On June 1, 2001, Larisa Azyaski stood with her best friend Irina Nepomnyaschy among a sea of teenagers clamoring to get into the Dolphinarium, a popular Tel Aviv club. Suddenly, the place exploded. A suicide bomber detonated himself, and Azyaski saw only darkness in front of her. She felt like her head was on fire. Disoriented and separated from her friends, she walked past dozens of motionless bodies and managed to escape the chaos.
The then-16-year-old hailed a cab and rushed to the nearest hospital, where she underwent a six-hour operation to remove pieces of shrapnel lodged in her back, legs and ears. When Azyaski awoke from her surgery, her parents informed her that her best friend was dead.
Unlike Irina, Azyaski, now 18, was among the so-called lucky ones of the Dolphinarium bombing, where 21 people — mostly teenagers — were killed. And while the families of those who died in the blast are left with memories of their loved ones, Azyaski and six other young survivors who visited Los Angeles in early November are still learning to cope and move beyond the impact of that tragedy.
The seven girls, most of whom are Jewish Russian immigrants living in Israel, and a mother who lost her only child in the attack, spent more than a week in Los Angeles as part of the 10 Days of Hope project. The trip was sponsored by StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based grass-roots organization that supports Israel, and Green Dog Films, a local production company. Staying with host families, the girls and the mother, who came in her daughter’s place, flew to Los Angeles to share their stories with local schools and other community groups. With limited access to medical care in Israel, the girls secured appointments with Los Angeles doctors and dentists who helped to treat some of their injuries free of charge. In addition, they spent time at Universal Studios, Disneyland and in Hollywood — and even had a day of beauty. But even exciting activities and the support of their new surrogate families couldn’t suppress the girls’ thoughts of their troubled past.
"I used to be very happy and full of life," Azyaski told The Journal through a Russian translator while eating at Pat’s in Pico-Robertson. A mixture of sadness and anger filled her pretty blue eyes. "Now I feel like an old, sick antique that nobody wants."
Pain is an everyday reality for Azyaski, who takes Advil every three hours to relieve the pressure of the sharp pieces of metal lodged mostly in her legs and back. The metal is actually nickel, which is difficult to remove. Instead, her body has to naturally expel the material, which can take years. Besides extensive nerve damage, constant pain and hearing loss, Azyaski has a six-inch scar on her left calf, as well as several scars on her lower back where sharp pieces constantly and painfully make their way to the skin’s surface.
Clad in an oversize gray turtleneck sweater, Azyaski seemed self-protective, but it’s clear that the bulk of her suffering is of the emotional kind.
For Karina Krasnopolnaski, 17, who was out celebrating her 15th birthday on the night of explosion, unsightly scars have made the attractive teenager doubt her self-worth when it comes to the opposite sex. Krasnopolnaski was recently devastated when a potential suitor made a negative comment about a large scar on her thigh. Since then, she intentionally chooses clothing that covers her upper legs.
Low self-esteem was a common thread among the young victims. With an abundance of physical and emotional scars, they see themselves as defective, cheated and unwanted. As such, getting back to "normal" means reinventing a sense of normalcy. After the attack, Azyaski’s dreams of joining the Israeli army with Irina and opening a home for abandoned children were destroyed. Her back and leg injuries prevent her from standing or sitting for more than 20 minutes at a time, which makes it hard for her to secure any kind of a job — even part-time work as a waitress or a clerk.
Her options greatly narrowed, Azyaski is currently pursuing the equivalent of a community college degree in accounting, a subject she hates. She is also working through a deep depression that followed her mother’s death from breast cancer last summer. Azyaski’s new life consists of completing her studies and desperately searching for a job to help support her father, her older sister and her sister’s husband, with whom she shares a small apartment in Rishon LeZion. Moving on means trying to let go of the guilt she feels for the deaths of Irina and her mother.
But the teenagers react differently to the bombings.
Unlike Azyaski, Tanya Weiz, 20, says that the tragedy made her stronger. Weiz was standing in line with three friends the night the explosion occurred. The first thing she remembered was touching her neck and finding that four of her fingers slid inside a gaping wound there. A passerby helped her get to the hospital where she endured an eight-hour operation to remove three iron balls that were lodged in the delicate tissues of her neck.
