Baby Moshe as We Know Him: What Happened at Chabad House on 26/11?
Moshe was two years old when his nanny, Sandra Samuel, grabbed him and escaped from Chabad House in south Mumbai, where his parents, Rabbi Gabriel and Rivka Holtzberg were killed.
Moshe was two years old when his nanny, Sandra Samuel, grabbed him and escaped from Chabad House in south Mumbai, where his parents, Rabbi Gabriel and Rivka Holtzberg were killed. (Photo: AP)

Baby Moshe as We Know Him: What Happened at Chabad House on 26/11?

Moshe Holtzberg was two years old, when his parents were killed in the Nariman House attack as part of the 26/11 siege in Mumbai. Now 11 years old, the young survivor is preparing to visit his birthplace on 15 January, as part of Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s six-day tour to the country.

As Moshe readies to come back to Mumbai for the first time since the attacks that orphaned him, read the story behind the events that led to his unintended popularity as baby Moshe in the country.

In Mumbai’s upscale Colaba locality, 26 November 2008 began like any other day at the Jewish Chabad House, known as Nariman House.

One among the eight synagogues in Mumbai, the Chabad House was run by a young Israeli Jewish couple – Rabbi Gabriel and Rivka Holtzberg – who had moved to India in 2003, after completing a mission in Thailand.

The Nariman House was the Mumbai chapter of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement which promotes Judaism and provides support to Jewish communities around the world. Nariman House exclusively housed Jews – often Israeli tourists on a jaunt after having served their time in the military.

The Holtzberg couple had a two-year-old son, Moshe, and were pregnant with their second child when the fateful attack robbed them of their lives.

The Day That Was

It was a balmy Wednesday, the clock striking a little over 8.00 in the evening, when 10 men in a dinghy landed ashore the city’s Cuff Parade coast. On alighting, the team quickly strategised and split into smaller groups, heading their way to wreak havoc on the country’s financial capital.

Two men from the group, Imran Babur and Nasir, were headed their way to locate Nariman House, the centre-point of the Jewish community in India.

While a Mumbaikar would know that it hardly took 15 minutes to reach Nariman House from Cuff Parade, the terrorists took over an hour-and-a-half to locate the building.

It was 9.45 pm and baby Moshe had just been put to sleep by his nanny Sandra Samuel, in his room located on the fifth floor. After putting the child to sleep, Samuel went to the first floor when the door pushed open and she came face to face with a gunman.

“I saw one man was shooting at me – he shot at me,” Samuel later recalled in an interview to the CNN.

Samuel slammed the door and hid herself in a storage room, frantically trying to reach the rabbi and the others on the second floor, as she heard several gunshots go off in succession.

Meanwhile, Gavriel had called the Israel Consulate to brief them about the situation. “It does not look very good…,” he is reported to have said.

Following this conversation, multiple calls were made by Chabad representatives around the world but the Holtzbergs’ phone went unanswered, till an American rabbi’s luck clicked.

“A Low-Voiced man Picked Up the Call”

Rabbi Levi Shemtov had been trying to reach the Holtzbergs since the news broke. After a long period of wait, the phone was answered by a low-voiced man, who spoke in Urdu.

Recounting the call to Israel’s Army Radio, Shemtov said he found an Urdu speaker and reconnected the call. The voice that answered ‘sounded very calm’ and identified himself as Imran.

Shemtov alleged that he made close to five calls to the terrorist, guided by FBI negotiation experts, asking to speak to one of the hostages.

Over his calls, Imran repeatedly assured that none of the hostages were injured and demanded to speak to a government official.

“Put us in touch with the Indian government and we will let the hostages go,” he reportedly said.

However, by the time Shemtov could connect an Indian government official to the call, the connection was lost owing to the assailant’s low battery. Shemtov told Army Radio that over his phone calls, he heard a woman’s desperate plea, screaming “please help immediately” in English.

By Thursday morning, the Indian security forces had staked out the area around Nariman House.

