Netanya, Israel — For Jews all over the world the Passover seder is traditionally a time to relish friends and family over a festive holiday meal.
For terror victims — especially those who survived and lost loved ones in the Park Hotel massacre 10 years ago this month — Passover and other family-oriented holidays are often filled with grief and longing.
A decade ago, Corinne Chamami was at the Park, a cozy, older hotel just yards from the Netanya beachfront, when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as a woman entered the oval dining room where 200-plus guests, most of them elderly and many of them Holocaust survivors, were attending a seder.
To this day, Chamami, whose husband, Amiram, 44, was the manager, cannot bring herself to describe what happened when the bomber blew himself up in the confined space. News footage of the attack, the deadliest of the second intifada, showed scenes of unspeakable carnage. Scores of first responders worked to extricate the injured and dead from the collapsed room, where glass and twisted metal tore into the victims’ bodies.
During a press conference at the hotel last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the attack, Chamami couldn’t find the words to say that Amiram was one of the 30 killed, or that some of her children were among the 140 injured. But surrounded by others who shared her ordeal, she lit a yahrtzeit candle when Ami’s handsome face appeared on a large screen and his name, like that of the other victims (eight families lost multiple relatives), was read aloud in a moving ceremony in the hotel’s long-refurbished dining room.
What Chamami did manage to describe was the aftermath.
“I was alone with six children. The youngest was 7, the oldest was 21 and in the army. I had to be strong for them, but all I wanted to do was sleep. You want to die.”
Thanks to her family, her kids, and One Family, an organization that assists terror victims, Chamami, somehow managed to go on. She continues to work at the Park, which is owned by her family. Even so, she told The Jewish Week in a quavering voice, “of course, Pesach is very hard, especially hard.”
Ruth Bar-On, director of SELAH, an organization that assists immigrant victims of terror and accidents, as well as others in the midst of a severe crisis, said that “at every holiday and simcha, there’s space for life and space for those who are absent. The feelings of loss soar days, even weeks before, due to the preparations.”
While all holidays can be difficult, she noted, Passover can be especially tough on the heartstrings.
“It’s such an important holiday, with so much meaning.” And in the mind of many Israelis, it’s the door leading to Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, which will be marked in the coming weeks.
Batia Weinberg, a One Family caseworker, agrees that holidays and Shabbat are especially painful for any Israeli who has lost a loved one.
“During the week we work, we have obligations. On Shabbat and holidays you have time to think and notice the empty chair even more.”
But while Passover is never easy for the bereaved, it can be unbearable for the Park Hotel survivors.
“Pesach brings back the massacre. It brings back the worst moment in their lives,” Weinberg said.
“There’s a lot of grief, and people feel down. They wonder how they’re going to get through [seder] night.”
Even so, no two people respond in exactly the same way. Some victims or family members leave the country for the holiday while others haven’t attended a seder since the tragedy.
“Still others say, ‘It was awful but we have to overcome and continue to live,’ Weinberg said.
The staffers and teams of volunteers associated with One Family, Selah, the Koby Mandel Foundation and other crisis-oriented organizations make great efforts to reach out to the victims at this time.
One Family and Koby Mandel operate pre-Passover and summer camps for victims and their families. All three organizations offer retreats at various times of the year.
“When you lose a family member, you enter a life of loneliness and feel separated from others,” explained Marc Belzberg, whose family founded One Family. “What the victims need is to be with each other, because they understand loss.”
Dalia Falistian, an only child who lost both her parents in the massacre, said she becomes nearly paralyzed at Passover time.
Now 52, Falistian was spending the seder with her boyfriend’s family at the time of the attack.
Clutching a photo of her herself and her parents, Falistian described how she learned of the bombing after midnight and spent the next few hours searching for her parents at hospitals.
“At 5 a.m. my uncle called to say I should come to Abu Kabir [morgue] to identify them,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “They handed me their jewelry.”
From then on, “my life was finished. I’m alone,” said Falistian, whose boyfriend — her lifeline —died suddenly of a heart attack two years later.
“Now I have no one to be with on Shabbat. I sometimes feel like I’m 10 years old, yet the government doesn’t care about people like me. They say I’m too old” to receive financial or emotional assistance.
Clearly still very fragile, Falistian said she would be unable to function without One Family’s help.
“They care if I have money, if I’m eating. They are my family now. You know where I’m going for seder? To Batia’s house,” she said, referring to Weinberg, the caseworker.
Another person who will be attending a seder this year is Marc Kahlberg, a first responder who was deeply traumatized by the massacre.
A former police officer who had completed a security briefing at the Park Hotel 45 minutes prior to the bombing, Kahlberg was devastated by bombing and the death of his friend Ami Chamami, who headed the local hoteliers association.
“I became a different person. I stopped being with my friends,” Kahlberg said of his response.
For more than nine years, he refused to seek help, “because there is a code of silence among police officers.”
Kahlberg left the force in 2005 when, during a briefing he was giving in Netanya to five members of New York’s counterterrorism unit, a suicide bomber blew himself up nearby. It was the last straw.
Two months ago, at the urging of a colleague, Kahlberg finally agreed to seek help, and he has.
Feeling almost reborn after articulating his pain, he believes he is ready to sit at a seder for the first time in 10 years without crying.
“This year, I’m feeling resilient,” Kahlberg said.
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