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Saturday, September 11, 2010

“The devil is in the details” normally means that the biggest challenges of a project are contained in its smaller elements. But I always think of the expression in relation to the personal stories told by or of the victims of catastrophic events. Such is particularly the case for me today, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, which I witnessed from my office across the West Side Highway. It’s easy to become inured to any big story, no matter how horrifying.  Eventually, it becomes something in a history book. But an individual’s heart-breaking story — one that might never merit a line in a book or a newspaper article — is always a shocking reminder that the disaster is made up of hundreds, thousands or even millions of stories just as unbearable. The phenomenon of empathy for the singular rather than the masses is best summed up by the line, “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths are a statistic” — a quote attributed by many to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and by some to anti-Nazi German journalist Kurt Tucholsky.

The detail-oriented devil was on my mind in July, when I visited my friend Al Radley in London. Al likes to reminisce about World War II, when he was just a teenager serving in the British Navy. He was on a ship called the Monowai, which transported repatriated prisoners of war and concentration-camp survivors. One of them was a refined man whom Al later realized was Otto Frank, the father of teenage diarist Anne Frank. Al told MrB and me about repatriating Soviet POWs. He expected they would disembark to a warm welcome: a band playing, streamers fluttering, relatives hugging. Instead, he said, the soldiers were taken off the ship and shot on orders of Stalin, who didn’t want anyone who had been exposed to the West to tempt comrades away from Communist values. Word got back to the next group of POWs and when the ship was docked at Malta, some of them leaped into the sea to try to swim to safety. They were fished out and taken back home to be shot. On another journey, the ship took back to France the French women who had been forced into prostitution by the Germans. The women were seized on the beach, forcibly shaven to identify them as collaborators, and take into town to be displayed as traitors —  scapegoats for the willing collaborators of the Vichy government who helped the Nazis identify and deport about 76,000 French Jews, of whom 2,500 survived.

Al also recommended that I visit the Musée Nissim de Camondo while in Paris, our next stop. The museum is a grand mansion built in the 1900s by a wealthy Sephardic Jew named Moïse de Camondo and painstakingly decorated in 18th-century style. Moïse’s only son, Nissim, died in combat during World War I and his daughter, Béatrice, was more interested in being a socialite and equestrienne than in caring for furnishings from the 1700s. So, Moïse left the building and all it contained to France, mandating that the museum be named after his son and the collection remain intact.  Moïse died in 1935 and the museum was inaugurated in 1936. My enjoyment of Moïse’s strange obsession with the Ancien Régime was severely hampered by the knowledge that Béatrice, her ex-husband and two children died in Auschwitz less than a decade later. (What’s the French for “Thanks for the cool house! Prepare to die.”?) In the cruelest of ironies, Béatrice was a Catholic convert. The Camondos were among the Jews expelled from Spain in the late 1400s for their refusal to convert. They landed in Turkey where they flourished as bankers. Centuries later, the family line died with Béatrice, who made the conversion that her ancestors refused, only to discover that neither her money nor her new faith could save her.

I hadn’t planned to go to the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History) that day but I needed to go as a sort of palate cleanser after the the Camondo museum. A recent exhibit on the Camondos had ended, so I got postcards of the family in the gift shop.

Moïse's cousin Isaac, who donated a massive art collection to the Louvre. Click for more info.

Family patriarch Abraham-Salomon and his grandson Nissim. This Nissim is the grandfather of the Nissim for whom the museum is named.

Back in the here and now, my father last week told me about a man he met who had lain injured next to two wounded women outside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. While rescuers tried to assist them, the two women were killed by people who had jumped from the towers. (The man suffered head injuries that kept him in the hospital for a year.)  Just when I thought I’d heard it all, I heard that. The devil is, indeed, in the details.

