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Table of Contents
About this Issue
Remembering September 11th
Holocaust Survivors Reflect on September 11th
Teaching the Holocaust in an Age of Terror
Remembering and Commemorating September 11th
Glossary of Terms

Volume 16, No. 1/ Fall 2002   
Remembering September 11th
Images of Reflection and Commemoration
by Professor David Emmons

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Remembering September 11th
•  Images of Reflection and Commemoration
•  Needing to Help
•  Fear and Suspicion for Middle-Eastern American Students
•  Table of Contents
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David Emmons is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

After the horrific tragedy of September 11th, many New Yorkers did not retreat behind locked doors and shuttered windows. Instead they gathered by the thousands in public squares and parks to grieve over the terrible loss the city and nation had suffered. They formed communities of bereavement. And they left behind personal artifacts, from notes and posters to flags and stuffed animals, which formed giant, collective memorials.

This ethnographic essay documents in word and photograph these grass-roots, impromptu, unsupervised expressions of remembrance and commemoration and draws lessons from them for teachers everywhere.
Destruction of the World Trade Center
Skeleton of one of the World Trade Center Towers

On the first two Saturdays after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center vanished from the New York skyline, plummeting nearly three thousand workers to their death, I rode a train into the city. I sought solace for my own sense of horror and disbelief about the tragedy. And I hoped to learn how ordinary people respond to a catastrophe of historic proportions. The photographs that accompany this article show some of what I saw at four gathering places. The two trips to the city have grown to ten as I continue to document how citizens are remembering September 11th.

Jacob Javits Convention Center: Reception Area for Volunteers
The Jacob Javits Convention Center, at 34th St and 12th Avenue, was a main reception area for ground zero workers arriving from out of town. It also served as the storage depot for the vast quantities of goods and equipment that poured in from around the country. In the good-natured but chaotic atmosphere around the Center, the excess of charity stood out.
Donations sent
The desire to help: an abundance of supplies
Sometimes resources went begging or even hampered rescue efforts. The desire to help outstripped the need for assistance in some areas. On September 15th, the first Saturday after the attack, there was too much giving: construction workers with no place to work; barbecue pits and food stands arrayed up and down the sidewalks with too few mouths to feed; supply-laden trucks with no place to park. Similar overloads plagued hospitals, churches, and community centers — good-hearted volunteers with nothing to do.

Spontaneous Personal Grieving: Creating Personal Memoirs
The volunteers at the Jacob Javits Convention Center were channeling their concern into service. More unmediated grieving and commemoration began within twenty-four hours of the bombing of the World Trade Center — at parks, squares, promenades, fountains and other public spaces around the city often with traditions of soapbox oratory, street music, amateur art, or weekend mingling. Washington Square, in Greenwich Village, Union Square, at 14th Street and Broadway, and the sidewalk around St. Paul's Chapel, close to ground zero, became the pre-eminent sites, where thousands of people left personal memorials to the victims and thousands more visited.

Designing Grieving Walls
At each place, the individual contributions of mourners accumulated in
Signing a grieving wall
random fashion to make unintentional, giant collages that were a collective response to the tragedy. The collages took a variety of forms, depending on the layout of the public space: tiered on steps; laid out along retaining walls; adorned on statues; spread on the ground like huge mandalas; or leaned against iron railing. The most dramatic versions affixed memorial items to chain-link fence and messages, composed with marking pens, on huge panels of canvas. These fence memorials are now often called "grief walls."1

The grief walls at Washington Square and Union Square on September 15th contained: personal notes, photographs, posters of the missing, hats and caps, balloons, memorial candles, bottles, ribbon, flags, flowers and plants, framed pictures, postcards, jewelry, ID cards, yearbook pages, plaster statuettes and figurines, stuffed animals, plastic toys, and shirts. The giant canvasses near the arch at Washington Square, included these messages:

    Hate only creates hate.

    United we stand.

    We must fight the devil.

    Peace is beautiful. War is ugly. Life is here now.

    We are the skyscrapers of America.

    He drew a circle that shut me out. Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the will to win. We drew a circle that took him in.

    Redemption through struggle.

    Love conquers all.

