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The day after

This is a long post about both 9/11 and the Holocaust. Please feel free to skip it. As I explain, I would in your shoes.

I have spent a lot of the last week with my fingers in my ears, singing tunelessly to myself, trying to block out the non-stop coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

“La, la, la, la, la. . .”

I didn’t need the reminder—it was a day I won’t forget.

I was writing, in the middle of what would eventually become the manuscript for Come Fall. I had enabled the newsfeed to my browser and, as was my habit at the time, I’d periodically switch from my word processing program to the internet feed. I switched, and there was a photo with smoke coming from one of the Towers.

It didn’t process that immediately. (I was concentrating on something else.) I returned to work, but after a few minutes the image finally made sense in my brain. One of the Towers was on fire.

My sister worked in Tower 2.

I switched back to the newsfeed but, by then, the internet was hiccuping, and I couldn’t get any information. I called my parents. They were frightened. I turned on the radio. The news was incoherent. It took me another 15 minutes to remember the TV. And then, I couldn’t leave it. I saw the Towers tumble. I placed one phone call after another to my parents, my spouse, anyone I could think of. Miraculously a phone message came through—my sister had contacted  my mother. She was alive, trying to find her way back across the river to NJ. I left a message on her home voice mail, knowing that it wouldn’t reach her for hours, maybe days, telling her how much I loved her, how glad I was that she was alive.

The next day, still consumed by the chaotic news coverage, I did not get back to work. Nor the day after that. I talked to family, friends, my sister, neighbors, acquaintances, anyone who was tangentially involved. I obsessively watched the news, spun wheels. Too soon after, anthrax was found in the mail, concentrated in the post office hub that delivered my mail. More people died. The daily ritual of opening our mailbox became terrifying.

I didn’t return to work for six months. I did no writing to speak of in that period, and I wondered if I could ever write again. But by small increments, twenty minutes at a time, I brought myself back to writing. I weaned myself from the need to check the news every time I put pen to paper. I relearned that the world might be falling apart, but my working would not make it fall apart any faster.

The annual news coverage, and this years blizzard of remembrances, does nothing to heal me.

I react similarly to remembrances of the Holocaust.

I come from a family of Holocaust survivors. The generation of survivors (now down to a precious handful) never called themselves that. I grew up with their stories, however. From an early age I heard of the terrifying showers, the trains, the mechanisms of hiding, the daring escapes. I heard of the humor amongst the horror, the boredom, the fear. I had family members who refused to speak German ever again; who refused to purchase any German products; who were unable to kill anything, ever again, even invading ants; who lived with rigid habits because those had served them in a camp.

Some of the stories are the stuff of my nightmares. (My grandmother’s friend watched as her entire village was shot in the main square, one afternoon.) Some of the stories were told with relish, making the whole family laugh. (My great-uncle, press-ganged into the Soviet army, was assigned the role of army dentist after he pulled out his own tooth to alleviate the agony of an infection. Some day I’ll tell you why this was so funny.) But whatever the story, the moral was always the same—you do what you have to, to survive.

“Never forget” is the refrain of Jewish organizations intent to protect future generations from this kind of horror. Memorials have been erected, a library of literature has been created, museums about the Holocaust now dot many lands. I avoid each and every one, as much as I can.

That is because I have not forgotten. A day rarely goes by when I don’t remember. Reading a long account, watching lengthy newsreels, looking at multiple pictures, listening to one story after another (all of which I have done, from time to time) only insures that I won’t sleep nights. For my own peace of mind, I can only take a little at a time. Trust me, I won’t forget.

And it is also the case for 9/11.

“Don’t forget.”

No we shouldn’t. But please forgive me if I turn off the fifth, twentieth, hundredth account of the day. Trust me, I’ll remember.


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