Sam Finkel interviewed Marsha Grant in Yerushalayim on Monday, March 28. This is her story.
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My purpose in coming to Israel was to look for an apartment. My husband and I are planning to make aliyah in the summer, and a couple of prospects looked promising. The only way to move forward would be to actually see the apartments. Having never been in Israel over Purim, I decided to book a flight leaving Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. with Brussels Air on Monday, March 21, with a one-and-a-half- hour layover in Brussels, arriving in Israel on Tuesday, March 22 – the day before Taanis Esther. I’d be ready for the fast, enjoy Purim with my grandchildren, and perhaps even close a deal on an apartment.
The flight with Brussels Air was perfect – even arrived at Brussels Airport 10 minutes early. I don’t sit still; I’m the type that loves to wander and window shop when I’m at the airport, and that’s exactly what I did. I was in transit, so I didn’t have to check in. I soon found myself at the other end of the airport, far from check-in at the departure gates.
Security at the airport was quite lax – nothing until after passport control. Unlike Ben Gurion airport, where security personnel scrutinize each person entering the building, there was no one taking notice of the three Muslims pushing their wagons carrying the bomb-laden suitcases towards check-in.
I was too far away to have heard the explosions from the bombs that went off between the check-in counters of American Airlines and Brussels Air. (Most of those checking in at Brussels Air at that hour were flying to Tel Aviv. The terrorists knew what they were doing.)
Suddenly, someone from airport security called out, “MOVE TO THE END OF THE TERMINAL! MOVE TO THE END OF THE TERMINAL!”
What was that all about? Hundreds of people had gathered at gate 40, bewildered as to what was going on. Suddenly, someone said, “There was a bomb.” It was not anyone official. What did that mean – they found a bomb? A bomb went off? I was clueless.
After about half an hour they told us that we all had to evacuate the airport – without our luggage. That meant that people with carryon pieces had to leave them behind. My luggage was checked in at Dulles to go all the way to Tel Aviv. All I had on me was my pocketbook.
Outside, on the tarmac, I stood with thousands of people, old and young (including babies) of every nationality, waiting for three hours in the cold. There were no police, no airport personnel – and we had no idea what was going on. We had no water, no food, no bathroom facilities. Some people who were in transit from warm countries were in their shorts and sandals. Many people didn’t have coats. All I had was my sweatshirt. It was 37 degrees Fahrenheit outside! Finally, some airport personnel appeared with water bottles and blankets.
After the first hour outside, the rumors were getting stronger and stronger that something major and scary had taken place, and it was then that I decided to look for my own people. This was going to be a long-term proposition, and I needed support. I started wandering through the vast crowds and came across a group of five chasidim – three women and two men. They were Belzers from Kiryat Belz in Jerusalem who had come to Belgium to celebrate a family simcha in Antwerp. Another lady, an American now living in Israel named Chani Elefant, also wandered with an 18-month-old baby in a stroller until she found our little subgroup.
Only one of the chasidim spoke English. She told us that her husband and brother were at check-in when the bomb went off and were injured. (She had wandered off to the duty-free store and was out of harm’s way). All she knew up to that point was that they had been taken to the hospital and were in stable condition.
I wished I could be like the chasidim, who were on the phone all the time. They had the proper SIM cards, while I was in limbo between the U.S. and Israel with no means of contacting the outside world and no access to the internet to find out what was going on.
After three hours on the tarmac, the authorities directed our small group (because of the baby) to a bus, which didn’t move for the next half hour. Then it traveled a short distance to an enormous hangar, which had the feel of a Syrian refugee camp. People were lying on the floor, others milling around aimlessly. Finally, we were in a place that had toilets – it’s just that hundreds of women were standing in line!
The chasidic woman told me and Chani that they were going to get out of the airport no matter what and were going to take us with them to their family in Antwerp. We made our way to the back exit of the hangar, where we signed our names on a form informing the authorities that by leaving the airport we were taking responsibility for ourselves.
There were buses waiting to take people to the train station. The plan was to meet the family members in Antwerp at the station. But two minutes after we boarded, an airport official got on the bus and announced that we must all return to the hangar – the security situation was still problematic (see sidebar). Very shortly after we returned to the hangar, another airport official said that they could return to the bus. We arrived at the train (subway) station, which was closed. There were lots of television cameras and reporters.
Finally, a family member drove up in a large van, big enough to carry seven adults, a baby and stroller, and some very large duffle bags and carryons. Until then, I was wondering how we were all going to fit into one of those typically small European cars!
