TEL AVIV -- Life is indeed more imaginative than a movie. This incredibly banal and yet true observation hit me while I was sitting in a sealed room here waiting to learn whether the thud I had just heard was produced by a conventional Scud missile or one with a chemical or biological warhead. The siren had shrieked only a few minutes earlier, and we all woke up with a start and rushed to our sealed room.
A couple of weeks ago, it was just another bedroom in our house, a child's domain complete with toys, books and wall-to-wall carpeting. As the Jan. 15 deadline approached ominously, we took the Civil Defense Authority's advice and transformed it into a refuge from possible chemical or biological attack coming from Iraq, just under 600 kilometers away (as if Buffalo were attacking Washington).
It was sort of fun, with the entire family keeping itself busy. We brought in a telephone, a TV and a battery-operated radio. The radio would tell us what might be going on beyond our shelter's walls and whether it was safe to take our gas masks off and venture out into the real world again. We carefully arranged the gas masks with our name tags. We prepared adhesive tape to seal the gap between the door and its frame, and a bowl of water to rinse a towel to seal the crack under the door. We prepared cards to play, stocked food, and water in glass bottles (plastic ones can be contaminated).
We heard the army people tell us that we should prepare for chemical attacks because they are far more dangerous than conventional ones. Only a direct hit by a high-explosive warhead might be deadlier. Therefore a properly sealed room is better than an air-raid shelter. We heard what they said, we did as they said, but it didn't really sink in. We never thought it was a serious threat.
And then the siren wailed at 2 a.m., and the civilian night erupted in strange, frightening sounds of war and death. It took about 10 minutes to phone everyone to make sure they were all safe. We knew the missiles had come, but we had to wait almost an hour before we were informed they were conventional.
In the meantime we watched television: a scene from Riga, Latvia, where Soviet paratroopers were shooting at the Ministry of the Interior of the Latvian Republic. It was an attempt to put the lid on Latvia's quest for independence, said the reporter on the scene.
Six months ago I was in Riga. I lived in the hotel across the street from the Interior Ministry. The trip to Riga was my version of "Roots." My father came to Israel from Riga on the last day of 1934. Latvia was independent then. He hated it. He never spoke about Riga or Latvia. He never knew what happened to his parents, brother, two sisters, one brother-in-law, one sister-in-law and at least three nephews and nieces. I went to find out. For four days I traced the whereabouts of the family, and all I could find out was that they were last seen in July 1941, just prior to the retreat of the Red Army, which left Riga two days before the arrival of the Nazis.
Judging by their address and other details I had, those who survived the Holocaust told me that in all probability they were burned to death inside one of Riga's synagogues, many of which were gutted by Jew-hating Latvian arsonists one night shortly after the Germans marched in. The murderers, both Latvians and Germans, continued their massacres for the rest of 1941. It is not clear that none of our family survived beyond October of 1941. One person told me he met my uncle in Auschwitz and that he thinks he died in the German gas showers there.
So while donning my gas mask in Tel Aviv, where my father came because he knew they would not let him live in Riga, I suddenly saw Riga on the TV screen. It was difficult for me to feel compassion for the beleaguered Latvians. I thought of Riga, where my family was annihilated, and about chemical gas directed at Tel Aviv, and I was reminded of my uncle who may have perished in Auschwitz.
One can talk though a gas mask, but I preferred at this point to take it off and again tell my children the story of the family in Riga and its demise there.
We were tense, and we could not get to sleep, which gave me ample time, even after the siren sounded the all-clear, to try to explain why the Tel Aviv of today is so important to us and so different from the Riga of yesterday, although we all sensed that the terror that went through our bones this night was probably very similar to what members of our family experienced in Latvia before they died.
There must be something extremely obnoxious about my family. In the space of a half-century there have been numerous attempts to get rid of us. And whenever they can't do it with conventional means, they resort to gas. And almost always there are some Germans either doing it themselves or helping others -- Latvians or Iraqis -- in this endeavor.
As much as it may irritate a good number of people around the globe, we, the Dissentshiks, decided that night in the sealed room that we do not like what they are trying to do to us. We decided to go on living no matter what it takes: spending long, scary nights in sealed rooms or going out wherever and whenever necessary and giving them a piece of hell.
The writer is editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Maariv.