Changing Trains

In Stuttgart, in 1943, my mother escaped bombs falling on the station. Has her terror expressed itself in me?

Stuttgart station after the war
The Stuttgart station after the war: My mother "avoided train travel at all cost. I thought she was just scared of germs." (Alamy)


Maybe it was the smell of slowing trains that drove my heartbeat up into my throat. The heating brakes, perhaps, the screams of steel-rimmed wheels, or the decelerating strobe of shadows cast by electric poles. I knew no word to describe the sudden narrowing and darkening of the world, the sweaty hands, the single-minded focus on having to catch my connection, the sense that anything—anything!—would be better than having to wait on a platform or inside a station hall, even in pleasant weather, even with a novel, even for an hour or less. At 20, when I rode three connecting trains back and forth from college two or three times every week, I would have named the feeling “changing trains.” Doctors, had I thought to consult them, would have labeled it “panic attack.” They would have deemed the cause “unknown.”


When researchers waft cherry aroma through cages of young mice and then apply electroshocks, grandchildren of these mice shudder when they smell cherries, even though they were never shocked themselves. The scientists at Emory University who discovered this in 2013 can’t tell us whether the mice experience tunnel vision as they twitch. We can’t know what mouse thoughts course through brains as muscles jolt. If the grand-mice could confide in mouse therapists, no childhood traumas involving cherries would be found. They would be unaware that their grandfathers also shivered in response to cherry scent, because the reaction travels from one generation to the next not through learned behavior, observation, or stories told, but in the form of chemical marks that cling to strands of DNA.


My mother blamed my post-train exhaustion, my silence, and my fuzzy-mindedness on the lamentable condition of the German Rail: the grime, the drafts, the perpetual delays. I knew she avoided train travel at all cost. I thought she was just scared of germs.


After nearly a decade in the United States, a country where trains account for less than 0.6 percent of total passenger miles, I returned to Germany to discover that not everybody dreaded trains. Friends used the word “relaxing” to describe rail travel. They talked about reading, about dreaming out the window while nursing cups of tea. It sounded wonderful. I imagined warming to journeying by rail like a child growing into the taste of asparagus. On weekend trips with friends, I gazed at geraniums dangling from hanging baskets along tiny Black Forest stations. I smiled at rivers tumbling through gorges, blooming apple trees, half-timbered towns, the multilayered bicycles encrusting every banister, fence, and bike rack around Freiburg’s main station hall. But on any solo trip involving a change of trains, my body ignored these charms: relentless, it served up its course of mounting dread, sweat, racing pulse, and tunnel vision, with a multihour dessert of numb exhaustion.


My mother sympathized with my vague complaints. I told her I was fine. I told myself I didn’t have to travel alone all that often. I told myself I was okay. After a few years, I moved back to America, where my little Rust Belt town had seen its last passenger train 20-something years before I arrived. I stopped thinking about trains. After another decade or so, they also stopped appearing in my dreams.


DNA is a cargo train running from past to future. Meiosis, the cell division that makes sperm or egg, is a shunting yard, where 23 chromosomes assemble into new configurations like freight cars: yes, Dad’s blue eyes—no, Mom’s green; yes, Mom’s long arms—no, Dad’s calm. It’s Gregor Mendel’s lottery, played out with vast information stores, according to rules he first described, as it happens, during the initial heyday of public railroads, in 1865. He knew nothing about chromosomes or DNA, and yet, after planting 28,000 pea plants in the garden at St. Thomas Abbey, Mendel could see how some pieces of information traveled across generations together, like fellow passengers in a single carriage, whereas other pieces frequently parted company as genomes passed through the switchyard between one generation and the next. We’ve only recently discovered other rules, the “epigenetics” superimposed on Mendel’s genetic laws: how methyl marks can lock some DNA away for a generation or two or three. In mice, the genes locked down by trauma contain the code for play, exuberance, unencumbered joy.


A few months after Mendel first told the Natural History Society of Brno, Moravia, about inheritance in peas, a train carrying passengers from the English Channel ferries at Folkston Harbor toward London slid from a viaduct. The crash killed 10 passengers, injured 40 more, and dumped Charles Dickens into a muddy riverbed at about 40 miles per hour. Dickens staggered among the corpses, drizzled brandy from his hip flask between the lips of the injured, then crawled back into his broken car and pulled manuscript pages—the most recent installment of Our Mutual Friend—from the muck. Though physically uninjured, he could not speak for two weeks and never fully recovered. During the five remaining years of his life, he avoided rail travel at nearly any cost. Dickens was far from alone in his dread of trains: two years after the accident, British physician John Eric Erichsen coined the diagnosis “railway spine” for sufferers of nightmares, sleep disturbances, and memory gaps after railway disasters and other traumatic events.


