Students and Professor Discuss the Boston Marathon Bombing
Professor Nancy Harrowitz, who is offering a course this semester on the Holocaust “as historical reality, metaphor, and generative force in literature,” wrote last week to her students in LX281/RN385 Holocaust Literature and Film, who were deeply affected by the Boston Marathon bombing. Together, they pondered the meaning of the recent events in relation to the Shoah. A Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi was among three people killed in the Marathon bombing, and another student was among the injured.
Here are Prof. Harrowitz’s letter and that of one of her students.
To my students:
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Boston, I’ve had some thoughts and questions that I’d like to share with you during this devastating time.
I’ve been asking myself about where we stand in relation to this tragedy, as we were already so intensely engaged in the study of atrocity this semester. How does it potentially change or alter our reading and engaging with Holocaust testimonies–texts of trauma– to have death and destruction, massacre, arrive on our own doorstep? Does it bring home what we are studying in a different way than what we were already experiencing?
Do the events of last Monday make it harder to study our subject, or does it make the topic more relevant, in a way that then makes it more bearable, because of the questions regarding the nature of evil that we were already exploring? Does looking at these painful issues make the emotional sacrifice worthwhile? Because make no mistake about it: there is emotional sacrifice in studying trauma. I’ve always believed that learning about the Shoah was well worth the toll it takes, as the topic is relevant in so many ways, not only to an understanding of history and a commemoration of its victims but to an understanding of contemporary life as well.
The world has changed significantly since then: we are now, unfortunately, much more aware of the presence and effects of terrorism. Still, what most of us are not used to is terrorism happening so very close to us. I imagine that some of you may well know some of the injured, or some of the traumatized witnesses, or even be among that number yourselves. I hope that this is not the case, that you are all safe and were away from the danger.
But we also have the effects of secondary witnessing to consider: watching the news reports, listening to the families of the victims and to the doctors and nurses treating the wounded, hearing about the atrocities, looking at the disturbing images recycled over and over again on the news. This exposure to suffering is not unlike what we can experience reading testimonies and watching documentaries this semester.
The situation in which we now find ourselves brings to mind 9/11: that semester, I found it excruciating to re-read the testimonies that I was teaching. The pain emanating from the pages of the testimonies felt so fresh. My emotional defenses had been shattered, and every word I read was like a knife. But still, there was a geographical buffer of sorts: that event happened in New York, my students and I were in Boston. We no longer have that shield.
What happened on Monday is now an irrevocable part of Boston’s history: both the evil act of the bombing and the heroism that people showed at the scene. So many literally ran towards danger in order to help rather than running away in fear. People opened their homes and their hearts to complete strangers in need of help. I hope that this can sustain us at least a little through the difficult days ahead, as the perpetrators are sought and we regain our equilibrium. At a moment like this it’s crucial to stop and reflect, so I ask you to do that with me.
In the meantime, stay safe and well, and I look forward to seeing you soon.
Hello Professor Harrowitz,
First, thank you for reaching out with your message. The past couple of days, I have found my mind literally overwhelmed with thoughts regarding Monday’s attack; and knowing I have an open forum in which to discuss some of these ideas offers a definite sense of security and encouragement. I apologize for the length of my response, but your letter proved to be quite a thought-provoking document.
With that said, the Boston office of FleishmanHillard, the public relations firm for which I intern, is located at 855 Boylston Street, just two blocks from the Marathon’s finish line. As the annual event is an iconic occasion for the city and therefore an incredible sponsorship opportunity for many of our clients, the office’s staff was called into work on Monday while most of Greater Boston enjoyed a vacation day. Given our beautiful fifth-floor view of the race, I hardly minded the responsibility.
Though I had a full agenda of tasks to complete for my superiors, Monday morning felt like a Saturday to the few of us who decided to go into the office while most of our colleagues worked from home to avoid the Marathon crowds. We were constantly in and out of the office, and I reveled in the opportunity to eat lunch at the finish line, walk among the swarms of people that had arrived downtown and generally feel the energy of Boylston Street throughout the day. I usually take my lunch break later in the workday, but for some reason, decided to eat a little after noon. This seemingly meaningless decision may have saved my life.
When the first bomb exploded, I was at my desk writing a pitch to a journalist on behalf of a client. I was really frustrated with the wording of my second paragraph and beginning to feel the pressure of an impending deadline. Then, I felt a blast that rocked my foundation. Notice I didn’t say I first saw or heard the explosion. This was a feeling that nestled deep in my stomach and immediately signaled the worst.
Next, came the screams. Then, people running. As I watched, shocked, from a windowed conference room, the street on which I spend the majority of my week became a warzone. Soldiers appeared. Civilians were evacuated; and soon, ambulances hurriedly screeched to a halt in front of my office. First responders then began wheeling casualties to our front door. I watched as people, bloodied and mangled, were loaded into the waiting vehicles and driven away. This was no representation of horror, as we have learned so much about this semester. I stood, motionless, a primary witness to the hell of human violence recounted so eloquently in the curriculum of our class. Yet, this time, there was no film screen or glossy page to mediate the destruction. To play on one of the course’s beloved motifs, the mirror had been shattered, and my colleagues and I were left to stare Medusa directly in the face.
As I huddled in a back office with my fellow staffers and called my parents, girlfriend and brother to tell them I was okay, the now iconic cell phone recordings of 9/11 victims played in the back of my mind. As I spoke, I wondered whether my voice would soon be on MSNBC or CNN, ringing out while some amateur video illustration of my crumbling office building was broadcast to an awaiting television audience. However, we were soon evacuated by a breathless policeman who confessed the authorities were unaware people remained in our building. As he spoke, I began to feel a deep sense of isolation I hope will never return again. Running completely on adrenaline, I then walked back to my dorm by way of Cambridge, hardly processing what I had just witnessed.
You asked how this experience factors into my study of the Holocaust. Truthfully, it only makes the latter far more important. I have now seen firsthand the power of mankind’s capability for evil and, in response, the xenophobia, which can arise from such situations. On Tuesday, I heard reports a Muslim individual had been questioned by police after peacefully boarding an airplane and speaking Arabic with a fellow passenger. I think we both know of what ideological movement I was reminded as people immediately looked to an entire ethnic class of people to answer for Monday’s crime.
Yet, I am prepared. The words of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Paul Steinberg and so many others we have studied in recent weeks have reminded me of both the power of human fortitude in times of tragedy as well as the need, in the aftermath of these events, to simply stop and think logically. I will not join the masses of my beloved city calling for a scapegoat. I, like any member of this community, want those responsible brought to justice, but no one will find me waiting anxiously for more blood. Due to the lessons I have learned at Boston University, I know it is not just a moral decision but my obligation to think intelligently following this tragedy and avoid the sweeping wave of public opinion, which can often be just as destructive as the tragedy from which it came. I am under no false pretenses the Marathon attack will be the last of its kind in human history. I’m simply hoping we get better at dealing with the aftermath.
Thank you for checking up on us.