I was sitting on the floor in a tucked-away corner the main rotunda of the National Museum of American History, resting against my overstuffed pink-and-blue Patagonia backpack and charging my phone in a working and miraculously unguarded wall outlet I’d found off to the side of the coat check. I’d come to D.C. a day early to teach a workshop and participate in a panel discussion on women in comedy. To keep costs down I was staying with various members of the D.C. improv community, which meant that between hospitalities I was a nomad wandering the Capital with a backpack full of the weekend’s clothes, my computer, handouts for my workshop, and an extra pair of shoes on my back.
I’d spent the morning alone at the Museum of American History, killing time checking out Dorothy’s slippers and Archie Bunker’s chair, and by 11:30 I was done with what I’d come to see and trying to decide between getting lunch or going over to the Holocaust Museum. It was a little early for lunch, but as I knew from past experience, the Holocaust Museum isn’t something you can just pop in to check out like the original Kermit the Frog puppet. There’s one entrance, one exit, and only one path through that takes at least an hour to travel and, based on my one previous experience, the rest of the day to shake.
The last time, the only time I’d been to the Holocaust Museum was when I was pregnant with my first child. We weren’t telling anyone yet, and I wasn’t showing much. My husband and I were chaperoning the tenth-grade trip for the high school where I worked at the time. The buses were separated by gender, and we’d been assigned to the girls’ bus. The trip involved a Julia Stiles movie marathon, traditional bus sing-a-longs, and lots of reminders from me that they needed to stay seated and not cluster in groups of five or six around a single bench. My husband and I were young to be married—twenty-two and twenty-three, respectively—but the rings on our fingers and the life growing inside me created a chasm between us and the thirty girls with whom we shared the trip. He kept his head down and read for most of the ride; I tried to rest and quell the occasional waves of nausea.
Our first stop upon making it to D.C. was the Holocaust Museum, where we were scheduled for a group tour. When you start your tour at the Holocaust Museum, you’re assigned the name of a Holocaust victim—their hometown, their age, when they were taken—as a way to simulate the experience of being there yourself, being targeted. I remember thinking the identity assignment was a smart, thoughtful move.
My chaperone status initially conferred upon me a certain level of detachment regarding the proceedings as we stood in the group tour waiting area. I was here to support and watch over the students, not immerse myself in a personal experience. Watching the kids examine the personal profiles assigned to them, I could see them moving inward, away from the kinetic, social space of the bus and into a quiet, reflective place inside themselves. I taught at a Jewish school, and some of my students had relatives who died in or survived the camps. Those who weren’t personally touched by the events had still spent most of their childhoods hearing stories of survivors, going over timelines of events in Sunday school or Jewish day school.
The first third or so of the museum is about Jewish life in Europe leading up to the war. You start seeing the Jude signs, the boycotts of shops. Then Jewish people begin to be relocated, taken away. Those who stayed, we’re told, didn’t quite know where the others were being taken. They had heard rumors of work camps, even death camps, but most of them didn’t believe their friends and neighbors would be complicit in that sort of thing, and didn’t see what Germany had to gain from getting rid of such a vital part of its workforce and culture. They were wrong, of course, which we know now, but to call them fools would be as unfair as mocking Ptolemy for his earth-centered universe or Lamarck for his theory on inheritance of acquired traits. Nothing they knew at the time suggested any other interpretation of events would be at all reasonable. And every generation underestimates humanity’s capacity for cruelty and indifference.
We were moving through the museum, slowly but on the path laid out for us, when we came upon a cattle car. Not a picture of one. Not a facsimile. A real, honest-to-god, used-to-transport-Jews-to-concentration-camps cattle car. It was right in the middle of the path, so to continue moving through the exhibits, you had to walk through it. “Very smart,” I remember thinking to myself, yet again. “A meaningful way to force people to confront the horrible realities of this historical event.”
That might be what I thought, but what I felt was a sudden and strange paralysis. My body wouldn’t move. I tried to shake it off as something outside of me, an internalization of the response I assumed the curators of the museum had hoped they might elicit, but which I was actually too stoic and cynical to truly experience in earnest. I thought, “I feel frozen right now because that is how I know they want me to feel. It’s not actually how I feel.” I truly believed I was doing it almost as a kind of public performance, and almost became angry with myself for such a blatant and tasteless show of exhibitionism. I tried to step forward.
But I couldn’t move. It felt a bit like how I’ve heard skydivers—even experienced ones—can feel frozen right before jumping. Even when they know they have the skill and experience to jump safely, their bodies sometimes betray them, their minds registering only the distance from the ground, the speed of the fall.
I felt so foolish. I wasn’t going to be sent to a concentration camp; I knew that. And I didn’t have any family or anyone close to me who’d gone, so there was no personal connection to the moment other than my Jewishness itself, which was never enough to cause this sort of panic before—not like my mother, who often talked of how she was plagued by dreams that her life was the continuation of a young Jewish child’s that was cut short in Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz. I wasn’t like my mom. I didn’t believe in reincarnation or spirits or ghosts. I didn’t imagine, as she might have, that the spirits of the dead might cling to me once inside the car. It had been cleaned, the wheels and other hardware removed. It was just a box bolted to the floor. An object in space, like so many other objects in space.
