Yom Hashoah Thoughts on the E Train

Earlier this week, for reasons having nothing at all to do with the upcoming observance of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) this coming Sunday night and Monday, I found myself on the E train here in New York City.

For those of you reading this who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the New York City subway system, the E train is the Eighth Avenue express that goes from central Queens all the way to lower Manhattan and back again. Its Manhattan terminus is at the site of the former World Trade Center. The E is a major commuter line, particularly for people who live in my area of Queens and work in midtown or lower Manhattan. To get from here to there, if you make good connections, takes less than half an hour. A commuter’s dream.

So I was on the E train the other day, and I noticed- yet again- that even though the tragic events of September 11 took place almost ten years ago, the conductor will regularly say “This is an E train to the World Trade Center…. Watch the closing doors.” And not only does the conductor say that, but all the signs on the trains themselves say “World Trade Center” as well, as do the signs in the stations.

For a long time after 9/11, the World Trade Center station was closed. Actually, it was more or less pancaked on that awful day, and it’s something of a miracle that anyone who was in that station when the planes hit lived to tell the story. When the station finally re-opened after many months, it was seen as a phoenix rising from the ashes… literally and figuratively.

As I sat on the E train, I couldn’t help but wonder- as I have so many times before- why didn’t “they” change the name of that station? It’s more than a little creepy to hear the conductor say those words, to look at them… every time I’m on that train, it forces me to have at least a momentary flashback to what it felt like to be in New York City on September 11, 2001. It’s not a memory that I enjoy revisiting. I feel as if I am being forced to confront one of the worst days of my life for the privilege of riding the train that can get me where I need to go. It’s a tough trade-off.

Having admitted to my E train issues, I am obliged, for the sake of honesty, to admit that there have also been more than a few moments when I have wondered why the international community still allows the German language to be used in polite conversation. I remember once, not long after visiting Auschwitz for the first time, checking in at the old El Al terminal at JFK airport here in New York, which was right next door to Lufthansa. I needed to use the men’s room, and upon entering, saw a sign over the urinals saying “Achtung!” At that moment, I literally decided that I’d rather fly ten uncomfortable hours than use that bathroom. I had just seen that word on the electrified fences of Auschwitz. It didn’t belong in the vernacular of a civilized language- or even in a bathroom.

The intricacies of memory are amazingly complex and idiosyncratic. I’m sure that there will be those who will read this article and think me at best odd for thinking these thoughts, but I don’t feel odd at all… just bothered. Such is the stuff of Jewish memory. Tragedies conflate one with the other and play tricks on our thought processes. It’s sixty-six years since the end of World War II, and almost ten since September 11. It just amazes me how so few words- World Trade Center, achtung- can play with my head so totally.

Yom Hashoah approaches, and it’s time to focus in on those terrible times. What did Simon and Garfunkel sing? “The words of the prophet are written on the subway wall…”

Wishing you all a meaningful Yom Hashoah.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.