Son of Skokie woman murdered in 1982 Paris terrorist attack now has hope accused killer will face trial
Grace Cutler died during the attack on the Jo Goldenberg deli in the Jewish quarter of Paris. Her son, Howard, was “shocked” when the French judiciary, determined not to forget victims, tracked him down in 2019.
WASHINGTON —Grace Cutler, a Skokie resident, was murdered in 1982 when terrorists attacked a Jewish deli in Paris, slaughtering six people and wounding 22 others. Now, after nearly four decades, her son Howard finally has reason to hope one of her alleged killers will face trial.
In April, a French court upheld the legal procedure extraditing Walid Abdulrahman Abou Zayed from Norway to France after a defense bid failed to free the Palestinian who became a Norwegian citizen.
Cutler, who lives in Lake County, feared that a missing signature on a court document would let Zayed return to Norway, where, according to news reports, he had been living since 1991. “I didn’t want this to spiral out of control and have this guy get released,” Cutler said.
The story starts on the afternoon of Aug. 9, 1982, when several men threw a grenade and started shooting into the Chez Jo Goldenberg restaurant on Rue des Rosiers in Paris’ Jewish quarter.
The French government blamed Palestinian militants associated with the Abu Nidal faction for what was one of the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks in France since World War II.
The six people who died included Cutler, a legal secretary in the Loop, and Ann Van Zanten, curator of architectural collections at the Chicago Historical Society.
They didn’t know each other. By coincidence, both women, who lived a few miles apart from each other in Evanston and Skokie, were at the deli in Paris at the same time that day.
Ann Van Zanten’s husband, David, an art history professor at Northwestern University, was wounded.Eva Shure, a Chicago Public Schools grade school teacher who was traveling with Grace Cutler, was also injured. After recovering, Shure returned to teaching and died in 1993.
The case seemed cold until Feb. 20, 2015, when the French judiciary issued arrest warrants for Zayed, living in Norway, and three other men — two in Jordan and another in the West Bank — in connection with the murders. They were charged with the slayings and attempted homicides.
It took more than five years for Norway to give up Zayed. He was not extradited to France until last December and remains in a French prison.
Jordan is refusing to extradite two of the accused killers to France, and the Palestinian Authority is sheltering the fourth suspect in the West Bank.
The phone call that changed everything
In 1982, Howard Cutler, a pharmacist, and his brother, Leonard, an advertising executive, mourned the death of their mother privately. Leonard was 33 when Grace Cutler was murdered. She was buried on Howard’s 31st birthday — the day before her own. Leonard died in 1995 when he was 45.
There was no movement to remember the Jo Goldenberg victims. There was no organized government or nonprofit group the family could turn to for support in France or the U.S.
Howard Cutler moved on with his life.
He married, raised two sons, now adults, and became president of a contamination control company.
And then, one day in July, 2019 — almost 37 years after his mother was murdered — an FBI agent tracked him down and phoned him at the request of the judicial branch of the French government.
That call changed everything, Cutler said.
It reopened old wounds, revived painful memories of what Cutler called his mother’s “barbaric murder.”
The French judicial system now requires victims to be notified when an investigation or judicial proceeding is conducted. It’s a big change from how things were handled in the 1980s.
Through the decades, there has been turnover in the investigating judges handling what is often referred to as the “Rue des Rosiers” probe.
Cutler fell through the cracks because no judge notified him that he was eligible to become a “partie civile” — a civil party to the case.
That is, until 2019, when Judge Regis Pierre was appointed to the Paris Court and was put in charge of the Goldenberg case. Pierre realized, after a review, not all the victims or their families were civil parties in the case and needed to be given an opportunity to participate.
The FBI agent delivered to Cutler information from the Court of Higher Instance in Paris with details about the four arrest warrants issued in 2015 and how to become part of a civil suit, which he did.
Cutler said he was “totally surprised” and “shocked” to get the call from an FBI agent. “It was, at times, an emotional conversation as we discussed the case while reliving the event of my mother’s brutal murder. ... I have shed more than a few tears several times over the last couple of years, which all started that day.”
Cutler followed the developments of Zayed’s eventual unsuccessful fight to stay in Norway.
He worried last year that the U.S. was not doing enough to make sure Zayed would face a trial in France and contacted Rep. Brad Schneider — whose district includes his Lake County home — and Sen. Dick Durbin.
Schneider, Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, all Illinois Democrats, sent a letter on Feb. 3 to the charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Paris. At the time, President Joe Biden had yet to nominate an ambassador to France.
The three said in their letter they “strongly encourage the American Embassy in France to ensure the United States of America offers the French Government all available assistance to bring the perpetrators of this heinous attack to justice.”
