How Mumbai attack on Jews unfolded

Boudreaux is a Times staff writer.

A somber Israel buried Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives on Tuesday, his body wrapped in a prayer shawl, hers in a shroud.

They left behind 2-year-old son Moshe, who had been with them in Mumbai, India, and many mysteries about the circumstances of their violent deaths.

The Holtzbergs were among six Jews killed last week during a terrorist attack on the obscure outreach center the pair were running in the back streets of the metropolis in western India, part of the calculated carnage that left more than 170 people dead across the nation’s financial capital.

Details of the attack that killed the Holtzbergs and the four others, who also were buried Tuesday in Israel, have begun to emerge. The still murky account was provided by the only two adult survivors of the assault on the Chabad-Lubavitch center and by Indians living nearby.


The sketchy information has only raised troubling questions. Why, for example, did Indian police take hours to respond to the first explosions and gunfire at the center? Were any of the Jewish hostages killed by Indian commandos during the final assault to free them, or were they already dead?

There are reports of a terrorist answering overseas phone calls from friends of the Holtzbergs, who were frantically trying to win their release; heartbreaking accounts of a blood-soaked Moshe crying at the side of his slain parents.

And still, no clear explanation of the assailants’ aim in attacking a faceless Jewish center on an unpaved back street of Mumbai.

On the day of the attack, the Holtzbergs were hosting a small group in the ultra-Orthodox center, one of hundreds of Chabad houses in 70 countries.

An unarmed Indian guard sat outside as five Jewish travelers dropped in for afternoon prayers, a kosher meal at the Holtzbergs’ table and a bed for the night.

Yocheved Orpaz, a 60-year-old Israeli, was en route to join her family on an Indian vacation. Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum, a 37-year-old American resident of Israel, and his friend Bentzion Chroman, 28, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, were in India as part of their international work supervising the preparation of kosher food.

They were joined by David Bialka, a 52-year-old diamond trader and a frequent guest at the center on his business travels, and Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, a 50-year-old Mexican Jew visiting India on her way to start a new life in Israel.

Sometime before 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 26, the center came under attack by at least two gunmen. Rabbi Holtzberg telephoned the Israeli Consulate. “This is not a good situation,” the 29-year-old told security officer Ehud Raz before the line went dead.

Upstairs, Bialka had just fallen asleep and was rousted by an explosion. He squeezed through a small fifth-floor bathroom window and shimmied down water pipes, hopping from one air-conditioning unit to another until he reached the ground.

Then his good fortune turned bad. Aroused by the commotion, an angry crowd had already gathered outside the building and mistook Bialka for a militant. They attacked him.

“Twice I tried to get near the building, wanting to go back in and help,” he recalled. “But they put me in a cab and took me to the police.”

The thwarting of that early rescue effort typified the chaos at the scene. Neighbors heard two blood-curdling screams, one from a man and the other from a woman, and gathered outside the center. A terrorist tossed out a grenade, killing an Indian in the crowd.

By the time security officer Raz and another armed Israeli arrived, the crowd was so agitated that it chased them to the police station too. They were detained for hours.

Israelis and Indians alike ask why it took police so long to respond. Kamaljeet Singh, who witnessed the grenade explosion, said that he rushed to a police station and then to a nearby naval base, but that officers told him they had no permission from higher-ups to act.

The Indian response to the attacks across the city has been widely criticized as under-armed, slow and confused.

It took more than three hours for police to arrive at Nariman House, where the Chabad hostel is located, Singh said. Israeli officials believe that by that time, at least one or two of the eight unarmed adults inside were dead.

The house was quiet the next morning, Thursday, until nanny Sandra Samuel heard Moshe’s cries. Leaving her hide-out in a laundry room, the 44-year-old Nepalese ran up a flight of stairs and found the bodies of the rabbi, his 28-year-old wife and two guests. They had apparently been shot, and Moshe was crying at his parents’ side, his pants drenched in blood. The gunmen were apparently on the roof.

Samuel picked up the boy and fled the building.

Also on Thursday, the Mexican hostage, Rabinovich, was ordered to place two calls to Israeli diplomats and relay a demand that Indian forces refrain from attacking the building.

That afternoon the rabbi’s cellphone rang. A gunman answered gruffly in Urdu.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov was calling from Washington, trying desperately to reach his Chabad-Lubavitch colleague. The gunman spoke no English, Shemtov said, so the rabbi found an interpreter and dialed again.

Without identifying a cause or spelling out demands, the gunman promised to free his captives if he got what he wanted. He identified himself as Imran Babar, age 25, and said all the hostages were OK.

Shemtov promised to put Babar in touch with Indian authorities. But efforts to patch an Indian police official into a subsequent call failed.

Israeli officials said there was never any negotiation with the two gunmen.

“I asked if we could hear the voice of the rabbi, or someone who was alive there,” Shemtov said. “We only heard the voice of one woman screaming in English, ‘Please help immediately!’ ”

That was the last reported sign of life from any of the hostages.

When Shemtov insisted again on speaking to Rabbi Holtzberg, he said Babar replied: “You’ve already asked for too much.”

The gunman hung up and called an Indian television station. He ranted against Israel’s security cooperation with India and an Israeli army general’s September visit to the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, the territory fought over by India and Pakistan.

“This is a matter between us and the Hindu [Indian] government,” Babar said. “Why does Israel come in here?”

“We are tired of facing tortures and injustices. We are forced to do this.”

Indian commandos flown in from New Delhi had arrived at the Jewish center Thursday morning. But Raz, the Israeli security official, said he saw no serious effort to capture the building until early Friday, when blue-clad troops slid down ropes from a helicopter to the roof and battled their way inside.

Amid broken furniture on blood-soaked floors, soldiers and medics found the bodies of the six victims. Two of the women, Orpaz and Rabinovich, were bound together. In a library strewn with red-stained pages of holy books, Chroman’s body was slumped over an open Talmud. The rabbi, his wife and Teitelbaum were also dead.

The head of an Israeli medical rescue team that removed the bodies said some of the hostages may have been killed by Indian gunfire during the raid. Israeli officials disavowed the report, saying the team was unqualified to make that judgment.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry persuaded the Indian authorities to refrain from examining the corpses, which would have violated Jewish religious law.

“No autopsies were performed,” said Yigal Palmor, the ministry’s spokesman. “So we’ll never know for sure how and when the hostages died.”


Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Mumbai contributed to this report.