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Nariman to house of cards

Mumbai, Nov. 29: After the gunfire, deathly calm.

At the end of three days of gun battle, bullet marks scarred almost every inch of the facade of Nariman House that had stood proudly as the epicentre of the Jewish community in the city.

The building in upscale Colaba — a mix of an educational centre, synagogue and social hall — was once open to all who wanted shelter even if they weren’t Jews.

“I could walk up to them and ask for any help,” said Dinesh, a servant at the house, of Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife Rivka.

“They were the gentlest people I have ever come across. They had a storehouse on the first floor that had canned food and meat that could feed people for at least three months. Their stock was never short. Perhaps their hospitality cost them dear,” he said, teary eyed, looking at the ravaged building where he would spend eight hours every day.

The six-storey structure had one flat on every floor, each around 1,200 square feet. The first and second floors were the storehouse and pantry, where the Rabbi stocked rations for his restaurant on the premises.

The stairs leading up to the living quarters of the Rabbi on the fourth floor have been blown up. But chairs with red covers and red sofas — reminders of the home that it was — were visible through the windows. A red towel, which had continued to flutter from the window during the siege yesterday, lay on the ground.

“The house was a mess. Walls had been blown apart. Food was littered all over the place. I saw a lot of footwear all over the passage. The house is like a pack of cards, it just needs one hard push to fall apart,” said Vilas Gaekwad, a resident of the neighbourhood who had sneaked in for a peek early this morning.

The Rabbi, emissary of the ultra-orthodox Jewish group Chabad Lubavitch, and his wife had been dead for long when the siege finally ended last evening. Their bodies had begun to decompose, sources said, and they might have been killed on the first day.

Unaware of this, Rivka’s brother Yerhuda Donnis, a Rabbi from Israel, arrived in Mumbai yesterday. Elijah Jacob, a friend of the couple from Pune, said Donnis broke down when he found his sister and brother-in-law were dead.

“This was a house where we came to offer prayers. This was a house that housed devouts — now it will be remembered as the place where terror struck. We never paid for staying here, and look what a huge price the Rabbi has paid for his hospitality,” Jacob said.

The Rabbi’s hospitality and success over the past three years at this centre of Jewish culture and education had prompted Chabad authorities to meet last week to discuss opening a centre in Bangalore.

A kosher-eating orthodox Jew, he carried his own knife to the chicken shop and didn’t allow anyone to cut his birds. “He bought 80 chickens, paying around Rs 5,000, on Wednesday. It was normal for him. Every week he would buy supplies from me,” a shopkeeper said.

The couple’s son Moshe, who was saved by his nanny and turned 2 today, will go to Israel where his parents will be buried.

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