Death in a Synagogue

They could hear the iron doors at the front of the synagogue clang shut behind them.  Crowded together with 2,000 other people inside the main sanctuary, the man and the woman looked at each other in panic. The woman gazed down at her five year-old-son and gripped the little boy’s hand. She saw fear on his face.  Outside they heard shouting and could smell the pungent reek of flowing gasoline.  From the open window a swab, glowing with fire, landed on the synagogue floor. Then another. And another.  Shortly, the vestibule next to which they stood caught alight.  The flames then spread so quickly that they barely had time to catch their breath as the synagogue was engulfed in confusion and panic.  Screaming and shouting, people tore at each other to get near the windows.  But the windows had been nailed shut. Crushed in the throng, the man motioned to his wife to a hidden stairway that he knew led to an attic.  Slowly, through the gathering fumes and smoke, they forced their way towards it.   Once there they hurriedly clambered up.   And at the top they saw it.  A window not yet boarded up.  The man thrust open the wooden shutters and looked down.  He was there!

” Chaim! ”  he shouted at the top of his lungs. ” CHAIM!!!”

From down below a young man looked up and saw his father’s face.

” Jump, father, jump!!”

The woman  looked to her husband and she back at him. She shook her head.

” We CANNOT. We will never survive it. Never!”

” Basia, we will die here too.

But it was too late. Someone had seen them make their way to the stairs and a group now stormed the wooden steps ,invading the narrow space.  They were  crushed against the attic wall.

” We will all die!,” the woman wept.

The man looked down at his frightened son.

” GIVE ME HIM!” he shouted above the din.

She let go of his hand and pushed him toward her husband.  He lifted the boy by his armpits and with  a heave pushed his way  toward the open window.

He then set  him on the window ledge and looked below.

” Chaim, I am throwing him to you!, he shouted to the brother below. ” You must catch him!  You must break his fall!”

He turned to the boy and said softly:

” You will be alright. Chaim will catch you.  He touched  the boy’s face and kissed him.

” Grow, my son, to be a good Jew. ”

” NO, Tati, NO!!!  the boy cried.

But in less than a second he was tumbling through the cold night air.

Below his brother stood breathing hard and as the boy came down he caught him and they both collapsed into the snow.

There they lay for a second, stunned, and then the boy turned and looked back to the window.  But his father’s face had disappeared.

” TATI!!!!” the boy screamed.

They waited for a minute, as the tumult grew –  but they could already see smoke pouring from the attic window.  The older boy looked around and saw the police riding towards them.  He knew they had to leave.

” Come.  We cannot stay.”

”  I can’t,no”  the boy whimpered.  “TATI!, MAMMA!”  he cried as  he searched desperately for a sign of  his parents at the window.

“COME! ” the older boy finally commanded, holding back his own tears and pulling at the child’s arm.  ” YOU MUST COME!”

They quickly made their way out of the town and hid for the night in the fields under a blanket they had found.  They watched that night as the synagogues of Kiev burned to the ground.

Six months later  the orphan would be placed on a ship to Australia in the company of his aunt, never to see Russia again.  His brother would make his way to Canada and then America to begin a new life of his own.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  *

The man and the woman were my great-grandparents.  Their five -year-old son, my grandfather.   Their story is scorched into my family’s consciousness and the memory of that night can never be erased.


Stories such as this are replete among Jewish families.  This event took place in 1919 during the Russian Civil War but could have easily been a scene taken from any number of episodes in Jewish history from the killing of the Jews of Medina by Mohammed in the 7th Century, to the rampages of the Crusaders along the Rhine in the 11th Century to the massacres in Russia in the mid 1600s

The synagogue has always been a convenient place to find and kill Jews.  There, at prayer, they are most vulnerable and least likely to offer resistance.

And so, it is little wonder that two Arab cousins  decided to enter the Jerusalem synagogue  in Har Nof, Jerusalem on  Wednesday morning.  How likely would it have been that these pious Jews were carrying weapons with which to defend themselves or would have any idea that their lives might be in danger?  How prepared could they have been for what overcame them that morning?B

This particular incident has yet another painful  familial association for me. My brother, his wife and six children live only a quarter of a mile from the synagogue. He has often prayed in the building  and his children have attended the school next door.

Jews began arriving in Palestine in the late 19th Century, fleeing attacks in Russia of exactly this nature.   The theory went that in the Holy Land, Jews would finally find safety and security building lives protected from the antisemitism and violence which swirled around them in Europe.  In the light of this most recent horrific incident it would be fairly easy to argue that the experiment has failed.  If Jews at prayer can still be butchered in a land they call their own, then what is the use of a Jewish police force, a Jewish army and all the appertuances of a Jewish state?

The answer to this challenge is that there are no guarantees anywhere on Earth that Jews will not be targeted for attack.  Not in England, where Orthodox Jews fear wearing their yarmulkes in public; not in the United States where virulent anti Zionism, (of a form indistinguishable from antisemtism) has emerged as a fashionable attitude among academic elites;   and not in supposedly quiet Australia where Jews have recently suffered some deeply disturbing antisemitic attacks, unknown to me at any time in my childhood.

But unlike my great-grandparents, who had nowhere to go and nowhere to turn, Jews in Israel have much to be grateful for. It is not the existence of an Israeli police force, nor an Israeli army.   Nor is it even a Jewish majority government.  It is a sense that despite the antisemitism that again rages around the world and the growing diplomatic isolation of the Jewish state as it struggles against pathological murderers and debased liars, the wind of history is no longer blowing against  them;  it is now blowing at their back.

The Jewish birth rate in Israel is higher than it has ever been and despite all dire predictions, far exceeds that of the Palestinians or Arabs in any other Arab State; Israel’s pre-eminence  as a high-tech hub has elevated it to a position of tremendous importance for the world’s most successful corporations making the state’s eradication  economically unimaginable.  Jewish nationalism, long derided by the post-Zionist academics and secular intelligentsia is making a significant comeback, buoyed by the idea that the nation , for  all its fractured differences, must be united and strong in the face of such adversity.

But even more important than any of  this is the growing national sense  that Judaism, once relegated as an ancient anachronism by so many secular Israelis, may actually be the life blood of the nation. Four rabbis were butchered in a synagogue while praying.  A severed arm, found in the bloodied synagogue, still wrapped in tefillin, offered a stirring symbol of faith and commitment in the face of the terror with which our enemies wish to undermine our perseverance .

It would seem to reinforce  the words of millions of Jewish fathers to their sons throughout the generations which perhaps offers the true key to Jewish survival:

“Grow, my son, to be a good Jew.”

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles. He blogs at The Intermediate Zone


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