Help along the way
The French penal procedure gives Cutler, as a civil party to the case,access to the case file and the right to ask the judge questions about the prosecution.
Along the way, Cutler, who does not speak French, got help from the French Embassy in D.C. in navigating the French judicial system and finding a lawyer in France to represent him.
Florence Hermite, a former judge who is the Justice attaché at the French Embassy, serves as a bridge between Cutler and the French and U.S. authorities.
Hermite helped Cutler on other fronts, including pursuing a compensation claim and getting a memorial plaque on the Goldenberg building — where the names of Grace Cutler and Ann Van Zanten were misspelled — replaced and corrected.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed Cutler’s long-awaited hearing before Pierre.
The hearing finally took place on Feb. 2. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, it was a teleconference lasting more than two hours with an interpreter offering Cutler simultaneous translation.
Cutler said he asked the judge how strong the case against Zayed was, and the judge replied that he could not say.
David Pere, Cutler’s attorney in Paris, who is serving pro bono, said in an email, the “investigation will continue for at least one year.” If the case advances, “there will be a trial in approximately” 18 months to two years, he said.
Growing up in Wicker Park
Grace Weinbaum Cutler was born on Aug. 17, 1916, to Abe and Sara Weinbaum, who were Russian Jewish immigrants. She was raised in Wicker Park and attended Tuley High School.
After that, she became a legal secretary.
Her husband, Sidney, died when Howard was only a few months old; Leonard was not quite 3.
Grace Cutler raised her sons in apartments in East and West Rogers Park. They attended Sullivan High School.
After her sons were grown, Grace Cutler moved to a Skokie condo near the Skokie Swift, which was still her home when she was killed a week before her 66th birthday.
Cutler found a photo online of the inside of Jo Goldenberg after the attack.
“I could easily recognize the victim in the photo as my mother by the wristwatch she was wearing,” he said. Howard said he and Leonard gave the watch to their mother and received it back “after her brutal murder.”
After Zayed was arrested in Norway in September 2020, Stephen Flatow, a New Jersey attorney whose daughter, Alisa, was murdered in a Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995 wrote about how Grace Cutler and Ann Van Zanten were the “forgotten” American victims of Palestinian terrorists.
Flatow has faulted the U.S. for not pushing harder to help bring the killers to justice.
He wrote in a March 2015 column in The Jewish Star — after the arrest warrants were issued by France — “If the names Grace Cutler and Ann Van Zanten are not familiar to you, don’t be surprised. They are among the more than 100 Americans who have been murdered by Palestinian terrorists since the 1960s but have been almost completely forgotten.”
The treatment of victims of terrorism has evolved over the decades.
As the years passed, formal government and non-government organizations were established in France and the U.S. to provide support for victims with the need fueled by a series of terrorist attacks around the world, especially in France.
Pere, Cutler’s lawyer, said, “We should acknowledge that France does not forget victims of terror attacks and made its utmost to obtain the extradition of the suspect.”
In the U.S., the Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism in the Justice Department was created on May 6, 2005. Andria Kerney, the director of the office, has been assisting Cutler.
“OVT has provided valuable assistance with respect to the 1982 Chez Jo Goldenberg attack and will continue to do so. We are proud of OVT’s work and remain focused on the pursuit of justice, even when it occurs many years later in a courtroom in a foreign country,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers in an email sent before he left the Justice Department in June.
Earlier in May, Hermite noted in an email, the French Embassy in Washington hosted a webinar titled “Terrorists on trial – Can the courtroom help us heal?”
She said “the discussion revealed how in a few decades our justice systems on both sides of the Atlantic have tremendously improved the way they care for the victims of terrorism,” in contrast to the 1970s and 1980s when “the focus was mainly on finding and prosecuting the authors of such attacks.
“In a way, the Cutler family’s story illustrates these changes,” Hermite said. “At the time of the Rue des Rosiers attack, there was no compensation fund (it was created in 1986), no specialized justice (the specific composition of the court for terrorist trials was also created in 1986), no systematic legal aid for victims of terrorism,” she noted.
Now, after years and more attacks, France has a comprehensive public policy to deal with victims. French President Emmanuel Macron created an annual National Day Honoring the Victims of terrorism on March 11 and is planning a memorial museum.
The “cooperation with our American partners on these issues has always been very strong and solid. And as for Mr. Cutler’s situation, we work closely with the Bureau of Overseas Victims of Terrorism, which is a very important partner,” Hermite said.
David Van Zanten, who survived the terrorist attack, said in an email, “I have chosen not to be a party to this suit and would prefer not to talk about it. My first wife’s death was a very personal matter.”
Cutler said his interest is to “see that this suspect, as well as the other three suspects, eventually face justice in a French trial, found guilty and remain in jail for the rest of their lives.”