Lengel: 19 Years Ago, My Mother, a Holocaust Survivor, Said it Felt Like the End of the World

September 11, 2020, 7:47 AM by  Allan Lengel

9/11 (Photo: Michael Foran, Wikimedia Commons)

Nineteen years ago today, I was walking on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, headed to the subway. It was about 9:30 a.m. and I was going to The Washington Post, where I had been working full-time for a few months on the disappearance of an intern at the U.S. Bureau of Prisons named Chandra Levy.

During my walk I ran into a friend, who asked if I had heard about a plane crashing into World Trade Center in New York. I had not. I was running late that morning and ran out of my apartment without watching the news on TV.

By the time I got off the subway at the Farragut North stop downtown, a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and a third one into the Pentagon.

The world had gone mad.

Outside the subway, I ran into my editor. She was in a bit of a panic, which was sometimes her state of being, and told me a plane had also crashed into the State Department. It had not.

I walked into the somber newsroom, where reporters and editors were standing around watching updates on TV. I was told to go to police headquarters and see what news I could pick up. The subways were in a crazed state. People were heading home. Everyone was on a phone. It was hard to get a call through.

So I walked a mile and a half to headquarters and stood outside all day. On occasion, a police official pulled up and told reporters what they knew. Early on that morning, there was one plane still unaccounted for in Pennsylvania. I would periodically look up into the sky, wondering if I would have enough time to run if it came crashing my way.

The world suddenly – with a flick of a switch -- became an uncertain place. Would life ever return to normal?

A few days later, when I was speaking to my mother back in Metro Detroit, she said: “It feels like the end of the world.” I responded: “Mom, you went through the Holocaust, it must have felt like the end of the world back then.” She said yes. She had survived Auschwitz, but her parents and some of her siblings had not.

This 9/11 anniversary seems more poignant than many in the past. Earlier this year, in March and April, it certainly felt like the end of the world with the pandemic.

What we learn is that the world is resilient, and that we as people are too, and that tragedies remind us that we too often take life's routines for granted. What I’d do now to sit at a bar with friends, shoulder-to-shoulder and have a drink downtown after work, or watch a ballgame at Comerica Park on a warm evening.

The world survived 9/11, 19 years ago. It will survive the pandemic of 2020.

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