Interview with Chaya Malka Abramson

Chaya Malka Abramson worked as a fashion designer in Connecticut, after which she emigrated from the USA in the 1970s and moved to the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. When a raging fire broke out in her apartment, she singlehandedly saved her three small children and her grandmother from the searing blaze. Following this harrowing experience, Chaya Malka wrote about her story in the book Who by Fire?

A truly inspirational speaker, she founded the Chaya Malka Burn Foundation in 2003, which raises funds and provides support for burn victims. She and her husband are blessed with 10 children, including a child with Down syndrome, as well as many grandchildren. She lives with her family in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, just outside the ancient stone walls of the Old City.

Q: What made you want to travel to Israel?

I thought I would spend the summer painting, but my plan to make a living at the tip of Cape Cod was not working financially. I realized after setting up 10-12 hour workdays, money could be saved for a trip to meet my sister, then traveling in Europe and I wasn’t tired a bit! In those days she sent me a letter in the form of an aerogram, which was an onion-skinned paper issued by the post office with “Air Mail” written in bold red letters. She insisted that I come and join her. So around my 24th birthday I did! We stopped in Israel and after a month on a pristine beach my sister and I found ourselves in Jerusalem, where we were directed by strangers to go to a yeshiva in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. We absolutely fell in love with the people at the Diaspora Yeshiva. We both became religious and that’s where I met my husband Simcha.

Q: Tell us about the time your husband Simcha, who played in the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, was in America on a concert tour.

In 1981, I was 30 years old with three young children and living in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. My grandmother came from the States to spend the last night of her trip with us. To our horror, I was caught in a gas explosion in our living room before dawn. I was engulfed in fire. I ran, flew onto my bed and rolled myself back and forth until the flames (burning my body) were extinguished. I then grabbed my two-year-old son. Miraculously the flames didn’t spread to the hallway or bedrooms. Then, without thinking but with superhuman bursts of adrenaline, I ran back into the burning apartment and pulled my four-year-old out of bed and the baby out of her crib with my burnt right hand. I returned again hastily to the apartment, succeeded in bringing all three children to safety outside the building. While I was standing outside of my burning apartment, I couldn’t see my grandmother anywhere, so again, I ran back inside, searching for her. I was led directly to her, breathing heavily by my bedroom’s window and finally brought her outside to safety.

Q: The alleyways in the Old City were too narrow for a fire truck or an ambulance to get to you. At the time of your fire, Hatzalah’s iconic ambucycles, whose average response time today is 90 seconds in the city, didn’t exist. So what did you do?

The streets were not only narrow but due to the ongoing construction on the roads, there was rubble in lots of places. Unfortunately, the fire truck could not get to where we lived and, in fact, it only arrived after I had rescued all of my three little kids and grandmother and we had left the area. We had been waiting outside of my apartment when one of my neighbors asked me, “Do you want to walk to the ambulance?”

Amazingly enough, 85% of my body was severely burned and yet I remained conscious. I even directed traffic and told people to go here and to get out that way. So my grandmother, who was in her late 70s, and I decided that we would walk three minutes to an ambulance that was always parked outside in the open area next to where the Hurva synagogue is located today. When we reached our destination, there was indeed an ambulance, but no driver! After a painful waiting time, the driver finally came, admitted us into the ambulance and drove us to Hadassah Hospital at Har Hatzofim (Mount Scopus). Upon arrival, the emergency nurse took one look at my burns and sent me directly to the burns center at Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem. It was 5:30 am and there wasn’t much traffic, so we zoomed across town at top speed, up and down the mountains leading all the way up to Hadassah Hospital.

They wheeled me in without delay and wrapped me in these blue sterile sheets. That’s when I realized that my burns were so bad that I was fighting for my life; the gravity of the situation was starting to sink in. I was on the critical list for six weeks, my life hanging by the thread of my faith in God’s goodness and my unwavering determination to be a wife to my husband and a mother to my children once again. This part of life was the only thing worth fighting for. During this time, my relationship with Hashem grew very intense.

Q: Would you please tell us about your near-death experience while undergoing surgery in Hadassah?

My near- death experience occurred during my 9th skin graft. A skin graft is done by taking healthy skin from one part of one’s body and grafting it onto the parts that had no skin. 

During my operation, all of sudden, I felt like I was just eyes looking out. I felt acutely the warmth and love of Hashem. I was in a cave and I could see  a long hall and it was very dark. At the very end of the hall was a radiant white light. I felt so much love for Hashem that I started singing “I love you, Hashem.” I felt like an opera star singing. But while I was singing, I was wondering if the surgeon could hear me because. I was a little embarrassed belting out “I love you, Hashem.” After the operation, I shyly asked the surgeon if he had heard me singing. Thankfully he said he hadn’t.

Q: When did you establish the Chaya Malka Burn Foundation?

In 2003, I founded the Chaya Malka Burn Foundation to help Jewish burn patients in Israel and abroad by raising money for costly treatments and helping them resume a normal lifestyle. CMBF also publishes a free educational newsletter about burn prevention and safety tips. I answer calls from all over the world, direct people as to what to do immediately, send information to help burn patients and their families get through their ordeal, and help people maneuver through the painful healing process. Here is the Israeli HOTLINE: 972-587- 627-954.

I made countless personal visits to burn victims throughout Israel, often spending a lot of time just listening to them as they related their stories. I had seen so much suffering. And on top of that I could see that there was a tremendous need for financial support. Most families didn’t have the means to pay for the expensive and extensive care needed for a burn patient.

For two years, while I was recovering from my burns, I had to wear an elastic pressure suit called a Jobst compression suit. This garment covered me from head to toe, just leaving my eyes and mouth uncovered. I wore this suit to control the growth of abnormal scar tissue resulting from severe burns and to push down existing scars. I had to get a new Jobst suit every time my body size altered due to swelling, weight gain, etc. So you can imagine how expensive this was! (about every 3 to 4 months)

If you want to join me in my relentless efforts to help families who have suffered from dangerous burns, check out the partnership opportunities which are available by clicking here: Chaya Malka Burn Foundation.

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