The drive to Antwerp took an hour. On the way, the chasidic lady assured us that we were being taken in by another chasidic family, the Ulmans, and that they would take good care of us. As we approached our destination, they invited us to join them for their family sheva brachos! We politely declined and arrived at the Ulmans. They lived in a typical European townhouse, narrow in width but four stories high.
We were greeted by the baalas habayis, Yitty Ulman. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for us. Chani had to leave all her baby’s stuff at the airport, and Mrs. Ulman made sure that Chani got diapers, wipes, and whatever else the baby needed. “Would you like to eat? To sleep?” asked Mrs. Ulman. “Phones!” was our unanimous response.
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Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, my husband Avi was in contact with our daughter-in-law Ellisheva Grant, in Israel, who told him that she called Ben Gurion airport to find out about my arrival and was informed that all flights from Brussels had been cancelled. Puzzled, Avi went online and was shocked to see the headlines about bombs going off in Brussels Airport. Avi tried to contain himself. He spoke to another daughter-in-law in Israel, Reena Grant, giving her all the details of the terrorist attack. She listened patiently and courteously, wondering why she was getting this detailed “news report” from her father-in-law. What did it have to do with my arrival? “SHE WAS DEFINITELY THERE AT THE TIME OF THE ATTACK!” her usually soft-spoken father-in-law blurted out in the most emphatic tone he could muster.
Shortly after that, about 3 p.m. Brussels time, I got through to him on his cell phone: “I’m fine,” I told him. “I didn’t see anything; I didn’t hear anything. I’M FINE.” Relieved, he broke down, and all the pent up emotions came bursting out.
Yitty then served us a beautiful lunch and insisted that we take a nap. She had two guest bedrooms for us, with down comforters and pillows and blinds that completely darkened the room. I slept like a baby for two hours.
When I got up, I tried to figure out my next move. I realized that I had to be in Israel no later than Wednesday, or I would have Purim problems. I couldn’t be in transit over Purim, as, according to halacha, residency must be established to determine which day of Purim is observed.
Getting a ticket was an unbelievable hassle. Brussels Air was in chaos. The local tourist agent offered me the option of Amsterdam to Tel Aviv for 1,000 Euros ($1,134), and I had all of 15 minutes to decide. Feh! I called my husband and asked him to search the internet or any other travel agency for something more reasonable.
He got hold of Sabra Tours. KLM had a flight from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv for $488. I told him to book it for two! By the time Avi called back the $488 tickets were sold out; the only ones left were $900, for the same flight.
Sabra told Avi they had a flight leaving Amsterdam at 2:30 p.m. to Istanbul (with an hour-and-twenty-minute layover) and then on to Tel Aviv. I would arrive in Israel around 10:20 p.m. Wednesday night. We were not talking about a “normal” airline, like Turkish Airlines, but Pegasus, the Turkish counterpart to the American no frills Spirit Air. The name was very apt, as Pegasus is a flying horse in Greek mythology!
You can’t write fiction like this!
Avi booked my ticket for $500. Chani needed time to consult with her husband. By the time she got the okay to fly to Istanbul the price went up to $600 – plus another $100 for the laptop for the baby. That was in all of five minutes. Chani said that her in-laws would pay via American Express. Sabra calls Pegasus – they won’t accept American Express.
I told Avi, “Book it! We just gotta get outta here!” We’ll pay for it, and they’ll reimburse us.
All that done, Yitty told us that we had to eat supper. She had her husband eat in the kitchen (Belzers don’t have men and women eating together) and sat us in the dining room. On her fine china, she offered us a first course of delicious homemade soup. Then came home-cooked chicken shish kabobs, schnitzel, salad (on a separate plate, of course!), rice (molded with nuts on top), and sherbet, served with cut-up fruits. It looked like a catered hotel spread.
What a wonderful meal! But my Yekke soul could not rest until I knew how I was getting to the Amsterdam airport. I was uneasy about using the trains (even though they were running) because of the security situation. We decided that we would take a car service from Antwerp to Amsterdam. Yitty found one that would take American dollars, and they charged $200. I had $211 on me, so that was fine.
Yitty took us on a walk. Since I had only my sweatshirt, Yitty offered me her mink coat. I declined. She showed us their shul. It had thick iron plating reinforcing the door, due to the front of the synagogue being bombed 12 years before. She told us that every Jewish institution had two armed guards. (She doesn’t know that the solders guarding these places don’t have bullets!)
