A 360-Degree Turnaround Since 9/11

A naive, 27 year-old-kid from a small town in Michigan, I really thought I could change the world, or SAVE the world, by moving to Washington DC to work at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now, I’m realizing that I can only save MYSELF. I’ve studied WWII and the Holocaust all my life, since the age of 10, when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank. She changed my life. I became personal friends with the woman who hid the Frank family, Miep Gies, for over 15 years. I volunteered at the Anne Frank Center in New York for five years. I even wrote an article about her life story, in January 1999’s World War II magazine. And then, I was hired at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was my life’s purpose to work there, and I immersed myself in it completely.

I loved Miep Gies like she was my very own grandmother, because she truly was an angel on earth. She inspired me to do good things, to teach kids about the power of good deeds, the power of changing hatred, of educating themselves to learn the truth before jumping to incorrect conclusions based on prejudice or racism. I loved her like she was my very own grandmother. She wrote me many letters during those 15 years of friendship, and told me she was very proud of me for choosing this work of teaching the Holocaust….but I told her, and this is the truth, IT actually chose ME. I did not question it. I am not Jewish, but I felt it was in my heart and soul to do my best to give everything over to that job.

I was in the Museum on 9/11, less than one mile away from the Pentagon. I had to evacuate everyone from it, while walking around in a daze of shock myself. Black plumes of smoke surrounded me, sirens wailed all around, people yelling and running in the streets…it felt like Armageddon had come. I believed I was going to die that day. And, on 9/11, (though I managed to live through it), a huge part of my soul DID die. My whole world came crashing down around me. I lost everything that I worked so hard to achieve, it took me so long to get where I was, and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it was all gone.

A few days later, I lost my job at the Museum because I had a family emergency–my mother was flying to Florida that day and we couldn’t find her—so I panicked and drove to Michigan to be with my sister, until my mother was found could come home. I was told by the Museum that I was an “essential employee” and I had to be at work the next day. But, I couldn’t do that until I knew if I had to plan a funeral for my mother or not, being the oldest of 3 daughters.

They actually made me choose between my family and my job at that point, and after several agonizing days of deliberation, (and my mother STILL hadn’t been returned home by that time yet), I chose to stay with my family. It seemed to me like the right thing to do, but it turned into a huge 3.5 year mistake that changed me into someone I never knew I could become. Though my mother was finally returned and safe after a week, I was no longer the same person I was before 9/11. Suddenly my world was empty.

To put it simply: I hated people. Almost overnight, I just hated the whole world and everybody in it. Those horrible people who crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers didn’t seem to WANT to be saved, they didn’t WANT to learn about the dangers of hate or prejudice or racism, they didn’t WANT to make the world a better place—-they just wanted to blow everything up and kill everybody that wasn’t like THEM. I had WASTED six YEARS of my LIFE trying to make the world a better place, and here it was blowing up all around me, war on the horizon, uncertainty and fear permeating our world.

I hated the fact that I no longer had the best job of my entire life anymore because of 9/11, and I STILL miss that Museum every day—still have dreams about being there, walking those halls, I know that place like the back of my hand. In fact, Steven Spielberg once shook my hand while he was visiting with his family, and I got into MAJOR trouble for it. I didn’t shake HIS hand, he reached out to ME!! So, I also hated Spielberg for that. I hated the whole entire universe, and that anger consumed me, which was something I never experienced before in my whole life.

I even hated GOD. How could God allow such a horrible tragedy to happen like that, to so many innocent people? All I could do in the following 36 hours after 9/11, was sit glued to the TV. like a zombie, crying hysterically. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I just sat there, numb, paralyzed, emotionally and physically exhausted…to this day, I still burst into tears when I read stories about it, or see the footage on TV.

That is why it was so difficult for me to decide whether or not to write this essay. It still hurts me very deeply. It has taken me a long time to sit down and re-live it, and write it all down.

Now, as I look back on the past decade of my life, I see the huge abyss of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that caused me to have such hatred, anger, and seething rage. It was truly destroying my soul. I was suicidal for a long time. It took everything I could do to climb out of that abyss. Part of me didn’t want to, didn’t care if I ever got out of it. That feeling still lingers inside, from time to time, even now, and I know it could easily swallow me up if I let it. I came face-to-face with my own demons, and it was ugly.

My life was chaos. I was all alone, single, trying to make sense of a senseless world. After 3.5 years of hardship and financial devastation in Michigan, (eviction, repossession, homelessness), I returned to DC, to try and get my life back. But the Museum wouldn’t rehire me. I had let them down. I tried for several years to get my job back, to no avail. I had to come to terms with the fact that my life’s purpose, for some reason, was taken away from me. Why God would do that, I have no idea. Wasn’t I doing something GOOD?! There was a feeling of having a higher purpose in working there, and I loved it—-despite the bittersweet difficulty of working in the midst of man’s inhumanity towards man, surrounded by war, death, doom and destruction all day, every day. It wasn’t an easy job. But it was my life, it chose me, and I felt very proud to be doing something GOOD for the world.

But, I believe even now that my life truly ended on 9/11. Sure, I am still alive, and I do not wish to minimize other’s pain and suffering to anyone who lost a loved one, by saying that. However, I lived a zombie-like, numb existence for nearly 10 years afterwards. I had a very difficult time showing any emotion about anything. I couldn’t share my feelings. I shut down inside. I closed myself down to the world and literally became a hermit. I didn’t go out, I didn’t socialize, I wanted nothing to do with people, I didn’t trust anyone, I didn’t LIKE anybody anymore, and I had a horrible case of road rage on the rare occurrence when I had to go out to buy food. Even the web site I created (www.Tolerance4Kids.com) in order to teach kids about Holocaust history, was of little comfort to me, because I felt that nobody ever read it, nobody CARED, so why bother to update it? It was too painful to write about Holocaust stuff since I no longer worked there, it hurt me too much. I had to put every book that I owned on the subject, and everything else that reminded me of my old life, completely away in storage for a long time.

