Tears on Gray Cement

by Vadim Sirotnikov

Editor's note: The following article is the first-hand report of a murder/suicide bombing that took the life of the author's high school classmate. The blast claimed not only Jewish lives, but also an American girl, Abigail Leitel, 14, and a 13-year-old Druze youth, among the 16 dead. The bus driver, who was an Arab Christian, was among the 55 injured. This tragedy happened in Israel-but that is infinitely less remote to American minds today than it might have been before 9/11. In fact, reading it gave this reader the uncomfortable feeling I ought to look over my shoulder. It could, so easily, happen here. Elizabeth Katzman was born in the USSR 17 years ago. She immigrated to Israel at age 5. Her Hebrew was fluent, her accent untraceable. She had snow white skin, pink cheeks, and coal black hair. Liz, as her friends called her, was affectionately known as Snow White. I didn't know Liz very well, but there was hardly anyone in our high school in Haifa who didn't know her name or didn't recognize her face. Always well-mannered and hospitable, when passing me by, she would smile, say hi, and call me by my first name. Liz studied theater and media and was known for her talents. She hosted and co-edited the school's show on local television. In three weeks, she was scheduled to star in the school's theatrical production, "Best of Friends." Rehearsals were going well. Last Wednesday, after school, Liz and her best friend went downtown to do some shopping and check on costumes for the play. After that the girls took a bus to the upper town center, and from there boarded a bus home. On the same Wednesday, a 21-year-old Palestinian, a student in the Hebron Poly-Technical university, arrived at the upper town center of Haifa. He had been out of touch with his family for three days. His body carried more than 50 kg. of explosives packed with nails, nuts, and metal specks-plus a suicide note proclaiming the victory of Islam over America and Israel on Sept. 11. About 2 p.m., he boarded an Israeli bus. Previous suicide bombers have been tense and excited, fearing they will be caught, and exploded within seconds of boarding the bus. This time, the terrorist is sure of himself. He wears nice clothes, and blends well in this upper-middle class neighborhood. Bus #37 heads toward Haifa University, a university with a high number of Arab students, with an active Arab Student Union and representation. Haifa is a "stronghold" of Jewish-Arab co-existence in Israel. It is the third largest city in Israel and has a large Arab population, with Arabs in key positions in the local government. The terrorist stays cool. The bus is half empty, so he waits for several minutes, passing a few stops, so that more people will get on. He slowly approaches the middle of the bus, toward a group of children and teenagers. He wants them all to die. A quarter past two: My physics class has just ended and my dad is supposed to pick me up and drive me to a dentist appointment. It was rescheduled several times, and by now I have a rather large cavity in a front tooth. A school guard (we have armed guards on every entrance to the school, since terrorists have targeted schools) approaches me. "What are you waiting for?" he asks. "My dad is about to pick me up," I answer. "There has just been a suicide bomb," he informs me. Haifa is a northern city, relatively far from the "green line." Yet we have seen many deadly terror attacks, and several others have been prevented by the police. But it's been almost a year since the last terror attack in Haifa, and people here think we're safe. Especially since we're a mixed city. There have been Arabs among the victims here, and Arabs among the medical staff. People try not to break the already fragile co-existence here. But now I'm in shock. Most of my school friends either live up-town or take buses there. They should be on their way home just about now. The policeman doesn't know much, but he turns on a small radio at his guard shack. We hear: "This just in: a terror attack in Haifa, on Moriah Street. A bus has exploded... the roof has flown off... it's on fire... Rescue teams are struggling through high-noon traffic..." I try to call my family to tell them I'm fine. The network is dead. The networks overload easily; but also a cut-off is initiated when there is an attack. Several times terrorists have used cell phones as triggers for second-wave blasts. They'd leave a bomb connected to a cell phone, and then five minutes after the first blast, when rescue forces arrived, they'd call the cell phone and detonate another powerful bomb, killing the survivors and rescue teams. I decline an offer for a ride. I hope my father will pick me up-as he does minutes later. "I couldn't reach you, so I just came to take