Warsaw Ghetto — Yad Vashem

It wasn’t an unpleasant day. It wasn’t raining or snowing, extremely cold or hot; there was nothing that would make a short chat with a friend, or wait for a green light uncomfortable. Yet no one stopped. I suppose you could say that people had somewhere to be—work, school, appointments. People are busy. Yes, they have schedules. But they rushed by as though they were already critically late to wherever they were going.

The woman was lying on the sidewalk, unconscious, twitching. Her clothes—jeans, untucked shirt, light jacket—were loose around her. Her handbag, soft, slouchy, not terribly full, was at her side.

I was headed somewhere, I’m sure, but because of the way I was raised, because of ancestral ghosts who’d been bypassed, overlooked, ignored…rationalized to dust, I stopped and crouched beside her, spoke gently, pulled her purse close to her body where I could keep an eye on it. No one had cell phones then. Help wasn’t at people’s fingertips. But this was a city street; I knew it couldn’t have been far away. So, I looked around for a cop, hesitant to leave her to the concrete, apathy, but as I was looking, a gentleman joined me. Can I help?  He had a kind a face.

I told him I’d stay with the woman if he would find a policeman, or go into a store and call 9-1-1.

He was about to do that when the woman suddenly came to. She was disoriented and frightened. I tried to reassure her, explain that she’d been unconscious, and the gentleman was going to get help for her, but she panicked and ran off, leaving her purse on the ground.

Neither the gentleman nor I wanted to leave the spot, understandably. We didn’t know each other, couldn’t trust each other with the woman’s belongings.

Within a minute or so, a policeman walked by. We stopped him, explained, gave him our names, the direction the woman had gone, and her purse. He promised to look for her, see that she got help.

I think about that woman often, a woman whose name I don’t know. Perhaps I should have opened her purse, but in that moment, doing so felt like an invasion, an exploitation of vulnerability. And when the officer showed up, it became unnecessary. But I still wonder if she’s okay.  And I wonder about the hundred or more people who passed her on that comfortable day, and the ease with which they ignored her.

And I grieve.