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Ocean of Glass

David Damen, Belgium

It was to have been a day of rejoicing with the Torah. Instead, the dazed members of Antwerp’s Portuguese Israelite Synagogue awoke to discover their shul in ruins, destroyed by the blast of a powerful bomb. Thirty years later, members of the kehillah recall both the pain of that horrifying day and their subsequent efforts to rebuild.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The time: 9:00 a.m. Nothing about the yellow car — a Leyland Sherpa parked on Antwerp’s Hoveniersstraat, outside the Portuguese Israelite Synagogue — aroused any suspicion. At first glance, particularly if you looked at the missing fourth wheel, it seemed to be just an old automobile that happened to have broken down in the parking space. The system of painstaking security inspections, the all-encompassing network of cameras, and the blanket prohibition of parking in the area — none of those things were yet in effect.

The neighborhood of the largest diamond exchange in the world was bustling with activity. The offices on Hoveniersstraat, the commercial backbone of the area, had already begun to fill with people. The diamond polishers were at their tables, the merchants were revealing the priceless contents of their tiny envelopes to their first customers, and the banks were serving their clients.

A balding policeman, who took a dim view of the yellow car that had been parked in that spot for twenty-four hours, returned repeatedly to examine the errant vehicle. But he didn’t expend too much effort on his inspection. Instead, he stuck official orders on the car demanding that its owner move it immediately.

Meanwhile, the shul’s metal gate was still locked. Shacharis had been scheduled to begin at 9:00 exactly, but the night before the hakafos of Simchas Torah had lasted until very late. Rabbi Bonomo, the esteemed rav of the congregation consisting mainly of Turkish and Portuguese Jews, had therefore made a last-minute decision to delay the start of davening by a half hour.

One member of the congregation, Mr. Robert Savon, who had not heard about the change in the schedule, did arrive at 9:00. He waited for a short while, but when the shul failed to open he went elsewhere to wait for the shammes to arrive with the keys.

Rabbi Bonomo himself was already on his way to shul, where he thought that a full day of festivities awaited him. The Turkish community was not a homogeneous group. Some of its members were observant every day, while some were observant only on Shabbos. But all of them observed the holidays. On this day, therefore, the shul was prepared for the arrival of hundreds of congregants.

At exactly 9:04 a powerful explosion, whose sound was heard throughout the city, shook the entire area. Marc Zucker, who lived nearby and was already dressed in his Yom Tov finery, stepped out onto his balcony and saw a huge column of smoke rising from the vicinity of the diamond exchange. “It’s an explosion!” shouted his grandmother, who had experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and was immediately able to identify the sound.

“I was one of the first to arrive on the scene,” Marc recalls. “The scene that met my eyes was horrifying. Nothing in the shul bore any resemblance to what I had known. The roof had collapsed, the windows had shattered, and the furniture had splintered. The place had turned into a scene of disaster.”


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