    To the bravest and the finest and their families —
    We will always remember your sacrifice.
    To those who perished we will adopt your souls.
    To the Twin Towers — your solid foundation can never be destroyed.
    To the forces of darkness we will prevail

Signs: Expressions of grief and concern

St. Paul's Chapel, at Fulton and Broadway, adjoins ground zero and quickly became a center for many services to rescuers and excavators in the nearby rubble. A long grief wall has endured at the church, partly because the access ramp to the viewing platform for ground zero bordered the block, until it was recently taken down, drawing thousands of visitors to the area. But in the months before the platform, the best glimpses of ground zero were further south, on two narrow streets fronted by corporate skyscrapers. Impromptu memorials were prohibited here, but the existing advertising and signage often held unintentionally ironic messages about the devastation within view. A huge liquor ad announced "A hit from way off Broadway." A cable installation truck declared "New York at its best." A marble slab commemorated the developer "Harry Helmsley whose richness of spirit and love for New York helped build this great city."

Documenting Ways of Commemorating and Memorializing
Visitors near ground zero, when I joined them on September 22, were awe-struck and seemed reverential. Their silence was only broken by quiet conversation and the sounds of cameras clicking and camcorders whirring. Nobody writing, nobody taking notes. But visual technology has made us all recorders, and we will surely document our descent into the abyss should it happen. So there were people everywhere taking pictures. And people taking pictures of people taking pictures.

The Role of Media in Recording Public Sentiment
The huge outpouring of public sentiment about the events of September 11th is not surprising. More people died on this morning of terrorism than during any other day of attack on American soil in history. But the response to September 11th is not just a function of scale. The unceasing media coverage of the bombings — live, up close, in detail — prompted thousands of New Yorkers and millions of the rest of us to feel part of a national, even an international, community of bereavement.2 After all, the World Trade Center towers collapsed right before our eyes in our living rooms. This media intimacy invited a response. In an era when the distinction between public and private is murky and when revealing one's inner self is considered a virtue, widespread public grieving was encouraged. Earlier memorializing — of the Oklahoma City bombing, the War in Viet Nam, and the Holocaust — helped as well. It demonstrated the importance of keeping lessons of the past alive in the present and providing common symbols to unify diverse people.

The American Flag Symbolically Unifies the Nation
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The American flag was a popular unifying symbol on the early grief walls in New York City. As one moved beyond the city, across the rest of the nation, the flag indeed became the most common symbol of identity with September 11th. You have seen them: in store windows and on car antennas; painted on buildings and plastered on billboards; super-sized on flagpoles and miniaturized in lapel pins. The flag invites people split by ethnicity, class, politics, religion, or gender to share a common ground of grieving.

A Grassroots Community of Bereavement
The first memorializing — at Washington Square, Union Square, and St. Paul's Chapel, among other sites — was grass roots and democratic. This mourning from-the-bottom-up was governed by few rules and unmonitored by outside institutions. It raised no money for the victims. Direct, impromptu responses were the order of the day.
Decorating an existing monument

The memorializing took first form in the commons — public spaces where individuals are invited to come together, to make a community. The grief walls were constructed on barricades — chain-link fencing, wrought iron rails and cement or stone retainers. These barricades, normally to keep people out, became tableaus to let people in to each other's feelings. They remind us that bearing witness to a catastrophe of historic proportions should not be done alone. A community of bereavement, to use Linenthal's term, forms at these sites, and its members build collective memorials from personal artifacts to reassure each other that the social fabric so recently under threat by the catastrophe has not been fatally damaged.

Linenthal in his masterful analysis of the Oklahoma City bombing3 detects three story lines about that tragedy that coexist from the earliest memorializing onward: a progressive narrative that dwells on the heroism of the rescuers, the generosity of the larger community, and the strength of the survivors; a redemptive narrative that reconfirms God's transcendent love for us despite evil's presence in the world; and a toxic narrative which catalogues the ongoing suffering from the catastrophe. Each of these narratives also appeared from the earliest days of memorializing at New York gathering sites after September 11th.

Professional and Commercial Grieving
As September 11th passed, the largest grassroots memorials in Manhattan vanished. Only the grief wall at St. Paul's Chapel remains. The spontaneous, democratic phase of memorializing gave way to the professional and commercial phase as institutions began to regulate grieving. For me, this transition was marked by five events. Within three weeks of September 11th, the city's parks department, with guidance from the Museum of the City of New York, dismantled the personal sanctuaries and memorials at Union Square.
Flag and signs in a liquor store window

Their stated aim, which was greeted with some dismay by local community groups and the media, was to preserve artifacts for future display. The first public exhibit about September 11th — life-size photographs of rescuers at ground zero by a famous photographer — was mounted in November in a lobby at Grand Central Station. By December, vendors were engaged in unabashed street-corner capitalism, selling 9/11 merchandise — NYPD sweats, NYFD hats, flag sweaters, caps, and scarves, and photographs of the World Trade Center — with no pretense of donating part of their proceeds to charity. The hundreds of posters of missing persons, stapled along the entrance to Bellevue Hospital, an emergency trauma center for victims of September 11th, were themselves missing by early January. The Museum of the City of New York — serving as archivist for September 11th — had gathered them in for a future memorial exhibit. At about the same time, the city constructed the elevated pedestrian platform at ground zero and, in effect, allowed visits by reservation only.

