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Teaching 9/11 Photo illustration Credit: Prameet Kumar , Alyssa Cwanger

On Tuesdays, Al Filreis would shower, dress and walk the eight blocks to Penn’s campus to teach “Literature of the Holocaust.” Marilyn Kraut would drive from Chestnut Hill to her office at the Human Resources department. Dennis DeTurck would leave his faculty master apartment in Stouffer College House and walk to David Rittenhouse Laboratory to teach 9 a.m. “Numerical Analysis”. Sept. 11, 2001 started like any other Tuesday.

“It was a gorgeous day. You know, they talk about how New York was a beautiful fall day. It really was,” DeTurck said.

8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

Filreis turned on the television to find a jarring image that would remain in the collective memory of a shaken country. “I saw a blue sky and a tower, like anybody else. Perfectly blue sky and one tower with smoke.”

On the way to work, Kraut overheard the news through a message on a police officer’s walkie-talkie. She stopped the police to ask what had happened and dismissed it as an accident.

Liz Hanbidge, a College sophomore who was returning to campus from an early morning crew practice at Boathouse Row, remembers hearing a similar announcement on the bus radio. She thought, “What idiot flew a plane into a building?”

Hanbidge returned to her High Rise North apartment to find her roommates sitting in front of the television, crying, as another plane hit the south tower.

It was not until Kraut, the director for Quality of Worklife Programs, joined her co-workers around a small TV and watched the same scene that she realized the crashes were part of an intentional attack on American soil.

9:03 a.m. United Airlines Flight 175 crashes into the south tower.

Filreis called and convinced his teaching partner, Millicent Marcus, to hold class in spite of the attacks.

“To me, teaching the Holocaust is an obligation to bear witness, to keep the lesson visible. It would’ve been a terrible repudiation of that to say, ‘On this day, we’re not going to talk about genocide,’” he said. “It would just be hypocritical.”

Filreis emailed his students, telling them that class would be optional. On his way to campus, he “saw people in a daze. It was eerie.”

9:59 a.m. The south tower of the World Trade Center collapses.

As professionals across Philadelphia were sent home from work for the day, Kraut began to coordinate with the Employee Assistance Program — a counseling service for faculty and staff — to offer resources for the Penn community at Houston Hall.

Kraut worked out of Houston for three days and served as the first point of contact for students, professors and staff members looking for help after news of the attacks. Of the many faces she saw that day, Kraut recalls that of a Wharton MBA student who entered the lobby with a young woman.

“He could barely talk for himself,” she said. “He had worked up to 10 days before at a consulting agency where practically everyone had died.”

Jacob Cytryn, a College sophomore, was in his apartment on 40th and Spruce streets when his roommate told him the news. They watched ABC News for most of the morning, where Peter Jennings offered a “Cronkite-ean sense of security.” But at 10:30 a.m., Cytryn made his way to Filreis’ course.

Nearly all 110 students showed up in the Logan Hall lecture room that morning.

“[Filreis] had opened it up as a forum for people to talk about what had happened,” Hanbidge said. “He was cognizant of people’s emotions.”

She chose to attend class that day because she “wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t in front of a TV. I wanted to be present and aware.”

Filreis remembers stepping up to the podium at the beginning of class and forcing himself to put aside thoughts of his wife, Jane, who was uptown in New York. “I was a mess. I was like anybody else,” he said.

In what he called a “teach-in in the old sense,” the class discussion on the Holocaust and genocide “became incredibly real to people, as if they were in the middle of it.”

Three blocks away, when DeTurck’s class ended, his students went out to the nearly deserted main hallway in DRL. They began “hearing bits and pieces from people in the hallway,” but it wasn’t until he reached the Mathematics department office that DeTurck learned what had happened.

10:28 a.m. The north tower of the World Trade Center collapses.

Everyone in the Math department gathered around a radio. “It was surreal because so much of it had already happened when we came out to daylight,” DeTurck said.

In his 15 years of teaching the Holocaust class, Filreis remembers Sept. 11 as the day in which his students were most engaged with the material on an emotional level.

For Cytryn, class that day had “real-world implications because everyone in that room was going to have to deal … with trying to figure out how to make sense of 9/11.”

Some of the students who were not in class flooded Houston with questions.

“There were a lot of students who came in and asked me, ‘What’s going to happen now?’” Kraut remembers. “It was inconceivable to them that no adult could tell them what could happen because it was an unprecedented event. It was very hard for the youngest students.”

Kraut’s son, Larry, was a freshman that year. He woke up sleepy-eyed from his Quad bedroom in time to witness the north tower disappear on his hallmate’s TV screen.

The details of the rest of that day are “kind of hazy” for Larry, who decided to stay on campus rather than join his family in Chestnut Hill.

“I remember walking around the Quad and seeing that everyone was just wandering outside with this very unsure look on their face. There was probably a degree of comfort in knowing that no one knew,” he said. “Hell of a way to start a college experience.”

Later that morning, Houston was filled with a second wave of students eager to donate blood. Marilyn recalls how a rumor of blood drives for victims in New York had spread around campus. “Everybody wanted to give blood. People wanted to physically feel a physical contribution to the victims of the attacks,” she said. “Of course, what they did not know was that very few people would make it out.”

Kraut took it upon herself to send Penn Police cars to 43rd and Market streets to dispel rumors of blood drive locations off campus. She also fielded calls to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, which was overflowing with students who were hoping to donate blood.

After ensuring that all Math department staff were safe to go home, DeTurck returned to Stouffer, where students were in and out of his apartment throughout the day. “It was just interesting — the need of everybody to be together. Nobody wanted to be by themselves.”

Noon approached, but Filreis stayed in the lecture hall with students for over an hour, discussing the events of that morning.

“There was a sort of paralysis for a couple of days,” DeTurck noted, adding that the Penn community returned to near normalcy in the following weeks.

DeTurck saw students delve back into their studies as a way to cope.

“Mathematics is very abstract,” DeTurck noted. “You can lose yourself in it in a way. It doesn’t make your troubles go away or anything, but it just provides a significant enough distraction to take your mind off it.”

“About the easiest thing you could say about 9/11 was that the sky was blue, how ironic it was,” Filreis said. “There’s no easy explanation for 9/11 and so we started that day, that minute, while it was happening, we started the work of having a complex response to ethnic identity, religious commitments, extremism, killing, killing in the name of an ideology.”

“When we’re not in the classroom, we tend to revert to simplicity. So on bounds, I think it was a really good thing that we met that day. And the fact that the students all came says something about what they needed.”


On Aug. 29, 2001, John Gorka played at the World Trade Center plaza alongside Lucy Kaplansky. The performance — which was one of many summer Friday concerts — was the last that the World Trade Center plaza would see.

Filreis and his wife Jane attended the concert that evening.

“I always hated the World Trade Center. The whole thing seemed very architecturally inhuman,” Filreis said. But the plaza on that night was a different story. “It was a gorgeous day, it was like 71 degrees, it was perfect. There was a bit of a breeze.”

Within Gorka’s performance was a rendition of his song, “I’m from New Jersey,” where he sings, “I’m from New Jersey /I don’t expect too much /If the world ended today, I would adjust”

“We love that song,” Filreis said.

“That morning [of Sept. 11], when I was watching TV, I called Jane, and when I knew she was OK, I said, ‘Can you believe we were there a few days ago and Gorka sang that song?”

“What I really meant to say to Jane was, ‘We will adjust. Things will be different now, but we will survive — adjustment as opposed to happiness.”

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