Nanny Samuel Rescues Moshe

On Thursday morning, Samuel who was cooped up inside the storage room, realised that there was a lull in activity outside. Tip-toeing out of her hideout along with another employee, she moved towards the halls, when she heard little Moshe crying in one of the rooms above.

Directing her co-worker to escape, Samuel rushed towards Moshe’s cries, locating him on the fourth floor near his parent’s unconscious bodies.

Sandra Samuel exiting the Chabad House with Moshe in her arms
Sandra Samuel exiting the Chabad House with Moshe in her arms
(Photo Courtesy: chabad.org)
Swiftly carrying a bundled Moshe in her arms, Samuel ran out of the house, all the while praying that she goes unnoticed.

As she rushed out of the house, she realised Moshe was wearing blood-stained pants, and had marks on his back, indicating some kind of physical assault.

Moshe was handed over to his maternal grandparents Rabbi Shimon and Yehudit Rosenberg, who had come to India as soon as they could.

Two-Day Siege Ends

Meanwhile, the situation remained tense through Thursday, 27 November, as the terrorists continued to hold hostages in the house, even as the security forces managed to vacate the adjoining areas and secure the place.

As dawn broke over the Arabian Sea on Friday, 22 NSG commandos were airlifted onto the Nariman House terrace, with additional forces taking positions in the adjoining buildings to provide cover to the core team.

According to a Times of India report, the NSG commandos waved a piece of red flag from the second floor of the building at around 3.30 pm, signalling to their counterparts.

Gunshots were heard incessantly, as the whole of Colaba resembled a battleground with the locals and police gathered around the building.

22 NSG commandos were airlifted onto the Nariman House terrace.
22 NSG commandos were airlifted onto the Nariman House terrace.
(Photo: Reuters)
The loudest blast was heard at 5.45 pm that evening, as a large window pane on the third floor blew up.

About 25 grenades went off in the ensuing battle, as the terrorists constantly switched their location in the building, making it hard for the security forces to locate them.

Ironically, as the period of Shabbat started on Friday, news emerged that the two terrorists inside the house had been terminated. A heavy-hearted Rabbi Shimon and Yehudit Rosenberg began their Shabbat prayers, amid news of the death of their daughter and son-in-law.

Six Israelis, including the Hotlzbergs, and an NSG commando had been killed in the Operation.

Days after the attack, reports emerged indicating that the two terrorists – Nasir and Imran – had been fed clear instructions to execute the Chabad House siege to perfection, pinning it as the ‘prime target’ of the 26/11 attack.

A Bullet-Ridden Chabad House

A heavy gloom hung over the air in Colaba as recovery teams moved into the Chabad House.

A bullet-ridden Chabad house after the 26/11 attacks. 
A bullet-ridden Chabad house after the 26/11 attacks. 
(Photo Courtesy: chabad.org)

They were greeted by the bloodied bodies of the Holtzbergs, Rabbis Bentzion Chroman and Leibish Teitelbaum, Nora Schwartzblatt-Rabinowitz and Yocheved Orpaz. Portions of the once-majestic structure were destroyed, with gaping holes in the place of doorways and windowpanes.

The Mumbai siege, which ended on Saturday, 29 November 2008, resulted in the death of at least 164 people, wounding over 300 people.

The central synagogue held a memory service for the Holtzbergs, with Moshe’s cries for his mother echoing off the walls.
The central synagogue held a memory service for the Holtzbergs, with Moshe’s cries for his mother echoing off the walls.
(Photo: Reuters)

On Monday morning, the nation woke up to a crying Moshe’s gut-wrenching calls for his mother. The central synagogue held a memory service for the Holtzbergs, with Moshe’s cries for his mother – “Ima! Ima!”– echoing off the walls as hundreds gathered to say goodbye to their rabbi and his wife.

Following the service, an Israeli plane airlifted the remains of the Holtzbergs and the others, taking along Moshe, his grandparents, and his nanny – his saviour.

The Nariman House belongs to Chabad of India Trust.