Lessons for Teaching About Commemorating
The spontaneous and democratic phase of memorializing September 11th, which I have described here, offers lessons for teaching about the catastrophe in the classroom. It underscores the importance of inviting our students, whatever else we undertake with them, to actively memorialize the tragedy and its aftermath on their own terms. Then, like the early mourners in New York, our students are bearing self-empowering, moral witness to the terror rather than succumbing to what Linenthal calls the "traumatic vision." This view typifies mental health professionals who see the survivors, the families of the dead, and ground zero rescuers solely as suffering victims in need of treatment. Students should be encouraged to memorialize, as the early mourners in New York did, in simple ways — certainly in their own personal ways — with few rules as to what is appropriate and without the requirement of expertise. Like the early mourners in New York, they should contribute individual memorials that can be joined together as one, symbolically reaffirming the survival of community.

We needn't come to our students with full-blown answers to September 11th, its causes and consequences. We needn't understand everything in order to say something. We can approach our students on this subject in the midst of confusion, asking questions, searching through the intellectual and emotional rubble bit-by-bit for insight. If we must come to them as experts, we will not come at all. The admonition is to start somewhere. Where I started was packing a camera and catching a train to the city.

Afternote: Artistic Response to Commemorating
The democratic impulse to memorialize has shaped a variety of artistic responses to September 11th. Gallery shows, museum exhibits, performance art, and website displays on the catastrophe have featured the work of amateurs along side that of professionals. Some projects are designed solely of work solicited from ordinary people in the community.

Discussion Questions
1. Many Americans say their lives were changed by the events of September 11th — that our country and the world would never be the same after the terrorist attacks on major symbols of American life and security. Almost 3000 innocent victims from over 600 nations were murdered by the hijackers. Where were you on the morning of September 11th? What memories do you have of that morning? Day? Week? Who did you want to contact upon hearing of the attacks? How did your feelings change after additional information came from the news of the day? Have your feelings about September 11th altered in subsequent months?

2. David Emmons, a professor at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, kept a photographic record of the days and weeks following the attacks. He visited ground zero at the World Trade Center and photographed relief workers, rescuers, and bystanders. Study his photographs and read his essay. Why do you think there was such a fascination with photographing the catastrophe? Which photograph do you find most interesting? Explain your selection.

3. David Emmons is responding to his feelings and activities following the attacks, especially after he made several trips to New York from his home in New Jersey. Where were you living at the time of the attacks? What were your experiences right after the attacks? Compare your experiences with those of David Emmons.

4. David Emmons commemorates the events of September 11th with photographs. In his essay he describes a variety of memorials that he witnessed in visiting New York? What do you think motivated people to memorialize this event?

5. David Emmons reports on the spontaneous outpouring of relief right after September 11th. Why do you think so many people wanted to make donations and to volunteer their time?

6. Edward Linenthal describes three stories associated with the Oklahoma City bombing: the heroism of the rescuers, the generosity of the larger community, and the strength of the survivors. Using David Emmons photographs, trace these three story lines in connection with the events of September 11th. Are these story lines similar in the Holocaust?

7. Start out with a series of photographs from magazines and newspapers of advertisements showing Americans of many different ethnicities and religions with an American flag or many American flags in the background. These ads have appeared in many different types of publications since September 11th. In light of September 11th who in your view is an American?

8. Why do you think there is an effort in advertisements to show the great variety of ethnic and religious groups composing Americans in the popular culture?

9. What role does the American flag play in these advertisements? Has the flag continued to play as prominent role six months after the attacks?

10. How do you define an American? Has you definition changed since the attacks of September 11th?

End Notes

1 See discussion in Art Now, a project of the website for the National Coalition Against Censorship at

2 This term, and a number of insights that follow, derive from Edward T. Linenthal's The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, (NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).

3 See The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory.

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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