I said all this to myself, but I still couldn’t move. Why was this happening to me? I’d made it, untouched, through so many other experiences meant to elicit my extreme sympathy or fear or anxiety. I’m the friend who no one wants to watch The Notebook with because they know I’ll loudly complain how it’s weird to build a house for someone you broke up with years ago while they bawl over Ryan Gosling’s undying love for Rachel McAdams. I was the kid at the haunted house who couldn’t stop thinking about whether the mummies and zombies were union or not while my friends screamed around me in the dark. After seeing Schindler’s List in the theaters when I was sixteen, my general reaction was that it was “pretty solid” and “definitely important” but that the girl in the red coat was “maybe a bit much.” I was always a thinker, not a feeler. So why had this experience caused such an acute reaction in me? Was the museum just an especially well-crafted experience?
I wondered if it wasn’t perhaps the baby growing inside me that had caused such an unexpected reaction. Hormones, I already knew, could make a person feel unlike herself, transposed to an unrecognizable point on the graph of existence. Beyond the hormonal change was the power of a major life transition—I remembered how, in the week after my wedding, food tasted both sweeter and saltier, as though the ceremony had caused some actual and measurable heightening of my senses. Was I a different person than I knew myself to be up until now? Had the life I was cultivating with my own changed me irrevocably? I continued to stand, frozen, at the threshold of the car’s entrance, feeling foolish as I allowed myself to consider the possibility that this barely formed fetus had already begun to control me in such a deep way.
Mostly, though, the way I felt standing there, staring into the train car, was like a frightened animal. Trapped, cornered, afraid for its survival. I could feel my blood entering my heart and rushing out of it again in rhythm with its rapid compressions. I could feel my skin covering my muscles, my muscles grasping at my bones, the whole structure barely holding itself together—and at the same time holding on fiercely to the thing that was growing at its center. I felt a deep fear of death, a deep need to live. That was the feeling that drowned out everything else.
I’ve said so many times since giving birth to two children that nothing makes you feel more like a mammal than gestating a baby inside of you for nine months, giving birth to it, then feeding it milk from your breasts. It’s the most primal experience I can conceive of in my mind, perhaps other than one’s own birth (which one doesn’t remember) and one’s death (which one can’t). But at the beginning of my first pregnancy, I was not yet able to name this particular strangeness. Not until that moment, standing there in the Holocaust Museum in front of a train car originally intended for animals, then used to transport hundreds and hundreds of humans—packed in so tightly, worse than animals, treated as less than alive—women, men, children, babies. Pregnant women, I’m sure, too. Of course, too.
How did they feel as they traveled in these cars, these soon-to-be-mothers? Did they continue to hold out hope that the conditions they found themselves in would be temporary? That they would be treated with dignity, especially them, with their swollen bellies full of the hope of life? Were they grateful that their not-yet-children couldn’t be torn from their arms upon arrival at the camps like the other mothers’ children were, or did seeing the separation of families cause a primal fear to rise in them as well?
At what moment did they know—really know—that neither they nor the child they’d planned on bringing into the world would make it? Did any part of them feel some strange relief at not subjecting another life to the horrors they had seen? How would I have fared in such circumstances? When would I have given up hope? When would I have let go?
The religious phase my husband and I went through as newlyweds meant that we neither specifically planned to have children nor did anything to prevent ourselves from doing so, which suited my general outlook on procreation just fine. I never imagined I wouldn’t have children like some of my happily childless friends, but neither can I remember that urgent ache that so many of my other friends report having had, that demand of nature that I create a little version of me in the world. I just figured motherhood was something I would experience eventually, like getting a Master’s degree or traveling to Europe. I didn’t understand, then, that it was something I would become.
The last time I was in this city, I had had no choice but to bring my child with me, inside of me. The second time, I returned alone. Back in D.C. after fourteen years, I felt bracketed on one end by the visceral memory of the first time I felt, with the fullest force, how much motherhood could compel me to behave in ways unforeseen and uninvited by my previous self, and on the other by a decade-and-a-half of living with and for two humans I had created inside me—two humans who now hardly needed me in order to conduct their daily lives, to follow their interests and passions, to live as fully as they can in this imperfect world.
Friends of mine who’ve yet to start their families or who are choosing not to have children at all often remark, with vicarious excitement, that I’ll be “done” with kids when I’m in my early forties, as if it’s something one can be “done” with, something one passes through—as if the self who enters the experience of parenthood is the same self that emerges on the other side. As if there is an “other side” at all.
As I stood there then, facing that cattle car at the threshold of motherhood, I felt myself rooting to the earth like a boulder pressed against a riverbed, fighting the current with nothing but its own full weight. My body and heart knew something at that moment that my mind could not. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“There’s a way around,” said a voice from somewhere beyond my peripheral vision. It came closer. “There’s a way around, Rachel.”
A hand touched my hand. I flinched, then grabbed at it. My husband spoke again. “I guess they figured some people might not want to go through. You can go around. Here,” he said, and he led me around to the left, through a narrow opening in the wall.
As soon as I was safely through, the tears began to pour from my eyes. I still felt so foolish. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I couldn’t go though. I couldn’t…”
“I know. It’s terrible that you had to experience that,” he said. Which we both knew was a ridiculous thing to say, in this place that was built and dedicated to the actual suffering of so many. Even though he meant it. Even though it was true.