Here are my previous 9/11 posts:

A few of the minor memories I haven’t shared before:

  • When I heard the metallic clang of the first plane’s impact, I thought the big file cabinet in our office had fallen over.
  • When the noise kept reverberating I ran to an office with a window. It belonged to a guy who had a bit of a reputation for hiring cute young girls. Two of them were in there looking out the window and screaming.
  • I decided I wasn’t going to stand there screaming with the girls. We didn’t have a TV so I ran back to my office, went to CNN.com and hit refresh over and over again. While doing that, I managed to send six separate emails in 60 seconds, telling my family that something had happened at the WTC but that I was okay; asking a colleague in London to watch the BBC and report back; and asking a friend at CNBC if she saw anything on the newswires.
  • After I made my escape from the immediate vicinity with a couple of colleagues, I refused to walk all the way home like everyone else was doing. I said, “I’m not a refugee!” I was determined to find someone downtown to shelter us. Around 17th Street, we spotted a livery car garage and invaded the office to use its phones. The employees tried to get rid of us until they realized where we had come from. Then they kept trying to give me a banana.
  • I got through to my friend Kevin who lived in the area. He tried to give directions to his apartment but I suddenly couldn’t comprehend things like “northeast corner” and “Irving Place” so we agreed that I’d exit the garage, make a left and walk till we saw him walking towards us.
  • My employee Mel was hungry. She always had a good appetite no matter what was going on, especially for meat. We went to a deli and she got a big roast beef sandwich. I bought chocolate and beer for myself. If you want to be well-nourished in an emergency, stick with Mel. If you want to eat like it’s your last day on earth, I’m your woman.

If you want to contribute to a good cause in memory of 9/11, the Brooke Jackman Foundation is dedicated to promoting literacy. I haven’t been able to access the foundation’s website since the New York Times wrote a story about it a few days ago, but the Facebook page for it is here. Brooke was 23 years old when she died. On September 10, she’d called her mother to tell her that she was going to leave her job as assistant bond trader to get a master’s in social work in order to help children. “You know,” she said, “there’s more to life than making money.” There is also a foundation named for Ira Zaslow, the one employee of my company who was killed that day.  It’s giving out fashion-design scholarships. For more information, click here.

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31 Responses to “Thoughts on 9/11: The Devil Is in the Details”

  1. Melissa
    Twitter: jeweldosedaily
    says:

    How are there no comments on this yet? What a great post dedication – the fact that those people kept trying to give you a banana during such times of chaos definitely was comic relief. It surely reminded me of how funny yet well intentioned people can be in confusing times.

  2. CDP says:

    I was thinking about you today. I thought you might write about this.

  3. enc says:

    The French might be something like: “Merci pour la maison “cool.” Preparez pour la mort.”

    *They do say the word “cool” in France, albeit with a French accent.

  4. enc says:

    Now that I’m done with the French, I’d like to say that this was an incredible post.

  5. K-Line says:

    W: What a gorgeous post. Beautifully written – and so interesting. Thank you.

  6. Joy D. says:

    Wow, this was pretty power. This post has grounded me a bit.

  7. These stories, the language you’ve found here – I’ve just sat here for the last fifteen minutes reading this again and again.

    A beautiful tribute, Wendy.

    The world headlines the day after were almost universal:

    We Are All American Now.

  8. sharon rose says:

    Hi there-a really moving and humbling post, thanks for sharing all these memories my dear.

  9. Reena Rai says:

    Such a beautiful post, thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories Wendy. I had goosebumps reading your account of 9/11 I can only imagine how terrifying it was.

  10. This post was beautifully written and incredibly powerful. Thank you for writing it.

  11. Julia, the Thanksgiving Girl
    Twitter: juliaohso
    says:

    I still remember that day – me and my brother spent all day watching the news with the same video phootage again and again… Till our mom was back from work. I ran to meet her at the elvator and told her what happened – she didn’t believe me!! Then we spent a few more hours in front of the TV together…

  12. Karen in Paris says:

    I went to the Camondo exhibition at the Jewish art/history museum. Having seen the Camondo house/museum a few years ago, the exhibition gave “the rest of the story.” (Mind you, I’m the anti-Paul Harvey). The devil is, indeed, in the details.

  13. Nickie Frye says:

    I’ll never forget that day. My husband (then boyfriend) called me & said, “are you watching the news?”. Me, “No, of course not”. Him, “Ok, don’t panic…”. What a horrible & scary day.

  14. ryan says:

    Beautiful post, thank you for sharing your experiences of 9/11, I can’t imagine what it must have been like.

