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For Nazi-era Boxcar, Long Journey to Holocaust Museum in Houston

December 19, 2005
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On a half-grey day in the Harz Mountains, the huge doors of a railway restoration workshop were flung open, letting in cold air. Slowly, on tracks that cross the threshold, a small engine emerged, pulling a large boxcar. Engineer Thomas Herbst leaned out the engine’s cabin, watching the car’s rounded top clear the doorway.

Peter Spehr observed from the sidelines, camera in hand. The scene marked the end of a months-long project over which he presided: restoration of this 1942 freight car, a type used to haul Jews from across Europe to death camps in “the east.”

The car’s destination now is the Holocaust Museum Houston: As of March 5, 2006, it will be accessible to visitors, symbolizing the penultimate step in the industrialized mass murder of European Jewry.

For decades, this wagon sat in the rail yard behind the Blankenburg-Harz train station in this former East German town. It had a story to tell.

“We knew about the history,” said Spehr, 58, co-founder of the Bruecke — “bridge” — Society, which trains unemployed youth and older workers in this economically strapped area. “But when we thought that we’re restoring a train that might have been used to carry people to their death, I got chills down my spine. It made me shiver.”

In the 63 years since it was built, this wooden car also may have been used to transport Nazi troops, then East German troops; it may have been used for inanimate cargo. Finally, in its retirement, the car was used for storage and short hauls around the rail yard.

Nobody thought to ask it, “Where were you during the war?”

Thousands of miles away, the directors of the Holocaust Museum Houston were looking for just such a boxcar. Susan Llanes-Meyers, now executive director, wanted to concretize history for younger visitors, Peter Berkowitz, chairman of the museum’s board of directors, told JTA.

Neither the Austrian nor German consulates could assist, Berkowitz said in a telephone interview. The Deutsche Bahn German rail company said it no longer owned such cars.

“I had to write to them that we don’t have any more,” DB historian Susanne Kill told JTA. “Not many are still existing, and if they are existing they are not in their original shape anymore.”

Finally, in August, a chain of business contacts and friends led Berkowitz to the 1873 rail yard in Blankenburg. In October, Berkowitz contacted Alfred Gottwaldt, senior curator for the German Technical Museum in Berlin and a world-renowned expert on deportation trains, for help in identifying the car.

In 1988 Gottwaldt’s museum became the first to display an original boxcar to illustrate the railways’ role in the Holocaust. Today, some 10 museums worldwide display such cars, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Gottwaldt confirmed that the car in Blankenburg was made during World War II and that such cars were used for deportations. During restoration, the original maker’s plaque from 1942 was found under old paint.

But “there is no proof for any existing car that it was used in a deportation train,” Gottwaldt emphasized. “They all are symbols of the mechanical function, the precision of the German authorities, which is a part of the mass murder.”

Museums must explain the symbolic nature of such an object, said Thomas Lutz, head of the memorial museums department at Topography of Terror, a documentation center on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin.

In Houston, the car will stand outside in a setting designed by architecture students at Rice University, Berkowitz said.

Among those waiting with mixed feelings are Ann Blum and her husband Morris, Holocaust survivors from Poland who live in Houston.

“For me personally, it’s bittersweet,” Ann Blum said in a telephone interview. On one hand the boxcar will enable visitors to “see and understand better, including my children and grandchildren … The bitter side is, I go [to the museum] very often” and “for me it is going to be a constant reminder of the past.”

Ann Blum was shipped to her first labor camp in a freight car, on February 18, 1943. She faced at least four more such moves, she said.

Morris Blum, one of the rare few who survived four years at Auschwitz-Birkenau, saw hundreds of thousands of such cars arrive at the death camp full and leave empty. One of his jobs was to sort clothing left behind.

“It will be very important for all the world to know,” said Morris Blum, who arrived with his entire family at Auschwitz. “All my family got off the train. First my parents were taken away and of course the kids. The only one I saved is my brother, Lee. I pulled him over to the side.”

Lee Blum survived the war.

“There are some things in life that you just cannot describe,” Ann Blum said. “And every time I will look at [the boxcar], of course it is going to bring the memories even more vividly. But that is not as important as it is for the new generation to actually see the truth, rather than imagine it.”

The cost of the entire project, including the educational program connected with it, is nearly $900,000, most of which has been donated in cash or services.

Donors include the Texas-based Energy and Projects team, for shipping; British Petroleum, which donated 45 tons of fuel; Ross Perot in Dallas, who handled landing rights; the Houston construction company Linbeck, which offered construction and preservation assistance; and Rio Grande Pacific Corp., which is donating tracks and bedding for the exhibit.

The educational program likely will include an interview with a man of German background who, as a soldier in World War II, loaded Jews onto rail cars.

Back in Blankenburg, the enterprise was cloaked in secrecy, since the Houston museum did not want to take any chances of losing this boxcar.

At first, not even Spehr, head of the model train workshop at Bruecke, could explain the interest in old freight cars.

“We had used it to transport our workers, on the site,” he said. “But we decided to sell it. We are a poor association.”

Ultimately, he and other members of the Bruecke Society did the work themselves, scraping and patching and repainting lettering in the original style. By Wednesday, the paint was dry and the wagon was ready for the first leg of its trip.

Engineer Herbst towed it to a far end of the rail yard, where it would be hoisted by cranes onto a truck, to be driven under cover of night to the Hahn military airport near Frankfurt.

In Hahn, the car will be loaded Dec. 20 onto a Polet Airlines heavy cargo transport jet for the flight to Dallas-Forth Worth.

Spehr himself has never been to the United States, and he won’t go unless he wins the lottery, he jokes.

“Usually, when we restore a car we can visit it, somewhere in Germany,” he says. “This one I will never see again.”

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