A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Train of Thought

By Buzz McClain, BA '77 on February 6, 2017

On a summer Sunday in 2007, Sarah Federman, PhD Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’16, visited the Mémorial de la Shoah, the Holocaust museum and memorial in Paris. As she passed through the vast list of names of French deportees etched into courtyard walls, she gasped when she spotted her own name.

“I ran my fingers across the engraved letters,” she says. “The gravity of the thought collapsed time. I realized it would have been me; it would have been my family.”

Sarah Federman is using her Amtrak residency to turn her dissertation into a book. Photo by Ron Aira

The idea that “the France I loved would have crammed me into a deportation train headed toward a death camp” set Federman on a journey to investigate the role corporations play in large-scale conflicts—significantly France’s national train system, SNCF. Now she is turning her PhD dissertation at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution into a book, and it’s only fitting that she will be writing it on a train.

Federman is among a group of 24 writers selected for the Amtrak Residency program, and as such will have a free pass and a workspace to write during a two- to five-day trip on a long-distance Amtrak train.

More than 600 applicants competed for the 24 fellowships. Among Federman’s 2016 cohorts are a Washington Post columnist, a New York City playwright, a film director, a novelist, and several poets.

Federman’s dissertation focuses on the involvement of SNCF in the deportation of Jews to concentration camps during World War II. She asks if the modern SNCF has owned up to its responsibility and wonders why so many other companies have been exonerated.

Federman, originally from Westchester, New York, and a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, says her mother’s ancestry on both sides goes back to the Mayflower, but her paternal grandfather escaped from Poland before Hitler rose to power.

For her residency, she’s looking forward to traveling along the Oregon Trail, from Chicago to San Francisco, starting this spring.

“The grant gives me time to work on the book,” she says, “but it also lets me really put myself inside trains to see what the mystique is all about.”

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