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A Tale of Two Families

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

The destinies of two families converge in the wave of terror.


Rachel Rosenberg was fifteen years old in 1944 when the Nazis shoved her and her parents into a cattle car and deported them to Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele immediately dispatched her parents to the gas chambers, but Rachel, the precious only child born to them after sixteen years of marriage, was chosen for life.

Rachel survived. She survived nine months of forced labor in the Birkenau section of the camp. She survived the Death March which was herded out of Auschwitz in January, 1945, and trudged over snow-covered Polish countryside until a bleeding, starved remnant reached Germany. She survived returning to her village, 90% of whose Jewish residents had been murdered, and knocking on the door of her family’s house, only to be rudely rebuffed by the gentile who had moved in.

The petite sixteen-year-old made her way to Budapest and enrolled in a school for religious girls. In May, 1948, Rachel heard a newsboy shouting the headline: "JEWISH STATE IS DECLARED." She immediately applied to go to Israel because, as she explained more than fifty years later: "They were killing us in Europe. I wanted to raise a family in Israel, where it was safe to be a Jew."

Two years later Rachel married Moshe Yitzhak Herczl. Moshe came from an intensely religious Hungarian family of nine children. Only three of them survived the Holocaust. Moshe came to Israel in 1948 in order to fight in the War of Independence. After their marriage, caught up in Ben Gurion’s dream to make the desert bloom, the young couple moved to Tifrach, a tiny settlement in the Negev Desert.

Although a brilliant scholar who would later write a book on Christianity and the Holocaust, Moshe was so enthralled with the new land that he gladly worked building roads and plastering houses. Three daughters were born to them: Tova, named after Rachel’s mother; Sarah, named after Moshe’s mother; and Miriam, named after one of Moshe’s five murdered sisters.

In 1961, the Herczls were sent by the government of Israel to South Africa to teach Hebrew and otherwise serve the Jewish community of Cape Town with Moshe’s considerable knowledge of Judaism.

In a religious Zionist youth group in Cape Town, Sarah Herczl met Avner Franklin. They were married in 1977, and the next year came on aliyah to Israel, settling four years later in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Moshe and Rachel Herczl also returned to Israel at this time.

On August 26, 1980, with great elation, Moshe and Rachel celebrated the birth of their first grandchild, a daughter born to Sarah and Avner. Moshe asked that the child not be named after any of the murdered relatives. This was a new generation, far away in time and place from where Jews were killed for being Jews. Sarah and Avner obliged; they named their daughter Michal.


Michal grew up to be an intense, earnest, intelligent, inquisitive, and hard-working girl. She loved music, had a beautiful singing voice, and played the guitar. A sensitive person, she was easily hurt, but never struck back. "Michal never in her life hurt any human being," a lifelong friend testified.

The Franklin Family
The Franklin Family

Sarah Franklin devoted herself full-time to her six children, keeping up with the latest research on nursing and nutrition, studying with them, and spending hours talking to her beloved first-born Michal. The result was a family so mutually loving and close-knit that when Michal enrolled in a religious women’s college an hour and a half’s ride from Jerusalem, she chose to commute from home daily rather than live in the dorms.

It was Michal's last day of college. It was to be her last day in another way as well.

Michal applied her own sensitivity to the way she treated other people. During college, she volunteered for Perech, an in-school tutoring project for children with learning disabilities. In order not to embarrass her charges by singling them out, she designated the whole fourth grade class as a "Perech project," and invited whoever wanted to to spend private time with her.


On the morning of Wednesday, June 19, 2002, Michal, who was characteristically a slow riser, bounded out of bed and announced to her mother, "Today is going to be a great day." It was her last day of college, having completed a four-year degree in counseling and Jewish history in three years.

It was to be Michal’s last day in another way as well.

Late in the afternoon, after her last class, Michal boarded the regular transport which daily took her back to the entrance of Jerusalem. For some reason, she got off the transport and caught a ride with a classmate who was driving to Jerusalem and who offered to drop her off at the French Hill junction.

