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A lesson in genocide: Holocaust artifact displayed in the backyard of a South Fort Myers school

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Gwendolyn Salata
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This Holocaust-era boxcar sits on a trailer in the recess field at De LaSalle Academy in South Fort Myers. Students have toured the boxcar, which is similar to those that transported Jews and others to concentration camps during the Nazi regime in the 1930s and '40s.

A tangible reminder of 6 million deaths, a Holocaust-era boxcar of the type used to transport Jews and others to concentration camps and near certain extermination in World War II, is on display at a South Fort Myers private school through November.

In observance of Holocaust Education Week, the second week of November, De LaSalle Academy was loaned the boxcar from the Holocaust Museum and Cohen Education Center in Naples. Currently sitting in the school’s recess field, the boxcar was brought to the K-12 school November 1 for students to tour. De LaSalle is a school for children who learn differently.

Cody Rademacher, the museum’s curator, said the boxcar is the same model that would have been used during the Holocaust. The museum has been unable to confirm whether this particular boxcar was used to transport people to concentration and extermination camps.

“It’s often done by a mixture of provenance [and] markings on the boxcar itself,” Rademacher said. The provenance, or origin, was determined by looking at physical records of who owned it and when and where it operated.

“This one, we were able to confirm, was on the Deutsche Reichsbahn, the German railway, and then transferred to the Austrian rail system,” he said. It operated in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s and on the Austrian State Railway from 1945 to 1969, when it was decommissioned. It was manufactured in 1919. Except for a few nuts and bolts, all the metal is original.

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Gwendolyn Salata
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Special to WGCU
Inside the type of boxcar used to transport Jews and others to concentration camps by Nazi German forces in World War II. The boxcar will be at at De LaSalle Academy through the end of the month.

The boxcar is 10 feet wide and 30 feet long, like the ones that were used for transportation of prisoners during the Holocaust. Anywhere from 80 to 120 people could be inside for up to four days with the windows and vents closed. Many people died from suffocation or dehydration.

“In the winter, it could be extremely cold,” Rademacher said. “In the summer, it could be stifling hot. And this is on top of having no room to stand, sit, use the restroom in any sense of privacy, and that’s if you can even reach the bucket or hole that was put in the boxcar for that purpose.”

Six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, but they were not the only group targeted by Nazis and forced into boxcars.

“Be it Jews, Sinti and Roma,” a term similar to the derogatory gypsies, “homosexuals and the LGBT community, Slavs, political dissidents, communists, social democrats...these were all groups that were targeted for a variety of reasons,” Rademacher said. He added that these people were seen as inferior and thus posed a threat to the purity of German genetics.

There is no confirmed number of deaths during the Holocaust, but it's believed that up to 12 million people died under the Nazi regime.

Diane Walcher, who teaches middle and high school students at De LaSalle, coordinated with the museum to have the boxcar brought to the school. (Walcher's husband is Mike Walcher, a WGCU reporter and editor, and a Visiting Assistant Professor in Journalism at FGCU.) Diane Walcher, an advocate of Holocaust awareness, has scheduled speakers for the past eight years to educate students on genocide. This is the first year the school has a traveling artifact on school grounds.

“One of the things that we really liked and noticed immediately, the displays on the inside that talk about the ongoing genocide or the continual genocide, they’re kid-friendly but not sugar-coated,” Diane Walcher said.

Rademacher said the museum provides age-appropriate material if requested. “It’s not using a sort of
exploitation or sensational lens to depict it,” he said.

It is difficult to educate young people about the Holocaust and war, Walcher said. “They have nothing to compare it to, thank God, but that makes it harder for them to understand or empathize,” she said. Some high school students have been reading “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” a story about a Jewish boy living in a concentration camp. Walcher said one De LaSalle teacher is bringing students out to the boxcar to read that book.

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Gwendolyn Salata
/
Special to WGCU
Diane Walcher, teacher at De LaSalle Academy, and Cory Rademacher, Curator of the Holocaust Museum in Naples.

The school also invited family members to see the exhibit during family game night on November 15. Bethany Hughes' son is enrolled in 11th grade at De LaSalle, and she saw the boxcar on game night.

“I think just being in that small space, just seeing how many people would be in there, how dark it could be, things like that, I think it’s just a very tangible way for [students] to experience what people went through,” Hughes said. She added that it was very important to her son, Brady, that the family saw the boxcar.

“When they had the family game night, he really didn’t even care to bring a game. He really just wanted us to go through the boxcar since it was going to be open,” Hughes said. Brady is one of the students reading “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”

Hughes appreciated that the posters along the walls of the boxcar were age-appropriate. “What I thought was important, it really wasn’t gruesome,” she said. “There were so many horrific images from the time period, but those weren’t on display.”

Getting the boxcar on school grounds was not a simple task. Measurements were taken to make sure it could fit through the gate to get onto the field. Tree limbs that hang near it were pulled back so the tree would not be damaged. There was debris from Hurricane Ian blocking the entrance, and Walcher helped clear the debris by hand so the trailer that carried the boxcar could get in.

“That’s how bad I wanted it,” Walcher said.

The boxcar was brought to the U.S. by Jack Nortman in 2007. Nortman is the former museum president and board member emeritus of the Boxcar Foundation. His parents were Holocaust survivors, and he was born in a displaced persons camp, now collectively referred to as refugee camps.

After a four-year search for a Holocaust-era boxcar, Nortman found this one in Austria and shipped it to Miami. It was then transported to Naples, where the Woodworker’s Cabinet in Naples restored it. In 2008 Nortman dedicated it to his parents, Morris and Rose Nortman, and those lost in the Holocaust. It is the only traveling boxcar exhibit in the U.S., according to the museum’s website.

The boxcar has traveled to more than 75 organizations and schools and visits can be requested on the museum’s website. Its next stop has yet to be determined, but Rademacher said that information will be available in the museum’s newsletter and on its website.

“As an exhibition and as an artifact, it is incredibly powerful because when people think of the Holocaust, they think Auschwitz,” Rademacher said. “They think the rail systems. And this becomes an opportunity to talk about those in depth and...about how people got to that point.”

Walcher said students who are just learning about the Holocaust have reacted with disbelief and that it is why it is so important that it is taught.

“I said [to those students], ‘I’m glad that, in your world, you can’t understand what could drive people to do this, but the fact that you and I can’t understand it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,’” she said. “If you don’t learn about it now...those who don’t learn from history are [doomed] to repeat it.”

Gwendolyn Salata is a student in the FGCU Journalism program.