Nearly 65 km from south Mumbai’s Chabad House, in an unremarkable home in the Mira Road suburb, hangs a photo of Moshe Holtzberg as a two-year-old baby, smiling into the camera and unaware of the terror that was still to visit his family. It’s the home of Qazi Zakir Hussain, now 30, seen nine years ago in newspaper photographs holding a sobbing Baby Moshe at the funeral of his parents, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah, who were killed in the siege of the Chabad centre in Colaba during the 26/11 terror attacks.
Hussain, a cook and helper in the Holtzberg household in Colaba in 2008, was hiding along with Moshe’s nanny Sandra Samuel when the attack at the Chabad House began, and escaped along with her and baby Moshe. Now glued to the television news about Moshe’s first visit to Mumbai since he left in the aftermath of the attacks to live with his grandparents in Afula, Israel, Hussain is keen to meet the boy who he helped save nine years ago. “But what if he does not recognise me?”
So, instead, Hussain is taking satisfaction in watching Moshe on TV, knowing the boy he was once deeply attached to is leading a normal and secure life. Hussain now has a daughter aged two. Until a few years ago, he would sometimes hear Moshe’s voice over the phone whenever Sandra telephoned from Afula. “It’s been a few years now since I heard his voice,” he says.
Hussain still remembers the night of 26/11 and the subsequent days with absolute clarity. He had worked for over four years at the Nariman House, as the only Muslim staffer, first as a caretaker and later as a cook. When they heard baby Moshe’s cries, he and Samuel had rushed together to the second floor. Hussain picked up the crying baby and handed him to Samuel, who wrapped Moshe in her arms. The two then ran out together, after excruciating hours holed up in a laundry room while the carnage continued inside the Chabad House.
“I was clearing the dinner table on the first floor when the terrorists barged in. It was after 9 pm,” he says. The Holtzbergs, he adds, had retired to the second floor to pray. Samuel and he first went out to inspect the source of the noise but quickly took shelter when a spray of bullets came in their direction. “We went to a side-room and locked ourselves in for the entire night and the next day.”
Hussain says he offered his final prayers, believing those were his final moments. He called his elder brother, who worked nearby, to inform him. “I remember the sound of bullets, of grenades.we could hear the movements of the terrorists.” A whole day later, Hussain, then 21, and Samuel, then 44, heard baby Moshe cry from the floor above. When they silently reached the second floor, Moshe was sitting between his dead parents, his pants soaked in blood. “The door to the room had been blasted by a grenade. It lay on one side. There were bullet marks on the wall,” Hussain recollects.
He remembers the silence at that moment. The terrorists were on the upper floors — they could have been resting, he thinks. “We decided to run out of the building. The police were waiting on the road.”
In 2010, Samuel was granted honorary citizenship of Israel. Hussain, the youngest among five siblings from Assam’s Kareemganj, says he had an ailing mother, and no passport, so he decided to stay back in India. He started residing with Samuel’s son Martin and had looked after the Chabad House property for a few months following the attack.
Hussain then found work at a falafel outlet on Lamington Road, also working for another Jewish family. He now works at Taj Sats Air Catering Ltd. Three years ago, he got married, and says his daughter who lives in Assam constantly reminds him of Moshe. On his cellphone, he still has all the photographs of the attack and news reports about Moshe. There is also a gallery full of footage from the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. In one, Hussain is holding Baby Moshe who is sobbing, a red ball clutched in his hands, at his parent’s funeral. “But life goes on. See, he is doing so well now,” says Hussain, with a hint of smile.