“They are climbing the fences,” my mother explains over the phone when I ask why she can’t sleep at night, “just trying to get into the Chunnel to England.” When the rail tunnel under the English Channel opened more than 20 years ago, eliminating the slow and uncomfortable ferry crossing for journeys between mainland Europe and the British Isles, the idea of traveling for nearly 50 kilometers under 250 feet of water struck me as suffocating, impossible, even if—or maybe because—at 100 miles per hour, the Chunnel trains pop back into light and air within 15 minutes of plunging underground. How much desperation does it take for human beings to want to walk 30 miles, most of it under the sea, knowing an oncoming train could kill them at any moment? Throughout the summer and fall of 2015, people tried it by the hundreds or thousands, night after night, despite taller and taller fences, infrared monitors, and police. The Chunnel stories raise and shake my mother’s voice; it quivers and quakes across my phone line in modulations I also hear when she tells me about children in Aleppo, Damascus, Afghanistan, children slipping from rubber rafts into the Mediterranean Sea. She usually flees the room when news or TV shows touch on war or refugees. The newsreel’s strobe-light scenes click deep-wired synapses inside her brain, flood her body with a sleep-defying cocktail of glucocorticoids and catecholamines.


I watch another video on A cool-eyed journalist with straight blond hair reports from London that England has taken “more than its share of immigrants, mostly from Eastern European countries,” and that “these people” have been welcomed into the labor force. But for right now, she says, the tide of public opinion has turned, and the British happen to not want any more foreigners at this time: “They see it as a problem that should remain continental.” My mind plays movies of “the problem” walking from a French refugee camp dubbed “The Jungle” toward Britain, on legs too short to step from one crosstie to the next. “Walking with all those children,” my mother says, her voice jumping a familiar octave of despair, “all those tiny, tired children being dragged along those tracks under the sea.” Part of my mother’s brain is aware she is watching from her living room. Another part is getting ready to take steps too large for size-three shoes.


Stuttgart, the closest major city to where my parents now live, has a terminus station. Passengers changing trains pull their roller-bags around the noses of locomotives lined up in a row—enormous steel Pony Express horses tied up at a saloon, catching hissing breaths between one mad dash and the next. Across from the railheads, shops and cafés line the spacious, busy station hall. There is no need to change platforms via a clammy underpass, no need to lug heavy bags up and down stairs. Since the arrival of the first train in 1846, no part of Stuttgart’s railroad station has been underground. I appreciate the convenience, especially while dragging my overseas luggage from the InterCity Express that brings me here from the Frankfurt airport to the local train that will take me to my parents’ little town. But my stairless ease today means there was no safe place during the war.


My mother wants me to look at my grandfather’s letters from the Russian front before she throws them out. She digs behind stacks of starched table linens for a Ziploc bag with gray military-issue envelopes. She gave up trying to decipher her father’s handwriting long ago—even her oldest friends, claiming familiarity with the ancient cursive script, capitulated over my grandfather’s bad penmanship, worsened by cold hands and haste as the German frontline advanced, retreated, and collapsed. We huddle on the couch, ponder crossed-out addresses, pore over e’s that look like checkmarks, m’s that look like u’s. A few words slot into place: “My dear … little … chickie?” Really? Chickie? We look at each other, feel the corners of our mouths creep up into our cheeks, then burst out laughing. My mother, remembering her mother as formidable, shakes her head in disbelief: “I never heard him call her that.” But nothing else makes sense—it must be right. We smirk, think of my grandmother’s flying curls, her tiny frame, how she could walk beneath my grandfather’s outstretched arm without the top of her hair touching him. So: “My dear little chickie … How … are … you? How are … the … cattle?” No way! “… the … children?” Yes. We guess, intuit, hypothesize, backtrack, skip ahead, give up, have coffee, try again. Out of an ocean of mystery marks, islands of meaning rise like fog. Here. And here. Land bridges form. Slow continents take shape. Around the words, my mother’s childhood memories condense like breath on a mirror. Sluggishly, in wisps. A snippet caught before she drifts off into an afternoon nap: the sheep her parents kept during the hunger years after the war, putting her forever off drinking milk. Another fragment, sharp and hot, pierces her morning-mind before feet find slippers on the bedside rug: bouncing on the bed as her mother desperately tries to pull clothes onto her, admonishments inaudible over the air raid sirens, a stinging slap just moments away. And then, late one night, before she drifts to sleep, the trains start rolling in.


My mother does not remember the name of the station that materializes in her midnight memory. But date stamps and crossed-out addresses on gray envelopes map out where she went: from the city of Essen in Westphalia—where she was born, and where my grandparents grew up and lived, close to Krupp’s steel factory, one of the most important targets for Churchill’s bombs—all the way to small-town Biberach, far down in the south of rural Swabia, far away from industry. There is no direct train. Stuttgart is where you change.


My mother’s memory throws up an image, a short video, of sitting across from her mother and sister at a round table in a cavernous, crowded station hall—a terminus station café. From amid the people milling all around, a stranger—a soldier—grabs her mother’s shoulder, asks, “Where are you headed, young woman? You have to take the next train out right now, no matter where it goes! The station is getting bombed.”