you home," he says. I think about all the people I know who could be hurt. Taurus went home an hour early, since a water pipe in his house burst. He could have somehow ended up on that bus, though it's unlikely. David could be on that bus. Could have had business at the university or uptown. I call him as soon as I get home. His mother answers in a frightened voice. She hasn't heard from him. My grandma returns home. She is shocked to hear the news. "I took that bus route an hour before it blew up! And your 7-year-old twin cousins took it half an hour before that, from school." I connect to the Internet. The ICQ messaging system is filled with people demanding information. Chain letters pass with the speed of light. "Amit has not been seen or heard since the terror act. If anyone has seen him, please contact his home. His parents are worried sick." After a while, a message comes through: "Amit is safe. Pass on." Wheew. But alas, this is the only good message. "My best friend Liz has not come home," my friend Roni writes. "Couldn't she just be injured?" I suggest. "No. Her parents called all the hospitals. She's either missing, or dead." When I arrive at school the next day, only half our class is there. We sit in absolute silence. It's very dark and gloomy, while outside the sun is shining. I see the shock in people's eyes, even when they're closed. Later, the principal announces that Liz is confirmed among the dead. Soon we will convene for a ceremony. Those who knew Liz well stay outside and cry. Those who didn't, try to avoid talking about it directly. The ceremony starts with texts being read by teachers and her friends. Liz's picture is hanging on the wall. Alongside is her name in black bold square print-the kind used in obituary notices. And candles. (One gets used to memorial candles in Israel.) The speakers talk about Liz. Say goodbye. Say prayers for her soul. Say prayers for peace. Someone sings a song he has just written and composed for her. It's difficult to see students cry. It's even more difficult to see your teachers and school board weep. I manage to avoid breaking out into tears. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I feel I have no right to cry, since I didn't know Liz that well. The perfect weather outside quickly becomes a perfect raging storm. Even the skies weep. Our school walls are gray cement. It was popular for some reason when the school was built. Today the walls are grayer than ever-wet with the tears of heaven. The next day, we try to resume our studies. No teacher dares to demand discipline or keep records of students coming and going. How can you make a person torn up inside sit down in a classroom, in a classroom with Liz's chair, now forever empty? We board the buses to Liz's funeral. I still can't believe she is dead. The whole school attends. And students from other schools. Former pupils leave their army posts. Representatives of the government arrive. Why don't they ever come to share joy? Only anguish. Then Liz's family arrives. I can't face watching their pain. I turn around, then walk away. They remind me of my own relatives too much. It's awful to see parents mourn over a child. Liz's sister reads a eulogy. Then her drama teacher. Then her best friend. Their words tear one's heart like sharp razors, and you feel you're about to cry blood onto your shirt. Out of all people, the most lively, innocent, and talented girl was taken from this world by a cruel murderer. As the rabbi chants songs of mourning, Liz's casket is moved to a special area of the cemetery dedicated to terror victims. Usually, a dead body is wrapped in a shroud, and buried that way. Not Liz. Her body, hardly recognizable, with no more human-like contours, is not in a condition to be wrapped this way. This time, they use a casket. The prayers are said and then, one by one, people pass by her grave, and place a flower, a picture, or a rock where her body was lowered just minutes ago. As I near her grave, it still feels like I'm dreaming. I came because I wish I'd gotten to know her better. I came to return a favor, for the times she smiled at me and called my name, and made me feel great for that split second. I place a rock on her grave, and it falls somewhere behind the flowers. As I begin to walk away, I stumble onto a grave with a familiar name. It is the daughter of my math teacher, killed one year ago. I sigh and put another stone on her grave. So many victims. So many freshly-dug holes. Covered with freshly-picked flowers. As I exit, I suddenly feel a wet drop. It rains, but not aggressively like the day before. The sun hid its tearing eyes behind a cloud. The rain caresses our heads, gently, lovingly, in sympathy. I hardly knew Liz Katzman. And alas, I never will.
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