Sandra Samuel opens the door cautiously, just a few inches. Her smile is tentative, guarded.
When you tell her you have come all the way from Mumbai to talk to her, she says quietly, “One minute. I will ask madam.”
She disappears into the large two-storey house, and is gone for a good ten minutes.
It is a grey, cloudy day. A chilly wind blows through the bleak, charmless north Israeli town of Afula. You are left surveying the garden, which is strewn with little Moshe Holtzberg’s toys bright colored plastic animals, balls, pool sets and more.
An angry exchange of words can be heard through the door. Yehudit Rosenberg, Moshe’s grandmother and Rivka Holtzberg‘s mother, appears at the doorway.
“I am very, very busy, I cannot speak to you,” she says in a strong Israeli accent, and asks you to leave. She is dressed in a floor-length brown skirt and lavender top a tall woman, stern in an odd distracted, faraway but not unkind, manner. Her anger subsides when she realizes how far you have travelled to reach her door.
“I will ask Sandra if she will speak to you,” she says softly.
Moments later, Sandra returns with Yehudit, who suggests we use the sitting area in the garden for the interview. Yehudit says she cannot come to India for the commemoration ceremony at Nariman House on the first anniversary of 26/11, because she has to be with Moshe.
She smiles wistfully, “The other day he said, ‘Savta (grandmother), what colour is my hair? I wish it was a nicer colour’.”
The Rosenberg home is situated on a corner, just five minutes from the centre of Afula and half a kilometre from the bus station that was the target of a suicide bomber attack some years ago.
Afula is uncomfortably close to the West Bank. It is where Rivka grew up with her eight siblings. A high wooden white fence surrounds the house, and the happy faces of Rivka and Gavriel Holtzberg smile out from handbills pasted outside. A poster of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe/spiritual head of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, hangs at the entrance.
It is a quiet, mildly gloomy town; population: 37,000. Sandra — Moshe Holtzberg’s nanny, and one of the bravest heroes of Mumbai’s 26/11 terror attack — who has been in Israel for 11 months now, points immediately to how different it is from living in bustling, upbeat Mumbai.
“It is nice here, clean and neat. I have been all over the place — Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Mount of Olives. But it is very quiet. Everyone goes from place to place in their cars. You don’t see any public! Hamara (my) Hindustan is after all our Hindustan.”
She sorely misses the cheerful daily confusion of Mumbai, and will go home for a vacation for ten days in December to see her sons Martin, 20 and Jackson, 26.
For Sandra, 45, whose family hails from Goa but who is a thorough Mumbaikar, 2008 was a ghastly year. In June her mechanic husband John, a Keralite, died suddenly in his sleep of an undiagnosed illness. And in November, her employers of five years, the Holtzbergs, were brutally killed in the terrorist attack at Nariman House, Mumbai.
When she managed, with scarcely comprehensible presence of mind, to scoop up the curly-haired, dazed and frightened Moshe and escaped from the beleaguered building, she became an instant icon, and poster girl for the many named, and unnamed, heroes of those 60 hours of terror.
2009 has been better. “More calm. My mind is relaxed. Man bahut soch mein rahta hai (Many thoughts wander through my mind all the time).”
She has managed to get over the recurrent nightmares that plagued her in the aftermath of the attacks. “I would dream that the terrorist attack is still happening and I am there. I think at least I could have saved his mother or done something,” she says, her voice a whisper. “I had never met Jews before. But it was so nice to work for them, because they were Israelis. I like Jewish people and I just loved them. They were such good people. Very special.”
Sandra has told the story of her courageous escape from Nariman House with Moshe innumerable times. Her gentle face is now a familiar one a familiarity born of the fact that her photograph has been splashed across newspapers all over the world.
Even a year later, recalling and retelling it is still difficult for her, and she narrates her story haltingly. She remembers that November 26 was a quiet night at the Chabad House, for a change. There had been very few guests, and everyone had eaten early.
At 8.30 pm, she and Rivka were on the 5th floor, having bathed Moshe and watched him say his prayers. She then came away, and that was the very last time she saw Rivka alive.
About an hour later she heard a strange popping sound. “I thought it was phuga (balloons) bursting. Rivki would often give me Rs 40 to buy something from the bazaar for Moshe, and I would bring balloons back. I thought someone was popping them, and I went out to see. There was a man of about 22 or 23, not very fair nor dark, not that tall, holding a gun which I realised was real only when he began to shoot.”
“For a moment I was not sure if this was really happening. I ran back and tried to call the rabbi. The phone was picked up on their end, but no one answered. I could hear a confusion of voices, with fear in them. But through that I could hear Rivka’s voice, she was telling people to be calm and she did not sound scared; she was saying that by God’s grace this will pass.”
“I disconnected the phone and we hid (with the cook Zakir ‘Jackie’ Hussain). But I still never thought it was a terrorist attack. Upstairs, it sounded like a fight was going on in the computer room. Some dhamal (rampaging) was happening. Outside, the public had gathered and then a grenade was thrown. After a few hours I asked the television repair shop fellow across the street what was happening. He said, ‘Auntie there is no one there’.
“All night I could hear the dhoom awaaz (rattle) of gun shots. I could now hear the explosions from the Taj. But I started thinking of the baby. We had put him to sleep on the fifth floor. I started praying. I did not think about Rivka and Gavriel. I just wanted god to keep the baby safe. We have some powerful prayers Psalm 91 and Psalm 23. I started saying those. It helps keep people safe.”
The next morning at about 10.45 I heard the baby crying and calling to me, ‘Sandra, Sandra’. Often, when his mother was still sleeping, he would not wake her up and would come looking for me. So, quickly Jackie and me both went up. He was sitting there next to his parents.
“Rivki did not have even a scratch on her face. I thought they were unconscious. We fled from there with Moshe. But I did not think they were dead, and thought the rabbi would eventually come. On Friday, I learned they had been killed. On Sunday the consulate asked me if I would go with the baby to Israel and I said, ‘Of course’. He needed me.”
Heading to Israel with Moshe was for the devout Catholic nanny her way of following God’s call.
Sandra does not know how long she will be in Israel. She is here because Moshe, who is turning three, needs her. She will be here as long as he needs her, she says in matter of fact fashion. As of now, he is being raised jointly by her and by his grandparents.
She proudly tells you that the child, who would not allow her out of his sight last year, is doing wonderfully. If there were any scars of the terrible ordeal Moshe went through, they are healed, she says.
The counsellors, who have examined Moshe at intervals, also find him doing well. “He is going to school now (learning the Torah, the Jewish religious text)! He talks a lot. He would ask for his parents from time to time. I tell him they have gone up to Shama. Here in Israel he is considered a miracle baby. They think he is like the Moshe (Hebrew for Moses). He came out of the water, and Moshe came out of the fire.”
Today, the life of this simple, loving and exceedingly brave Mumbaikar revolves around Moshe. “I have always loved children,” she says; rescuing Moshe was not a heroic act, but just something a nanny who loved her charge had to do.
At the funeral of the Holtzbergs at Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, a mourner had said Moshe now had no parents, but was a child of all of Israel. What he had not taken into account is that the orphan of terror has both a mother and a father, named Sandra Samuel.
PHOTOS: The ceremony in Afula, Israel, welcoming a new Torah written in memory of the Holtzbergs by French Lubavitch businessman Levi Yitzchak Samama.