That night, Yitty gave us nightgowns, and told us to leave our clothes in a bin outside our rooms so that she could wash them, and then we’d have fresh clothes for the morning. Indeed, I opened the bedroom door in the morning to see my freshly laundered clothes on a chair outside the door. I took a hot shower – and felt like a human being.
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That morning was Taanis Esther. My son’s rav gave a psak that we should not fast. Yitty was only too happy to prepare a fabulous breakfast for us of lox, rolls, cheeses, and fruits. Yitty’s married daughter brought even more items for the baby. Yitty prepared provisions for the way. She fried fish, made vegetable and fruit salads, cake, chocolate bars, rolls, and sandwiches. She put the stuff in a bag for me but bought a special backpack for Chani so she could have her hands free for the baby. She even gave me a special box with plastic plates and cutlery.
The car service picked us up at 8:30 in the morning. It was interesting to see the Belgian countryside. We noticed no checkpoint at the border with Holland.
In Amsterdam’s airport, I saw a Jewish family from Bethesda that I had met at Dulles: husband, wife, and two sons, 8 and 10. The father had a phone with international roaming and was able to text Avi to let him know what happened with our flight to Istanbul and when I was due to arrive in Israel. He also texted the telephone number of my fellow traveler Chani’s husband, so that Avi could call and tell him. This trip really was about giving and receiving chesed to each other. We were like war buddies, and supported each other in any way we could. Carrying luggage, lending chargers, sending texts, and being there for each other. We were in this together and none of us felt alone. Hashem was taking care of each of us, and we took care of each other.
On the Pegasus plane, the stewardesses notice that there were more people on the plane than on the manifest. Eventually, a blond-haired couple was whisked off the jet. Having experienced Brussels, this was not an ordinary event for me! We had to wait even longer – an hour – so that they could get the couple’s luggage from the bottom of the plane.
On one side of me sat an Arab traveling to Beirut, who graciously offered me some of his bottled water. On the other side was a blond-haired gentile from Holland who was being paid to be a DJ in Tel Aviv for Purim night! (He had no idea what Purim was.)
In Istanbul we missed our connecting flight to Israel! Was I going to spend Purim in Istanbul? Together with Chani and the family from Bethesda, we ran to the Pegasus desk. They reassured us that there was another flight going to Israel with enough room for 30 people stranded from the missed flight.
That’s when I had a chance to eat the Yitty’s food. I ate every single thing she gave me!
At the departure gate we were informed that our flight was delayed for 30 minutes. We finally arrived in Israel at 2 a.m. At passport control, the officer was wearing a Purim costume. Welcome to Israel!
Now to Jerusalem! We got into a Nesher, but we were only three people – and the Nesher taxi won’t move until it’s full. If we didn’t make it to Jerusalem by alos hashachar (sunrise), we would have to keep two days of Purim. We got out of the Nesher and hired a private taxi, and then went flying to Jerusalem. We get to Jerusalem by 4:06 a.m. – alos hashachar was at 4:07 – and I reached my son Yitzchak in Maalot Daphna by 4:15 a.m.
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So there you have it! I, a child of a Holocaust survivor, was desperately trying to get out of a bloody Europe, traveled via a hostile country (Turkey), and ended up in Jerusalem in the nick of time. And I couldn’t have done it without the loving assistance of my fellow Jews. Mi ke’amcha, Yisrael!
It just doesn’t get better than that!
Terror in Belgium (from Wikipedia)
7:55 a.m. – The three suspected attackers arrive at the airport in a taxi.
7:58 – Two explosions occur in the airport’s check-in area, 9 seconds apart.
8:20 – Rail transport to the airport is halted; road closures begin.
9:04 – Belgium raises terror threat level to its highest level.
9:11 – Explosion in Brussels’ Maalbeek metro station kills at least 20 people.
9:27 – All public transport suspended in the city.
11:15 – Eurostar rail journeys between London and Brussels cancelled until further notice.
5:14 p.m. – Belgian police detonate a third bomb at Brussels airport.
7:30 p.m. – A police raid in Schaerbeek neighborhood finds a nail bomb and an ISIL flag.
At least 34 people, including three suicide bombers, were killed, and over 300 others were injured, 62 critically. Seventeen bodies were recovered at Brussels Airport and 14 at the metro station. Eighty-one others were injured at the airport, while the rest were injured at the metro station. The bombings were the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgium’s history.