Yom Hashoah

I got onto a train.


It was morning. Rush hour was done. The car was still. Across from my red seat was a row of red seats, all empty.

I thought. Who are the people who could have filled these spots? 

I saw my reflection rippling in the glass. I saw other trains, not with eyes but with gut–stories told of boxcars, of standing for days, of terror, of rushing, of ending. Of a people that was mine. I looked through my reflection rippling in the glass and saw a shade of a world without my family in it. I saw myself as an empty seat.

I sat comfortably. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center. I stood for my stop.

I got off of a train and stepped into Warsaw.


I got onto a train with my father.


We sat in plush seats. We ate Polish donuts. We drank Polish coffee. We spoke quietly and freely in English. We watched the country whisk by.


“If things had gone differently, before,” I said to him, “You could have been Polish. I couldn’t have existed because you and Mom wouldn’t have met. But you could have been Polish.”

Before. I looked out and saw a shade of a country with my family in it, before.

A conductor came by. My ticket was wrong. I was not a Polish student. My international student ID meant nothing here. I had to buy a new ticket.

I fished out my wallet and fished out bills. I solved a problem with money. I thought of a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

I sat back. A former Soviet City’s suburbs turned to center.

I got off of a train with my father.IMG_1309.jpg

Mostly, I did not think about trains in Poland. Mostly, I enjoyed myself. My father and I ate pierogis and drank good coffee. We wandered the streets.


We entered old synagogues and new museums.


We paused by memorials. IMG_1282.jpg

We saw signs of a reviving Jewish community.


The Krakow JCC

We walked through cemeteries. (Perhaps, if we had never left Poland, we would have believed that, as Cohens, we shouldn’t set foot in a cemetery. But then, if we had never left Poland, we would not be us.)


We traveled as strangers in a country that had once been home, in a city where my Great Grandfather attended high school, in a country where much of his family later perished. It had been home. It was not any longer. My father flew to our home– to America. I flew to Tel Aviv.


I missed a train in Tel Aviv.

The train came only once an hour. I missed it by a minute. I would have to wait. I grumbled to myself. I thought about my sore neck and long day and lack of sleep. I thought about the homework I had yet to complete. I did not think about a people that was mine that would have given any amount of money to solve a problem that could not be solved with money.

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who has made me so free that I can forget what it would be to be anything else.

I got onto the next train. Across from me, the seats were full. I remembered the empty red row in Warsaw. I remembered my doctor in Jerusalem last fall, asking me my birth date to figure out which of the two “Emily Cohens” in his system was me.

I told him my birthdate. “There are a lot of Emily Cohens in the world,” I added with a smile and a shrug.

My doctor looked at me and did not smile. “Thank God,” he said. “Thank God.”

Blessed are you, Miraculous One, who gives humanity the wisdom to learn and to remember and to be grateful. IMG_1193.jpg


One thought on “Yom Hashoah

  1. Thank you for that lovely essay and for remembering my father, who, after the death of his father in WWI, moved to Warsaw with his mother and 3 sisters. Yes, he attended the famous Warsaw gymnasia and studied piano, and attended his sisters’ weddings before leaving for Germany, France and the US where he met my mother. Her family had left Poland after WWII, some to Russia, some to Argentina and Brazil, a few to the US. I am the child of immigrants, my father here illegally. (To become a citizen, he had to leave for Canada and return on a proper visa.) He knew that his Warsaw family had been moved to the ghetto, and he knew what would happen to them there. In 1943 he committed suicide, another victim of the outrage that cannot say its name without a shudder of outrage and grief. I had a grandmother I never knew, born a Cohen like you. Her name was Gertrude (Trudi). My aunts were Lizzie, Julia and Celia. Their names are not among the few listed as having lived in the ghetto, and are known only to me, my brother and now you. When you return, I will show you the pictures my father left.


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