There is an air of proud defiance when she moves her shirt aside to display her scar.
"Before, I used to hang out with people who had no interest in real life," said Weiz, who was not expected to speak again; she is currently studying to be a hair stylist. Since the incident, Weiz, whose jet-black hair and black clothing give her a "goth" appearance, has re-evaluated her friendships.
"My whole perspective changed," said Weiz, who also lost her best friend in the attack. "I believe I was born on June 1."
"In order [for them to have] a fully normal life, we’d have to make sure nothing happens in Israel," said Yan Fisher Romanovsky, a Los Angeles independent producer who served as the trip coordinator, chaperone, translator and personal confidant to the girls during their stay. "Every time they hear about an explosion, [the memories] come back. Also, by living there, you have an everyday chance of getting into the same situation again."
At the age of 18, most Israelis enter the army, but physical limitations force these girls must find a different path. They’re the newest unwitting warriors in Israel’s battle with terrorism, but they are voices that are rarely heard.
One person who wants to help them is Jason Gurvitz, the founder of Green Dog Films. While filming "Internal Exile," an upcoming documentary about young Israelis and Palestinians, Gurvitz and his crew met representatives from several Israeli philanthropic organizations, including the Mikhail Chernoy Foundation, who asked them to make a second documentary about the teenage victims of the Dolphinarium bombing. The project involved bringing the girls to the United States to talk about their experiences and treat them to 10 days of hope and healing. Gurvitz recruited StandWithUs for additional support and hopes that the program will continue for years to come.
"I think that young people’s voices are severely underrepresented," Gurvitz said. "The American public hasn’t heard the personal stories from the people who were involved directly." With the "10 Days of Hope" documentary, Gurvitz wants to inform young Americans about the tragedies in Israel.
"Most young people in the U.S. became aware of the conflict in Israel with the Dolphinarium attack because they hear the word ‘discotheque’ and that’s something they’re familiar with," he said, adding that most public schools don’t even teach students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For StandWithUs, educating the community at large about terrorism in Israel was one of the goals of the girls’ visit.
"People don’t talk about the pain and suffering for the survivors," said Roz Rothstein, the organization’s executive director. While the girls shared their stories with Shalhevet High School, Milken Community High School, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Temple Beth Am, Rothstein believes that it’s the larger American community that desperately needs this education.
"The Jewish community performs a duty of loving [these victims]. They’re the family," Rothstein said. "But, the broader community needs to learn about it."
Rothstein felt that part of the mission was realized when KTLA broadcast the girls’ story during a recent news segment.
Playing the role of the dutiful family, 200 members of the Jewish community gathered inside the Temple Beth Am ballroom on Nov. 12, the eve of the girls’ departure from Los Angeles. StandWithUs board members, UCLA students from Bruins for Israel, local high school students, representatives from the local Israeli consulate and concerned members of the community at large crammed inside the large room to support the young survivors. Like proud parents, the crowd cheered as each girl made her way to the microphone to thank the host families and other benefactors. The mood grew solemn when Faina Yaakovlev, 16, sang a moving song that she wrote about her memories of the attack. Ma’ayan Friedman and Natalie Naor, seniors at Shalhevet, were so moved by the girls’ visit to their school that they came to see them one last time.
"Your strength invigorates us," Shiran Zohar from Bruins for Israel told the girls. "You are our heroes."
The applause was deafening.
While all the girls commented on how safe they felt during their stay in Los Angeles, none wants to leave Israel and give in to terrorism. "Everywhere is scary," Victoria Aguerenko, an 18-year-old victim, told The Journal in Russian. "There is no 100 percent anywhere."
During her last night in Los Angeles, Azyaski was in high spirits. Clad in a black, sparkling evening gown with her blond hair styled, there was a marked change in her demeanor.
"Being here has changed my life," she said with a smile, clutching her new Kabbalah pendant necklace, a gift from her host family to symbolize their unconditional love. "Here I found a different world and it gave me a lot of strength and power to continue living, and prove to everyone that no matter what, life will go on."
For more information on the 10 Days of Hope program, contact StandWithUs at (310) 836-6140.