On the drive home, her friend turned toward the Modiin Road, a route where several Jews have been killed during the Oslo War.
Michal protested. Why take such a dangerous route? Like most Jews in Israel, Michal had become plagued by fears since the beginning of the terrorist war.

Michal and a friend alighted from the car at the French Hill junction. Having been the scene of two fatal terror attacks in the last year, the intersection is guarded 24 hours a day by two pairs of border policemen, one on each side of the intersection.

Michal Franklin
Michal Franklin

Michal called her mother on her cell phone to announce where she was, and to ask if anyone wanted to pick her up. Avner, who works as a bookkeeper at an accounting firm, had just arrived home, and Sarah was busy preparing a special dinner to celebrate Michal’s final day of college. She told Michal to take the bus.

While waiting for her bus, Michal decided to say good-bye to her college friend Hadas Jungreis, who was standing at a bus stop on the other side of the intersection. Michal crossed the street and hugged Hadas, just as an Arab terrorist got out of a car and sprinted past the guards toward the crowd at the bus stop. The guards chased him, but in a flash the bomb exploded.


Most of us who live in the Jewish Quarter heard the sirens. "It’s more than three sirens," my eight-year-old son sagely announced, knowing that three sirens are a tell-tale sign of a terrorist attack.

Sarah and Avner turned on their radio and heard that the suicide bomber had attacked the French Hill junction. Immediately they called Michal’s cell phone. There was no answer. This was strange and worrisome, because eminently responsible Michal always called home after every terror attack to assure her family that she was okay.

She must be wounded was the obvious, terrifying conclusion. Avner called the hospital hotlines which, with long, tragic experience, go into action after every terror attack. It was too soon for them to have the names of the injured.

Avner and Sarah decided to split up and each go to a different hospital to search for their beloved daughter. Leaving the celebratory dinner on the kitchen table, Sarah and her good friend Penny raced to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital. At the emergency information center there, sitting across a desk from a specially trained social worker, they poured through lists of the injured from all four Jerusalem hospitals. Michal’s name did not appear.

Then, with rising dread, they combed the waiting areas outside the operating rooms. The terror victims undergoing surgery were a five-year-old girl, her one-year-old brother, and a fifteen-year-old. (The five-year-old died within minutes.) Meanwhile, the workers cleaning up the scene of the attack had found Michal’s two rings amidst the debris and body parts. Avner reported from Hadassah Mt. Scopus that she was not among the injured there. The circle of possibilities was beginning to close in on them like a dark vice.

There is someone who fits your daughter’s description, but she is dead.

Back at the emergency information center, where Sarah’s description of Michal had been sent out to all the hospitals, word was received from Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital that they should come there immediately. They were told to meet two social workers at the entrance to the hospital. Sarah’s friend Penny, a nurse, who had been saying all along, "She’s probably in shock and can’t think to call home," offered no more reassurances. Avner, being driven by a neighbor to Ein Kerem, managed to locate Hadas Jungreis’s father. He told them he was on his way to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute to identify his daughter’s body.

When Sarah and Penny arrived at Ein Kerem, two social workers met them at the door of the hospital and ushered them into a carpeted room furnished only with chairs. One of the social workers sat down close to Sarah, looked straight into her eyes, and said, "There is someone who fits your daughter’s description, but she is dead."

The words were like a terrorist bomb exploding in Sarah’s heart.

The unidentified body was on its way to Abu Kabir, but there was a photograph of the swollen, bloody face. In order to spare Sarah the horror, a social worker showed the photo to Penny. Penny looked, but was unable to identify Michal. Next they showed the photo to Avner, who had by that time arrived. He could not identify his beautiful, gentle Michal from the grotesque photograph.

After every terror attack, the Jerusalem Municipality, with too much experience in such matters, provides a car, a driver, and two social workers to take family members to Abu Kabir to identify the bodies of their loved ones. Sarah and Avner got into the car and rode three-quarters of an hour to Abu Kabir. There, while Sarah waited in a separate room, Avner was taken to the sheet-covered remains. An attendant uncovered half the victim’s face, keeping the other half discreetly hidden. Avner stared down at the half visage before him, but he was not able to identify his firstborn daughter.

