Dear Shmuel Elimelech and Chani,
At such a difficult time, no words can ever express what one’s heart feels.
We are all crying along from far, feeling your pain from deep inside.
Praying and hoping we shall all be zoche to the true geula, bimhera beyamenu (privileged to experience the true redemption, speedily in our days) amen.
Matanya and Chany Nathansen
This poignant and heartfelt personal message to the bereaved parents of Chaya Zisel comes from another bereaved couple who experienced the all too similar and tragic loss of their young daughter in the “Children’s Bus” terrorist attack during the Second Intifada. The Nathansens feel the Braun’s pain and anguish deeply and dedicate their story of hope and healing to the memory of Chaya Zisel Braun who was tragically killed on October 22, 2014 when a terrorist rammed his car into a crowd of people at the Ammunition Hill light train stop in Jerusalem. Shmuel Elimelech and Chani Braun had taken their only child, three month old Chaya Zisel, to the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, for the first time.
On August 19, 2003, the Nathansens of Zichron Yaacov – parents Matanya and American-born Chana, with their children Yehudit (6), Tehilla (3), Shoshana (six months), and Matanya’s youngest sister Sara – were visiting family in Jerusalem and had begun their evening with prayers at the Kotel. Chana was holding Tehilla on her left knee next to her baby sister Shoshana on the right and Matanya, Yehudit, and Sara were standing in the aisle behind them when the crowded Egged bus no. 2 they were on exploded as it drove through Jerusalem;s Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood. Twenty-three people were killed and over 130 wounded when a Palestinian Arab suicide bomber disguised as a religious Jew detonated a five-kilogram (11 lb.) device packed with ball bearings.
Tehilla died instantly and Chana was severely injured, with a broken thigh and ribs, shattered hip, torn spleen, and shrapnel in her right eye and face. She had many metal pellets in her body. “I must have lost consciousness. I remember thinking it can’t be happening; it must be a dream. I remember crying again and again, ‘My thigh, my thigh!’ but I have no memory of pain. I wasn’t really there. I guess I knew something was going on and I remember telling myself it’s impossible that I was in a pigua (terrorist attack). So thank heaven for that. I didn’t have to deal with the fears and worries and whatever…at the beginning.”
Matanya flew through the doors when the bus exploded and landed a long distance away, breaking his shoulder and foot and tearing the cornea in his eye. Yehudit was lightly wounded in the neck by shrapnel – millimeters away from her jugular vein. Shoshana was almost not recognizable; she suffered second degree burns to her face and was hit by two small ball bearings.
When I interviewed Chana fifteen months after the attack, she and her family were still recovering, and words could not describe their pain. “We don’t have to describe what it feels like to lose a child. Words aren’t sufficient enough… Obviously, we are not back to normal. We are still not back to ourselves physically. We are busy with treatments and surgery.” What helped her most was “emuna, my belief, the knowledge that everything is from above. We know that nothing happens without a reason. Everything has a reason.” She believes the saying in Hebrew, “l’kol kadur yesh ketovet – each bullet has its address. So my daughter had one of these in her head. She was suddenly like an angel. We were hurt more than she was. So we know everything is planned. Nothing just happens by chance.” She believes that “my whole life before – all of my experiences put together – is what makes me a person and helps me deal with crisis.”
Chana is grateful to Hashem for the “miracle” of their survival. “In the beginning, we were very, very grateful for all the miracles. But then the more that time passes, the more you become busy with yourself and where you’ve been. Because we had suffered our loss, it put everything in proportion so it made the physical changes easier. On the one hand, we didn’t have the energy to deal with all the technicalities. On the other hand, it caused us to see things for what they really were.”
She also is very grateful about life. “I was always very grateful and I’m a very appreciative type of person. Every morning I would wake up and thank God for everything that He gave us. Now I pray more than I did. It’s not like I have a stronger belief, because I had a strong belief. But I did feel the difference in the small things of life. I never took for granted that I have three beautiful daughters and I always thank Hashem for it. I did, however, take for granted that I can use the facilities alone, without help. I can just go ahead and walk to wherever I can. So those things have changed.”
And she is grateful for the physical pain from her severe injury “because if not for the pain that I was in – I was so busy with myself – the emotional pain of my daughter’s death would have really been unbearable.”
During Chana’s recovery, her husband’s support was “amazing and helped me through,” as did her mother who lives nearby, her small but “very, very understanding” Orthodox community, and an informal support group of mothers who had lost children. The support of everyone meant a lot. “We really felt the meaning of nation and unity. People came from all over the country, people who I knew and people who I didn’t know. Visitors from the United States also came to give their support. During those first overwhelming moments, the support was really very important. Of course, we needed it all along the way – but then people forget. But that’s natural, and there’s nothing to do about it.” She still needs help and has “those few friends who are still understanding of my need.”
Chana likes to write and, with her family, published a memorial booklet about Tehilla on the first anniversary of her death. She is also working on a book about her family’s struggle with the traumatic experience – as a memorial for her daughter and “because it is important for people to know.” The book is titled Nesaper Tehillotecha (We Will Tell Your Praises), which is both a play on Tehilla’s name and an expression of thanksgiving to God for saving them. The book is also a memorial to other victims of terror. “I always took very much to heart all the piguim (terror attacks) and had a plan to interview families and put together a book of stories and remembrance...Unfortunately it became my story.”
Chana believes that good things should come out of the bad experience. In spite of the disorder and distress in her life, she recognizes that she experienced growth “in the deeper inner spiritual meaning. Of course our aim is to be better people and when you face death face to face, you want to make life more meaningful.” People helped her so much at first that it made her want to give to others. “I felt like I owed the world because everyone was so nice to me. I felt like I had to pay a debt – to be on the giving end.” As a result, she turned to charitable deeds to help others and in memory of Tehilla.
She started a fund, through the larger organization Ezer Mizion, to provide physiotherapy and other paramedical treatments for needy children with Down syndrome. She also founded and runs a community organization called Ner l’Tehilla (A candle, or memorial, for Tehilla), which supports women after childbirth. “We want good things to come out of this experience – positive growth. We don’t want such tragedies to happen, but if nothing good is going to happen as a result of these tragedies, then, to a certain extent, I would feel like all these people died for nothing.”
Reflecting back ten years later, Chana told me that “There are always ups and downs” as she and her family still struggle with medical issues and deal with them emotionally. Nevertheless, “in general I feel stronger within, and I hope things turn out okay. Thinking back, I continue to feel how impossible it would have been to go on without emuna. That’s of course what’s keeping me going now too. And I guess our struggle is not over, we always have new mountains to climb.”
May Chaya Zisel's parents find the strength and emuna to keep climbing.
Partially excerpted from Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing, by Zieva Dauber Konvisser, PhD, Gefen, 2014.
Zieva Dauber Konvisser, PhD, is a Fellow of the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University. Her book Living Beyond Terrorism: Israeli Stories of Hope and Healing is a look at how 48 survivors of terrorism move forward from terrorism to hope and optimism and from grief to meaning and healing.