AT FOUR feet nine inches, Sandra Samuel looks frail and diminutive. But in 2008, she was the face of strength and courage for an entire nation, when she picked up two-year-old Moshe and ran from Chabad House in Mumbai to save his life during the 26/11 attacks in which his parents Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah were brutally killed. Eight years and seven months later, Sandra sits on a bar stool at a roadside cafe on Jafa Street near the Old City in Jerusalem, sipping cola from a plastic bottle, the temperature outside hovering at 36°C.
Sandra works at Aleh Jerusalem Center, a rehabilitation home for disabled children. But every Saturday night, the 53-year-old takes Bus No. 959 to Afula, 95 km away, where Moshe lives with Rivkah’s parents. She calls him “Sonu” or simply “Moshe boy”. “In the last five years, I have only skipped three Sundays. Not bad, no? Sonu gets really upset if I don’t go there on Sundays,” says Sandra.
Last weekend, she says, she was very excited for Sonu. Is it because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to meet Moshe during his visit to Israel starting Tuesday? “No, not just that. Last weekend, he went out on ‘Shabbat’ (the day of rest) with his friends, on his own, for the first time. He is become big, you know, he is 10-and-half years old,” says Sandra.
“I was happy that he went out on his own, without his grandparents or any elders. But I was also sad that he is no longer dependent on us. It’s a mixed emotion, you understand what I am saying,” she says. Sandra remains Moshe’s only link to his slain parents, apart from his grandparents.
“I worked with his family as a nanny for the first three-four years, till he became six years old, and then moved to Jerusalem for full-time work as a nanny for disabled children. Those years were quite challenging because of Moshe. I had to keep all my emotions in check. I had to be very strong for him,” she says.
“He now goes to school, where they give him religious education. He is from a Rabbi family, but he is also learning Math and English,” says Sandra. “Moshe is going to enter his teens, he loves football… (Lionel) Messi or Massi, what is the name of that player? He loves him. Also, Ronaldo. He has also started playing basketball, and ping-pong,” she says, her face lighting up as she shows photos on her cellphone of Moshe playing table tennis and football.
Does Moshe remember anything from that night of 26/11? “No, nothing, he was just a baby then,” says Sandra.
“But I am waiting for him to ask those questions. I remember everything, it’s like a framed picture or a movie in my head. Those hellish moments are stuck in my head,” says Sandra.
“Maybe, he has some questions in his mind, but he does not know English very well, doesn’t know big words. He speaks in Hebrew with everyone and English with me. Maybe, once he starts speaking English properly, he may be able to frame those questions, I don’t know. But I tell him about his father, how kind-hearted he was…he listens, doesn’t ask me anything,” says Sandra.
Once, she says, Moshe asked her, ‘Sandra, that was Chabad House, but where was my father’s house, where did he stay?’ “I had to explain to him that his parents and the family used to stay in Chabad House itself. Here, the Rabbi has a separate house. So, he was confused,” she says, smiling.
Two days after the attack, the Israeli government flew Sandra and Moshe to Israel, where she was granted honorary citizenship. “I still have my Indian citizenship, and I have not given up my passport. I am an Indian,” she says.
Moshe’s tastebuds are “Indian”, too, says Sandra. “Oh, he likes chillies. He likes to sprinkle chilli flakes on his pizzas. Also, he asks for chillies with his meals. He used to love rajma and bhindi when he was a baby, they don’t make it nicely here,” she says.
“He looks like his father now, and is kind and gentle like his mother. His father could be a bit strict at times since he was in charge of the House, but his mother was very soft-hearted. Moshe gives away or asks his grandparents to give away things to children who are not well-off. This is something I had seen in his mother,” she says.
Sandra has two sons, Martin (34) and Jackson (26), who live in India. “But I have a more personal connection with Moshe than with my own children. He means more to me than my children,” says Sandra, who lost her husband six months before the 26/11 attacks.
“It was a double shock that year, 2008, I still get nightmares,” says Sandra, shuddering while recalling those days.
According to the official schedule, Prime Minister Modi is expected to meet Moshe, his maternal grandparents from Afula and his paternal grandparents, who are expected to fly down from New York. The family is hoping to invite the Indian Prime Minister for Moshe’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony, which they are planning to hold in Mumbai when the boy turns 13.
As for her, Sandra says, “Let’s see. I will be at their service till Moshe needs me. I am in Israel for him. Initially, I was supposed to go back after he turned 10. But they still want me around. I don’t know what is in the future. But I do hope he grows up to be kind-hearted like his parents.”