That Night My Life As I Knew It Ended

It’s so important that an organisation like OneFamily exists, so that people with this shared experience can support each other and know that they are not alone.

By Marian Lebor

Sigalit Shemla has total recall of Seder night ten years ago. That year, her parents-in-law decided to take their children and grandchildren to the Park Hotel in Netanya, rather than making Seder at one of their homes as they usually did. They were all smartly dressed in honour of the holiday and she remembers that Gavriel, her 4-year-old son, wore a white shirt and blue trousers. They all walked together into the dining room, but before they even had time to take their seats there was a huge blast.

At about 7.30 pm, a Palestinian terrorist disguised as a woman entered the hotel carrying a suitcase filled with explosives. He walked straight through the lobby and into the dining room where 250 people were gathering for the Seder. He detonated the explosives, killing 30 and injuring 140, many of them seriously.

“The immediate memory that stands out for me is the sight of Gavriel lying unconscious on the floor in front of me, his white shirt covered in blood,” recalls Sigalit. Among the dead was her brother-in-law, Shimon Ben-Aroya. His daughter Sherry was very seriously injured, as was Gavriel.

Sherry Ben-Aroya remains permanently disabled, and Gavriel needed four major operations during his long road to recovery. “It’s a miracle that he survived and recovered as well as he did – physically, at least,” says Sigalit. “But psychologically he is still traumatised. We all are. You can’t imagine the total horror and chaos of that night. My brother-in-law was dead; my son was rushed to one hospital and other family members were taken to different hospitals; my seven-year-old daughter was screaming and clutching my dress, and I was comforting my two-year-old twins in my arms. I was physically fine that night, and I believe it was because I had to be, so that I would be able to look after everyone else.”

A wave of shootings, grenade attacks and suicide bombings killed more than 130 civilians in March 2002, making it the bloodiest month of the Second Intifada. The Park Hotel attack, the deadliest of all, was the catalyst for the Israeli government’s decision to send troops into the West Bank to root out terrorists. Twenty thousand reservists received emergency call-up notices and by 29 March, two days after the Seder night massacre, Operation Defensive Shield was under way. This grim period also led to the building of the security fence between the West Bank and Israel. Faced with relentless terror attacks and a mounting civilian death toll, the fence was viewed as a way of keeping terrorists at bay.

In such a small country, most Israelis feel a sense of identification with, and connection to, victims of terror. This is what led Michal Belzberg to cancel her Bat Mitzvah celebration, which should have taken place the week after Sbarro suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem in August 2001. Instead, she donated her gifts and raised funds to help victims of the attack. OneFamily grew from her initiative and today it is a nationwide organisation that ensures that those who are bereaved, injured or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – and sometimes terror victims fall into all these categories – will receive the rehabilitative and material help they need.

Last Tuesday, on the tenth anniversary of the attack, OneFamily arranged an event at the Park Hotel in memory of all the victims. Dalia Falistian’s parents, Dvora and Michael Karim, were killed in the bombing. She spoke at the memorial event, holding the last picture of the three of them together that was taken shortly before Pesach 2002. “On 27 March 2002 my life, as I knew it, ended. My parents didn’t die because they were old and sick. They were killed simply because they decided to go to the Park Hotel – just for Seder night. In an instant, I was left alone in the world. I’m still trying to recover. OneFamily cares for me, helps me to find work and arranges weekends away for bereaved victims of terror. This is my family now.”

Psychotherapy can be very helpful in dealing with grief and trauma, but as Dr. Batya Ludman, an Israeli clinical psychologist who specialises in trauma and terrorism, points out: “People look for meaning when grieving, but how do you make sense out of such a random act of violence?“

Bereaved families often say they are surrounded by people initially, but after a while they are expected to “move on” and get on with their lives. “Friends and family can only hear so much about your pain, and while therapy serves a valuable purpose in many ways, it’s also beneficial when people can approach others with a shared trauma history,” says Dr. Ludman. “They gain tremendous support by having ‘new family’ that simply understands. That’s why it’s so important that an organisation like OneFamily exists, so that people with this shared experience can support each other and know that they are not alone.”

For some, it takes time to recognise that there is any problem at all. Marc Kahlberg, who was then head of the Tourist Police in Netanya, recalls how being the first responder to 16 terror attacks eventually took its toll on his emotional wellbeing. “I was one of the first on the scene at the Park Hotel and saw the utter carnage. It was so heartbreaking having to remove body parts of innocent civilians, many of them elderly Holocaust survivors, who had gone there in the expectation of enjoying a communal Seder night.”

There was, he says, an unwritten “code of silence” in the police, and he wouldn’t talk about his own trauma. He retired from the police in 2006. It was only two and half months ago, when he met a policewoman who had been in the force at the same time and they shared their traumatic experiences, that he finally acknowledged that he had a problem. “This is the first time in ten years that I will sit down with my family, determined to enjoy the Seder. I’m determined to be strong, and resist the images that have haunted me for all these years.”

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