In honour of Holocaust Remembrance Day, here is a short memoir I wrote about a train ride home from work one day about four years ago in Toronto:
“507 Wilson. 507 Wilson. Please call control,” an automated male voice said over the intercom as I descended the steps to the King Station platform. There was that high-pitched screeching as the northbound train on the opposite track rolled in. It was post-rush hour, so not as bustling as it often is at this station after work.
As I could hear the southbound train arriving, I leaned over to peer at the emerging train lights shining through the dark – just to appreciate the idiom that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
I board the train, take out my book – Isak Dinesen’s Anecdotes of Destiny – place my backpack at my feet, and begin to read.
Suddenly, a voice comes over the intercom. It is not a female robot voice, but a human one. She says, “The next station is: Union Station. All passengers are asked to disembark at this station and another train will arrive in two minutes. We apologize for the inconvenience.” Half-listening, half already engrossed in an “anecdote of destiny,” I prepare, along with several others on the sparsely occupied train, to exit.
This story sounds ordinary; it was, in fact, a mundane event. Until, standing there next to me, was a woman who was impossible not to notice. Indignantly clicking her heels, a frustrated woman began complaining, to no one and to everyone. In a feverish, exasperated tone and with more drama than the situation seemed to merit she whined, “They allllllwaaaayys do this! Every day this happens to me. They never do this during rush hour. No! Only when I’m trying to get home the train needs to turn around.” She was so loud and so enraged that I looked up from my book to observe her and the startled reactions of fellow TTC passengers.
A TTC employee came running through our train car that had not yet turned around, ensuring everyone had exited. The angry woman – dressed in black and gray, plump, with short black dyed and recently styled hair, black earrings, and a handbag the size of my backpack – shouted at her. “Hey!” The TTC employee froze. “Hey!” angry woman repeated, making sure she had her attention. “I know you’re not responsible for this nonsense, but you can be the messenger!” She continued a tirade and I stood there perplexed. I wanted to say to her, “We live in the greatest, most peaceful country in this whole world. Get some perspective!” But cowardice or self-restraint made me withhold my comment. Besides, it was two minutes before the next train pulled in, as the human voice had promised.
The large, steel train emerged into sight and its doors opened; the angry woman boarded and I had one irresistible and chilling thought: “We could be on the train to Auschwitz together.” I sat near her. My daydream continued, both of us on the train to Auschwitz. The car was filled with so many persons en route to their fate, but I focused on this woman who, before my eyes, had her head shaved, her bag and earrings confiscated, and who, article by article of clothing, became naked, disfigured, starving, and shivering.
“What does this mean?” I asked myself. Then, as a friend takes one’s hand, the best friend I’ve known (through her diaries, since she died 70 years ago after being transported on a real train to Auschwitz), said to me: “Like circumstances do not yet seem to produce like people.”
I understood this to mean that angry persons on the TTC would also be angry persons on the train to Auschwitz. Those willing to stand, to give up their seats to the elderly, to pregnant women, and small children are those who would do everything to make others comfortable on the train to Auschwitz. This bitter woman might have spoiled the game of a parent trying to shield a son from knowing the evil acts committed in our world, or tried to destroy the hope and faith of those clinging to them in a time of crisis.
This was sad, but then it dispelled my frustration and aversion to the angry woman and moved me to pray for her. In having imaginatively seen her dehumanized, she had become more fully human to me. “I don’t know her story.” I prayed. “I don’t even know her name. But You, God, have made her and loved her. And I am called to love her and have compassion for her whether we are on the TTC or the train to Auschwitz.”
I took a discreet but careful look at her. Then, I thought: “She’ll never know what I spent fifteen minutes thinking about. I suppose she’ll never even know I prayed for her.” Then came the automated announcement: “Dupont Station.” Just as I exited, the woman gave a loud sneeze. “God bless you!” I said before the train door shut behind me. And I marvelled: perhaps, just maybe, divine Grace had cooperated so that she could know, even in the smallest sense, that I had prayed for her.