The only step left, the final clinch before the death’s dark vice closed in on them for good, was DNA testing. A technician took blood samples from both Sarah and Avner, to match against blood from the corpse in the next room. The blood matched.

It was a death worse than gas chambers.


The next morning, my husband returned from prayers weeping. In the fifteen years we have been married, I had only once before seen him cry. "What’s wrong?" I asked desperately. Between sobs he managed to wrench out the words, "The Franklins’ daughter . . . was . . . in last night’s terror attack."

I screamed in horror and fell into a chair. I held my head and wailed, "Not Sarah! Not Avner!" We had lived upstairs from the Franklins during our first year in the Jewish Quarter. And for years Avner had been the plumber of the neighborhood. Everyone knew him. Everyone loved him. Our kitchen filled with horror and anguished tears.

I had a 9 AM class on the weekly Torah portion. At 9:15, I managed to compose myself enough to leave my house. I walked through the Jewish Quarter’s narrow lanes oblivious to the tears streaming down my face. When I opened the door to the living room where the class is held, a scene of utter desolation greeted me. The women students were all sitting or standing there crying, and the rabbi sat at the head of the table, his head in his hand.

Two days before, nineteen people had been killed in a terrorist bombing of a bus at Pat Junction. The French Hill attack murdered seven more. Jerusalem’s single civilian cemetery had a steady succession of funerals; the Franklins had to wait until late that afternoon for their turn to bury their child.

The whole Jewish Quarter became a scene of shock, devastation, and despair.

The Jewish Quarter, inside the walls of Old Jerusalem, is often compared to a village, because all the 500 families know each other. That day the whole Jewish Quarter became a scene of shock, devastation, and despair. The grocery store resembled a funeral parlor. People who usually smiled as they scurried past now trudged through the narrow lanes, their shoulders bent, holding back their tears. At the local girls’ elementary school, where the Franklins’ second daughter attends sixth grade, half of my daughter’s 8th grade class voted to cancel their forthcoming graduation ceremony and the musical play they had been rehearsing for weeks. We were a community bereft, horrified, doleful, and frightened. The unspoken fear in everyone’s heart was: Whose child will be next?

At Michal’s funeral, hundreds of people crowded outside the small hall at the edge of the cemetery. Our distinguished Rabbi Avigdor Nebentzal cried throughout his eulogy, four or five times breaking down entirely.

As I stood there, surrounded by my sobbing neighbors, it struck me, "Now it’s our turn." Earlier in the day, and throughout the previous day, and hundreds of times in the last 21 months, different communities had stood here and mourned their dead, some families burying two, three, four, or five members. I wondered to myself, "Whose turn will be next?"

As I stood near young Michal’s open grave, framed by the hills of Jerusalem, I saw a scene more wrenching than any other. Rachel Herczl, now 73 and widowed, stood next to her daughter Sarah, her arm on Sarah’s back, either to support her grief-stricken daughter or to be supported by her. On the bereft grandmother’s bare forearm, stretched across her daughter’s hunched back, was a tattooed concentration camp number.


Eliyahu and Rachel Shrem owned a jewelry store in the Syrian town of Halib, where their family had lived for centuries. After the State of Israel was declared in 1948, Syria’s tens of thousands of Jews suddenly became identified with the enemy "Zionist entity." Anti-Jewish pogroms broke out all over Syria, burning ancient synagogues and murdering Jews. At the same time, emigration to the new Jewish state was declared a capital crime.

The rule of law no longer protected Syria’s Jews. Arab customers would enter Eliyahu’s jewelry store, try on expensive necklaces and bracelets, and then simply walk out with them. Eliyahu’s desperate calls to the police were futile.

During the two-day boat journey, Rachel gave birth to their fifth child.