  15. Beautifully Invisible
    Twitter: BeautifullyInv
    says:

    This is such a beautiful, beautiful post. I was in Cleveland when it happened, but I ended up seeing the second tower go down right in front of my eyes on TV as it happened. I stood there all day crying like a blubbering idiot, and I wasn’t even in NYC. I feel like as the years have passed a lot of the genuine emotion of that day has been buried, but posts like this one bring it all back. Thank you for sharing some of your personal experiences.

  16. Eli says:

    gosh Wendy, I just went through a bunch of your backlinks and I am yet reminded why I love your blog. My heart goes out to you and everyone who had to experience 9/11 in person. I’ve been very mum about it in my real life, I can still remember waking up and seeing this on the television since it was the summer after graduating high school. I can never fathom what it was like in real life. And now after reading more of your posts I have regained interest in discovering more about the holocaust.

  17. Kristin
    Twitter: BonBonRoseGirls
    says:

    I can’t even imagine what it was like to experience that horror as a New Yorker. As Americans we all felt the tragedy of it…but to have it be so deeply personal must be so much worse. Amazing tribute and look back Wendy!

  18. hiyaluv says:

    what a fascinating post. i enjoyed the historical tidbits no matter how horrifying because I had never heard of such things happening! I also appreciate that you shared parts of your personal day from 9/11/01 as someone who was present.

  19. Wonderful post. Since living in Atlanta I thought no one would mention 9/11 yesterday, but my boyfriend’s roommate came into the kitchen and said, “let’s talk about where we were when the first plane hit.” It feels good to know that people who weren’t directly effected haven’t completely tried to push the event away.

  20. Wendy, thank you for this wonderful post. The devil is indeed in the details. So many years later and I still miss my best friend, Carolyn Beug, who was on the first plane to hit the towers.
    BTW, most people outside of Manhattan know nothing about the people that jumped out of the towers,as if no one jumped.
    Also, thank you for writing about the history of the Camondos. The Camondo museum in Paris is one of my favorites.

  21. The banana part def. made me smile.

  22. MsGolightly says:

    Fantastic piece Wendy and thought you would be horrified to read about the thousand of 9/11 responders now greviously ill. Some of them now developing horrific cancers as the combined poisons of the dust and emissions were so toxic. Many of them are being denied medical insurance.
    http://www.911healthnow.org/911healthnow/Home.html

  23. Thanks for sharing your memories and thoughts in such a beautifully-written piece. Now we’ve got to visit the Camondo museum.

  24. Wonderful post (and posts, I went back to read the older ones). I was not in NY that day, I was in my office several states away, but a coworker had a close family member in the towers on one of the high floors (where almost no one survived) and the feeling of helplessness was horrifying. His family member didn’t survive – and we were all hundreds of miles away totally unable to help, speak, search, etc. Awful day.

    I’m with you, girlfriend – at the end of the world I’ll have a bag of Cheezits, maybe some salt and vinegar chips, and a cold IPA. Go out in style.

  25. Hi Wendy……just discovered your blog….Love it…wonderful post….Im looking forward to reading more posts!

  26. You just gave me an idea. A museum that I haven’t yet hit here in Paris. They are rare, but do exist.

  27. Jill says:

    It’s just still so fresh in my memory.

    I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of actually being there.

  28. My mind is blown and my heart was broken, but you have a way of keeping things positive when there’s much misery about. You little Churchill, you.

  29. FortyNotOut says:

    Wendy…. your 9/11 posts always leave me sitting staring at the computer, teary eyed. Because of the whole event, because of the loss, because you were there and because you write them so beautifully. Sometimes with a touch of humour and always with a sense of reality. x

  30. Audi says:

    This post really touched a nerve. I remember visiting Auchwitz when I was in Poland a couple of years ago; everyone had told me that the room full of human hair was the most shocking thing to see, but I found it to be the suitcases. Thousands of suitcases with individual names, addresses, and sometimes occupations. It was the personal details about those individuals that really brought home the horror of WWII to me. I get teary just thinking about those suitcases, and how their owners boarded the trains thinking they’d be getting them back.

  31. MJ says:

    “If you want to be well-nourished in an emergency, stick with Mel. If you want to eat like it’s your last day on earth, I’m your woman.”

    I just love this line so much. So human, and compassionate about the ways we differ (I’m a chip and beer gal, myself).