A decade later, (just this past spring), I took my first tour of the Museum since 9/11, with my new husband who had never been there before, and unexpectedly, I cried hysterically all the way through it. I felt stabbing pain in my heart at every turn. Those people in those photographs were my FRIENDS, of sorts—I had been with them 6 years, day in and day out—I saw them every day—I knew those faces so well, it was almost like they were my own family members…and there they still were, still staring out at me, that Tower of Faces…and I still wished with all my heart that I could reach in and grab them, and try to save them from the impending doom of the Nazis.

I still wish with all my heart that I could have saved everyone who perished on 9/11.

The biggest guilt that haunted me (and still does), is regarding my favorite people in the entire Museum: the Survivors who volunteered there every week. They each chose to re-live their horrendous experiences every week, over and over, but none of them ever got a paycheck. I felt that was disgusting, unfair and wrong. I wanted to give them MINE. They are the ones who deserved it, not me.

But on 9/11, the guilt ate me up inside…when I realized this, I doubled over and had the wind knocked out of me—the pain was unlike anything I’ve ever felt before—I realized with a jolt that I had done what every GOOD German citizen did, and every GOOD neighbor that the Jews had during the Holocaust—I turned my back on them, I ran away scared, and I left them all behind to fend for themselves. After six years of being with them, loving them, learning from them, respecting them and working side by side with them….I had just abandoned them all without even saying goodbye. These are people in their late 70’s and 80’s, stuck in the middle of Armageddon on 9/11, and I just LEFT THEM THERE!! Is it any wonder, then, that my self-loathing consumed me? I was just as bad as the Nazis!! What a total horrible, and deceitful hypocrite I was! How could I EVER be the one to teach ANYBODY about peace and tolerance and the Holocaust, when I was just as selfish and evil as the perpetrators of that horrible time? This ripped me apart inside. I was broken. My soul shriveled up in absolute devastation.

Several of those Survivors that I knew and loved passed away during the next few years, and that guilt of never being able to tell them goodbye will never leave me.

Years later, when I confided this feeling of hypocritical guilt and self-hatred to Nesse Godin (my favorite Survivor who called me her “daughter”), she told me that NONE of the Survivors at the Museum had felt that way about me at all! In fact, she told me that they all loved me, they worried about me, and several of them kept in touch with me all those years, including her. She told me that they all knew I had to go and be with my family, and they would have all done the very same thing.

That forgiveness lifted a huge, heavy weight off my shoulders…but it still sometimes haunts me in the back of my mind. I wish I could re-wind that day, and do things differently. But I can’t.

Eventually, I realized that 9/11 was just ONE DAY—one horrible day, yes, to the extreme—but I reminded myself that the Holocaust Survivors I knew and loved, all endured TWELVE YEARS WORTH of 9/11’s! We had only ONE DAY of horror, much like Pearl Harbor so many years before. They had those days over and over, constantly, as if it were from the day they started kindergarten all the way through the 12th grade. Imagine that. Twelve long years of 9/11’s. When I realized this, I felt so ashamed. How could I sit there in self-loathing and self-pity and hate myself for something I had no control over? How could I focus so much on ME, when so many OTHERS were hurting so much worse than I ever could?

I don’t think anyone really CAN imagine 12 years of 9/11’s, unless you have lived in a war zone sometime in your life. To have every civil liberty taken away, slowly and methodically by your own government, to have your money taken from you, food rationed, forced to wear a label on all your clothing, to be forbidden to go places, to do things, to enjoy your own backyard after a certain hour…to have your homes and businesses taken away…and to have your family members taken away, or shot for no reason, right in front of you…those were things the Survivors all endured during the Holocaust.

It is a miracle somehow, that they would do so, but after so many years of thinking they hated me for abandoning them, those Survivors actually saved ME from my own self-destruction. They were my “peeps,” my family. That blessing—that forgiveness—from Nesse Godin and Manya Friedman and Rabbi Jacob Weiner, Kurt Pauly (Anne Frank’s cousin), and so many other Survivors I knew and loved at the Museum, helped changed me back into a living, breathing, FEELING human being again, one with restored compassion and ability to love, and a renewed passion for trying to do good in the world.

I can honestly say that, without that Museum, even with the heartbreaking loss of it on 9/11, and without those Survivors in my life who still love me and keep in contact with me even now, I know I would not be here today.

They, and all they had endured during 12 years’ worth of 9/11’s, actually saved me from myself.

A decade after that fateful day in our country’s history, I am 43 years old and now married for the first time to a wonderful, loving husband named Pete. We just celebrated our one year anniversary. We live in Pittsburgh, with both of our mothers in a brand new house, and life is much better now that I have my dear loved ones around me. I’m also beginning to re-do my children’s web site, little by little, and I’m starting a class to learn Interior Design, because I now know that I cannot save the whole world.

I can, however, save my little corner of it, and I can also heal myself. I cannot rebuild the Twin Towers, but I can make my own little part of the world a prettier, nicer place. I can be nicer to people. I can smile more. I can laugh. I have since made my peace with God, my road rage is gone, and I still keep in touch with my Survivor friends and former coworkers at the Museum on a regular basis.

Yes, I do still miss being there and working there every day—so much sometimes, that it aches inside my heart—-but now I no longer hate people, and for the first time in a decade, I am truly happy. I still have a long way to go before I can be whole again and healed again on the inside, but I’m working on it slowly but surely. That is all any one of us can do.

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