Three hundred and fourteen British bombers flew toward Stuttgart on the evening of March 11, 1943. My mother was not quite three years old, my aunt was four. My grandmother was pregnant with my uncle, though she had not yet told my grandfather about the pregnancy. During two nights in the first week of March, air raids on Essen had rendered 80,000 people homeless—far too many for officials to stamp evacuation forms, let alone to organize temporary housing elsewhere. My grandmother had swept up her shattered dishes and windowpanes, packed two suitcases, and was headed south, with no idea where she and her two small children would stay. Somewhere rural. Somewhere away from bombs. Even if you don’t know where to go, Stuttgart is where you change.


The train platform in my mother’s memory is so full of people that there is no place to stand, the train overflowing, people hanging from the doors, no hope at all of getting on. But then a soldier grabs her, lifts her up and through a window, pushes her sister in after her as the train lurches, shudders, moves. She screams, her body using every muscle, turning every last molecule of oxygen to sound, as the train begins to roll, rolls toward an unknown destination, rolls away from her mother on the platform, away from the only face she knows. At the last second, two soldiers, running alongside, shove her mother and two suitcases in after the shrieking girl.


Three hundred thousand German children were reported missing by the end of World War II. In the madness of trains derailed or rerouted after bomb attacks, the chances of a mother’s finding two little girls were nil. Missing-children posters hung in German railway stations until late into the 1950s. Six thousand of these children were still searching for their families 30 years after the war; 400 searches were still registered as “open” at the end of May 2018. Some were lost refugees or evacuees. Some were abducted from Eastern European countries by Nazis for the purpose of “Germanization.” Some were Jewish children, hidden away by neighbors or strangers. Some could not yet speak when they were separated from their parents. Many were too young to remember their mother tongue, let alone cities, addresses, names. All were terrified.


Unpredictable separation of mouse pups from their mothers rewires their nervous systems. Just like mice trained to fear the scent of cherries, the children and grandchildren of these desperate pups inherit both the behavioral hallmarks of depression and the changed structure of the brain.


Where did it go, my mother’s railway-station terror, the mouse equivalent of cherry-scent electroshock? Did it come to me in methyl marks across my DNA? Or did I drink it in through story snippets, told by my grandmother when I was a child, without connecting what I had heard long ago to my adult sweaty palms and racing heart? “You’ve inherited your father’s body type but your mother’s nervous system,” our family physician used to say, when I would mention clammy hands, darkness nesting in my heart for days on end. Can memories, fragments of experience, or patterns of excitatory synapses—short circuits connecting “hot metal smell in” to “panic out”—travel from one generation to the next? And can I remove them, scrape methyls from the backbone of my DNA, unhook the neurons, undo whatever connection there may be?


Cohousing traumatized mice living with their families in comfy multiroom apartments, complete with the mouse equivalent of a fitness studio and an entertainment suite, not only relieves the depression of stressed parent mice but also gives them happy babies with normal brains, babies who love to play.


To process trauma, humans require more than postwar affluence, more than an easy life among friends and loves. Our storytelling brains need hours and days of huddling on the couch, coffee, letters, words to sort now from then, impose a grammar upon neurotransmitter release, fine-tune synaptic networks to gut-feel the difference between past and present tense.


Since my mother has started talking and remembering, most nights she stays in the living room all the way through the news on Tagesschau. “I can’t believe he’s doing this,” she says over the phone, referring to the president of the country where I live. “Taking away those children from their parents is a crime! How can he possibly not know he’s messing up their entire lives? How can he not know they won’t ever be the same?”


Peace is a through station, a brief stop between one war and the next. By 2021, Stuttgart’s main station will no longer be a terminus; it will be underground. Nineteen miles of tunnels will accelerate connections. But they will offer no protection against the nuclear arms of modern war. The European Reassurance Initiative, in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, approved at $850 million by the U.S. Congress in 2014, grew to $3.4 billion in 2017, and a request of $6.5 billion for 2019. Along the way, Reassurance transmuted to Deterrence. To feel peace, the space between two terrors, you have to touch the present tense: put down a toe, like stepping from a train, plant a foot in the moment, this one, less than a breath, between screeching brakes and the lurching shudder of departure.


The InterCity Express from Frankfurt, already 10 minutes behind its scheduled arrival time in Stuttgart, decelerates amid hedgerows and Holstein cows. The city is nowhere in sight. Poplars cast slowing shadows across the faces of passengers, across their hands clasping backpack straps and bags. We listen to squealing brakes, glance at cell phones, look at each other, roll our eyes as the overhead speaker crackles, announces a delay, a necessary wait for an oncoming train to clear our track. I feel the corners of my mouth creep up into my cheeks. The weather is neither cold nor sweltering. There’ll be another connecting train from Stuttgart into the high Black Forest within an hour or two after we’ll arrive. I’ll call my parents, read a book. There will be coffee shops with round tables in the station hall. Stuttgart was bombed when my mother was two. She was nearly orphaned. Between reassurance and deterrence, I am changing trains.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Catharina Coenen is a professor of biology and biochemistry at Allegheny College.


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