The horrific attacks that struck the European capital of Brussels not only shook Belgium’s large Jewish community, but caught several of its members in its violent crosshairs.
A resident of Antwerp who asked to be identified only as Shaya S. was in the Brussels airport en route to New York to attend a grandchild’s bris when the explosions occurred.
“You can’t imagine what was going on there,” he told Hamodia. “Thousands of people were running in panic. We were all scared there would be more bombs.”
By the time the explosions occurred, at about 8:10 a.m. local time, Shaya had already checked in for his flight when he heard a series of loud blasts.
“We heard boom-boom-boom — I thought it was shooting,” he said.
Antwerp, home to Belgium’s largest Jewish community, is about a half hour’s drive from the scene of the attacks. Still, Charlie Gottleib of the city’s Shmirah organization said that all security personnel in Antwerp were on “high alert” and that schools kept children inside during Tuesday’s lunch-time recess. He added that a crisis center had been opened to manage the changing security situation and coordinate with local institutions.
The Belgian government has declared three days of national mourning. Gottleib said that as this period will coincide with Purim, Rabbanim have asked residents to refrain from attracting the public’s attention to the joyous nature of the day. He added that the community has been asked to refrain from wearing masks in the streets so as not to arouse suspicion from the many police and military personnel patrolling the city.
Gottleib said that two members of Antwerp’s Jewish community were injured in the airport attacks, but that their names had not yet been released. He said one was wounded lightly and the second more seriously, but that both were expected to recover.
In Brussels, where attacks also rocked a train station near the headquarters of the European Union, the city was placed on a virtual lockdown, with citizens being asked to remain at home and to avoid all unnecessary travel until further notice. Most public transportation was closed, but was expected to open by the end of the day Tuesday.
“You hear sirens all the time; it’s a very tense situation here,” Daniel Shwamenthal of the American Jewish Committee’s Brussels office told Hamodia, adding that the city was flooded with police and soldiers.
Shwamenthal said that while he believes authorities are doing all they can to root out the widespread threat of Islamist terror facing the country, the small nation’s resources are “definitely overstretched.”
“The number of foreign fighters and possible terror cells under investigation is huge, the individual agents are doing what they can, but they [Belgian security forces] are at their breaking point,” he said. “The threat is definitely more intense here in Brussels, but it is really a symbol of what is going on all over Western Europe. We are confronted by a murderous situation.”
Shaya S. said that, baruch Hashem, a number of factors kept him out of harm’s way during the attacks: His insistence on arriving for flights at least two hours before departure time, a traffic-free trip from Antwerp, the decision to choose a 9:30 a.m. flight over another scheduled to leave a half hour later — all led to his being a safe distance away from the site of the explosions. He added that his choice of a European airline rather than an American carrier was part of the hashgachah that allowed him to escape the ordeal unharmed.
In the moments after the blasts, Shaya said, the airport was a scene of total chaos.
“No one was prepared for this; the staff and security people did not know what to do — everybody said to go in a different direction,” he said.
As a semblance of order took hold, airport staff promptly evacuated the terminals, first directing the thousands who were at the scene outside and then into airplane hangars to wait while the area was secured. Those who had arrived on planes that morning were kept on aircraft for hours.
“Every hangar had thousands of people in it, people sitting everywhere — on the floor and on suitcases,” said Shaya.
After realizing that it would be a few hours before they were allowed to go anywhere, he and a group of other Jewish travelers formed a minyan for Shacharis.
“Since I had already checked in, I had my tallis and tefillin with me, but a lot of people didn’t because [after the explosions occurred] security took away a lot of people’s hand baggage.”
After nearly six hours in the hangars, those who were at the airport were taken by bus to points where they could board trains or get picked up by friends or family to return to their homes.
“It’s a terrible rachmanus — all the people that got hurt and killed — totally innocent people. I had just been dealing with a lot of the staff in the airport; they were all such nice people,” said Shaya. “The whole place is a churban; the windows and ceilings are broken all over.”
Shaya inquired about the possibility of rescheduling his flight, but was told it would most likely be impossible for at least a week.
“Someone asked me how I was going to get my luggage back. I told them, “Forget my suitcase. Baruch Hashem I’m here.”
Atara Farkas had also planned to travel to New York on Tuesday. The 17-year old from Antwerp was waiting on line together with her mother to check her baggage, when the explosions occurred.
“We all left our bags and ran, but we had no idea of where to go,” she told Hamodia. “Everybody started screaming.”
The first blast occurred in an area distant from where Farkas was but, she said, the second was “right next to me.”
“We saw the fire and smoke, things started falling from the ceiling, and we saw some injured people,” she said. Only moments before, she had mistakenly been waiting on line at the site of the explosion itself, but b’chasdei Hashem realized her error in time and moved two lines over ahead of the blast.
Farkas said that at first airport staff led the terrified travelers to a room inside the airport and eventually to locations progressively further from the scene of the attacks. There, personnel distributed water, blankets and meals from grounded flights.
Once Farkas’s group was allowed to leave, passengers were helped in making their way back to Antwerp by a Hatzolah member who had come to assist at the scene.
“It was very scary. There were a lot of people crying,” she said.