The pogroms were still raging in 1952 when, with Rachel nine months pregnant, the Shrems decided they could bear no more. They determined to escape to the Jewish homeland with their four children. One night the family surreptitiously left their ancestral home with whatever they could carry on their backs, and on foot crossed the mountains, heading toward Lebanon. When they reached the Lebanese coast, they bought a small boat, and sailed it south, toward Israel. During the two-day boat journey, Rachel gave birth to their fifth child. They landed on the Israeli coast and settled in the town of Rishon L’tzion.

A decade later, their daughter Sarah married Saul Cohen, a glassblower. In 1964, their daughter Dahlia was born. While the family was religiously traditional, Dahlia decided during high school that she wanted to become fully observant. After high school, she became a kindergarten teacher.

In 1984, Saul had a heart attack. While attending to her father in the hospital, Dahlia met Ezra Nechmad, whose aunt was also in the coronary unit. Ezra’s parents, Eliyahu and Hannah Nechmad, had made aliyah from Turkey in 1952. They came not to escape anti-Semitism, which was not a problem in Turkey, but rather, as Hannah would later explain, because of the holiness of the Land of Israel.

Dahlia and Ezra married later that year, and settled close to their families in Rishon L’tzion. A year later their first child was born. They named him Eliyahu, the same name as the grandfather who had braved all to bring his family to the safety of Israel, and called him Eli for short. Ezra worked as a cab driver and Dahlia stayed home with the children, who eventually numbered five.


Eli grew up to be an earnest, hard-working student. In yeshiva, the study of Talmud was difficult for him, so he tackled it with zeal and perseverance. At night when everyone else went to sleep, Eli stayed up to study. He strived for perfection; any mark less than 100 on a test left him dissatisfied.

On the first Shabbat in March, 2002, the Nechmads came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Ezra’s nephew. The sun had already set on Saturday night, and the family was congregated outside the synagogue at the conclusion of the evening service, when an Arab terrorist sprinted into the crowd and blew himself up. Dahlia’s and Ezra’s fifteen-year-old son Saul was killed immediately, along with his uncle, aunt, and four cousins. The bomb ripped off the hands of two other relatives.

Saul Nechmad (right) with a cousin
Saul Nechmad (right) with a cousin

Eli’s left hand was blown off and he was critically injured. He was raced to Hadassah Hospital at Mt. Scopus, where he was operated on, the first of seven operations. A week later, when a devastated Dahlia and Ezra got up from sitting shiva, the 7-day mourning period, for Saul, they immediately went to Eli’s bedside in the Intensive Care Unit. Eli, aged 16, was still unconscious. When the doctor apprised Ezra of the results of that day’s operation, Ezra stood in the corridor and cried.

Eli remained in a coma for three and a half months. Every morning Dalhia would make the hour and a half trip from Rishon L’tzion to Jerusalem, and stand the entire day by the bedside of her firstborn, talking to him, stroking his hair, massaging his three remaining limbs.

Grandmother Chana Nechmad with Eli, one of her six grandchildren murdered in a terrorist attack.

On the night of June 19, Eli died. It was the same night that Michal Franklin was killed.

Two families came to the fledging Jewish state, one escaping the blood-soaked continent of Europe, the other fleeing the Arab pogroms of the Middle East.

A half-century later, in the Land of Israel, they buried their murdered children on the same day.


We can all still cry out to God.

As for us, the Jews of Israel:
Our hearts are broken, but not our resolve.
We are traumatized, but not daunted.
We fear for the survival of our children, but not for the survival of our people.
Before God, we submit and surrender. Before our enemies, we are staunch and unyielding.

Ari Shavit, a prominent, left-wing Israeli columnist describes the despair which has gripped Israel: "There is this feeling, 'We tried politics, we tried the Army, we tried everything. What’s left?'"

The Torah says that the Jews suffered slavery in Egypt for 210 years, but only when they cried out in anguish to God were they redeemed.

We can all still cry out to God.

For direct quotes from family members, read Voices from the Valley of Death.

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