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I'm More Sensitive to Tragedy Now That I'm a Mom

Photograph by Getty Images

This morning after my husband and children left the house, I decided to take five minutes to myself before launching into my work day: I made tea and signed on to Facebook.

One of the first images in my feed was that of a naked mother holding a naked girl who was probably 7 or so. They were surrounded by other naked figures, no longer upright. You could see in the grainy background what looked like the trousers of men. The caption: "A mother holds her child for the last time, moments before they were assassinated by the Nazis."

I've known about the Holocaust for most of my life, in part because I grew up as a military kid, often living in Germany, and the history of the War has almost always surrounded me. It's an event that is of course both difficult to grasp and important not to forget.

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My parents took me to Dachau when I was quite young, probably in second or third grade. I don't remember a lot of explanation from them ahead of time, and mostly what I recall is the foundations of camp buildings and the memorial sculpture, which looked to me like toy jacks and barbed wire.

There were lots of photos that were graphic, beyond my real comprehension at the time, but there was one in particular that affected my mother the most—and for years after. It showed a mother, a new arrival to the camp, walking with her two young daughters to the gas chamber. She wore a shawl and was holding the hand of her youngest child, while her other daughter trailed just a couple steps behind.

Heavy with sadness and the understanding that you truly rob someone of their humanity when you take away their ability to protect their children, there was nothing else I could do.

I get now why this photo hit my mother the hardest. Since becoming a mother, things that previously shocked, saddened and angered me now continue to do so, but they also hit me differently, more personally, more poignantly.

It's not like I didn't feel grief for the victims before. I have always felt great sadness and horror when I think of it. And living in the Netherlands, that's pretty often. I'm surrounded by reminders and memorials of what happened here.

It's not just the Anne Frank House. When I walk to the train station, I pass the house from where the local rabbi was "arrested" and a monument to all the Jewish residents of my city who were killed—the youngest listed was just 2 years old.

I do want to remember. And I want to be able to look at that photo of the mother holding her daughter for the last time and honor them in some meaningful way.

There are days when I just can't take it. Holocaust. ISIL. Child abuse.

Instead, when I saw it this morning, I closed my computer and went back to bed. For three hours. Because it crushed me. Heavy with sadness and the understanding that you truly rob someone of their humanity when you take away their ability to protect their children, there was nothing else I could do.

I don't want to bury my head in the sand. I don't want to duck from the reality of the world and pretend the bad things aren't happening. I don't want to feel other people's problems don't involve me or I can't do anything to make things better. But there are days when I have to look away, or I won't be able to function.

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There are days when I just can't take it. Holocaust. ISIL. Child abuse. Poverty, disease, kidnapping, child pornography, human trafficking, headlines that announce the Taliban has beheaded a 9-year-old girl.

When I got back out of bed, I logged on to Facebook again, warily, to find that today is also chocolate cake appreciation day. This seems especially frivolous on this of all days, but in the face of all the past and present war and cruelty and insanity and pain, sometimes frivolous is what you need to keep going.

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