2001: Just dropped Rachel at school in Verona. She is six, in first grade at our neighborhood school. Sitting in the car, with coffee and bagel, listening to WNYC. Report: plane hits WTC; it’s a horrible accident, I think. Second plane hits, I know it’s terrorism.
I am headed to nearby Bloomfield from Verona, to pick up my Uncle Gerry, a Holocaust survivor like my mother, who had died in 1967. We are heading to be interviewed by Kurt Landsburger, a Jew who emigrated from Prague in 1939. He is a successful businessman, very philanthropic, and writes a weekly column for The Verona-Cedar Grove Times.
Kurt wants to write about my uncle and mom, who came from Germany in 1935, as unaccompanied minors, and how my mother’s determination brought her parents to the U.S., just before war was declared. Stepping into his living room in Verona, I am transported to my childhood. An early ’60s feel, with Danish Modern furniture, smooth unadorned lines, warm dark wood framed chairs, rectangular cushions in earthy colors. We tell our story and during the conversation, Kurt’s son calls from Washington, to report the Pentagon was hit.
We drive back to Bloomfield, silent, too overwhelmed to speak. I call my daughter’s school. Many of the children are being picked up. I choose to wait for dismissal. Rachel stays in the playground for a while, with just one other child. Need to face going home. We are alone, unfamiliar with our neighbors, as we moved recently.
My husband, who works in aerospace defense, is on a business trip. Choke. He’s at the main manufacturing facility for fighter jets at Boeing, in St. Louis. I’m hyperventilating. All travel is frozen. Most fortunately, Michael is with three colleagues from NJ; they have a rental car. But they wait until the next morning to start driving east.
That evening, afraid and not wanting to be alone, I take Rachel to Nauna’s pizzeria in Montclair. Although her back is to the mounted television, she tells me later that she saw the pictures of the burning towers. The images are indelible.
In 1993, the first time the World Trade Center was bombed, we lived in Battery Park City. From our Juliette balcony on South End Avenue, we watched the helicopters hover around the towers. Michael’s cousin, Frank, worked at the World Trade Center for many years, and in 2001, at the first report of trouble, he ran out of the building as fast as he could. Michael’s godson lost his close friend, they had recently graduated from Boston College, in the Towers. My brother-in-law, working nearby, walked north, covered with World Trade Center debris. Our friends in Battery Park City, who lived even closer to the Towers than we did, in the Gateway complex, were on the run. Initially, I reported them missing, but they scattered and were found. They were displaced for a long time and faced environmental hazards, like so many downtown residents.
I took comfort, that my dad, who died in July 2000, didn’t have to endure the pain of 9/11. He survived the Holocaust, and in his final years found solace at the Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Los Angeles. It was victim to a horrendous hate crime shooting in August 1999.
Rachel is now 26, and I turned 71. Virus, floods, violence, we endure, and I seek solace in meditation and prayer. As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I have innate hypervigilance, whether paranoia or real. Let’s hope it keeps us from harm.
Hedi Molnar, a writer and editor, is former New York Times staffer. A native New Yorker who lives in Verona, she is writing a memoir about the culture scene in the city.