could easily have died. They put their lives on the line – I appreciate that. I salute them.
What is the Jewish community’s thinking on security now?
As Jews, we believe that whatever has happened has happened for a reason but this does not stop me from taking security measures. We have been told to use grills, stronger doors, more fortification, security personnel. We have asked for security from the Mumbai Police and they have given it. One of the things the [Israeli] Consulate pointed out, especially to the Chabad [some months ago], is that the door should have more than one guard and it should be kept closed. A CCTV was also advised. If the Chabad had proper gates and entry rules, it wouldn’t have been easy for the terrorists to get in. They had this idea of open doors and open house – the wrong people took advantage of it.
Maybe it was contradictory to the rabbi’s beliefs? An open house cannot have closed doors.
It was about his trust in God. It was not contradictory because we Jews are supposed to pray and also to make effort. We have to work on our security and ask God for his blessings on this. That’s also Jewish philosophy. We also have a law that says we must not risk our lives. So, if by keeping my door open I risk my life I should keep it closed.
There were people who insisted that they had seen the gunmen before, that they had lived in the Chabad house itself. There was one woman who was evacuated from a neighbouring building at about 1 a.m. on November 27. She had glimpsed the gunmen while the attack was on and said she had definitely seen them before.
I heard they’d stayed in the chawl from where they could see the Chabad house. It was not easy to stay in the Chabad house. If any new person wanted to stay there, the rabbi would check their passports and ensure that they were Jewish because that is not an open guesthouse for anybody. So he was careful about that. These people were aware that they were potential targets. But perhaps the rabbi would not have expected it to happen here and in this way.
I wish the rabbi had done two things. One, that he had interacted more with the Colaba police station. Even they were not aware of the Chabad house. And I wish he had interacted with his neighbours. He didn’t go out of his way to interact with the neighbours… as Indians we are used to having relations with our neighbours. But he came from a different culture.
Why do you wish this?
When we spoke to the neighbours the day after the attack, some of them actually thought that the Chabad was responsible for what was happening. If they knew what Chabad was about they would never have said that. But I can understand the rabbi’s point too – being orthodox…ultra orthodox actually… he lived in his own world. The locals did not even know that this was a Chabad house. The first time I was looking for the place none of them could help me.
Have you been back to talk to the local people?
Not yet, but I will go back. I got the feeling that they did not want the Chabad to come up there again. I want to talk to them, explain what Chabad is all about, tell them that you don’t abandon your neighbours because they were attacked by someone else.
It is interesting you say this because while the operation was on the local residents were very sympathetic and said they would not mind having them as neighbours once this was over. But when the question was put to them again afterwards, they were not so sure because they were shaken by the violence of the operation.
This is why we want to talk to them. We will ask them: “Are you going to say the same things to the Taj, to the Oberoi… will you tell them they should not be here because they were attacked?” They attack, they kill and they have the “success” of the Chabad being thrown out from the neighbourhood.
If local residents are adamant, then maybe the Chabad should not be in the same area. If they are not going to support it, then how will the Chabad house thrive? [Silent for a while.] They were good people… the rabbi had a spiritual aura.