Horror on Wheels: A Nazi-Era Relic of the Holocaust Is Unveiled Downtown

Workers unwrap the freight car after it is lowered by crane onto the Museum of Jewish Heritage plaza. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 01, 2019

A Nazi-era freight car now sits on a public plaza in Battery Park City, a relic of inhumanity and horror for all to see.

Lifted by crane Sunday morning and gingerly maneuvered onto specially laid train tracks, the German-made car is like those used to transport Jews and other “undesirables” to death camps during the Holocaust. It is the gut-wrenching introduction to “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago, Not Far Away,” a major Museum of Jewish Heritage exhibition of artifacts from the Auschwitz concentration camp that will open on May 8 and continue until Jan. 3, 2020.

“We all agreed that in 47 years this is probably our most profound move,” said Marshall Didier whose Marshall Fine Arts was in charge of installing the tracks and hoisting the 14-ton car onto its rails. “And it’s the one we’re most honored to do.”

The restored boxcar is one of only five that are known to have been saved from tens of thousands used by the Nazis during the war. Cars like this one carried most of the 1.1 million people, including 1 million Jews as well as Poles, Roma, Soviet POWs and others, to their deaths at Auschwitz.

Produced with the Spanish exhibition firm Musealia and Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago, Not Far Away” will exhibit some 700 items, including unpublished memoirs, personal artifacts of survivors and victims, a part of the Auschwitz fence, and the desk and other belongings of the concentration camp’s commandant, Rudolf Höss.

Holocaust survivors Ray Kaner and her husband Leon Kaner, both 92, were at the museum on Sunday as living testament to the unspeakable brutality symbolized by the freight car. Ray had spent more than five years in Poland’s Lodz Ghetto before the Germans, with Russian forces in late 1944 closing in, shut down the ghetto and packed residents and their belongings into the trains, more than 80 to a car. The Germans lied to them about what lay ahead.

“After almost six years of ghetto, of starvation, cold, fear, we didn’t even know that this [Auschwitz] existed,” Ray Kaner recalled. “So we actually had great hope, that the Germans promised us that we would get to work in Germany and this is how we’ll survive.”

“It was August, the heat,” she continued. “And all these people had room only to stand or sit. Only pales for urination. The smell. The sweat. We couldn’t even lie down on the floor to sleep. We had to be in a sitting position.” Kaner could not say how many days she travelled. “I don’t know whether it was two day or three days. I couldn’t tell day from night.” By war’s end she had lost all her family but one sister.

“It’s very hard. Memories come back,” said Leon Kaner, standing beside the just unveiled boxcar. A German freight car had carried him to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the memories now too difficult to describe. “I lost my family there. Everybody. I’m lucky to survive.”

The decision to display the emotionally charged freight car in front of the museum was not a “slam dunk,” said the museum’s president and CEO, Jack Kliger. “We were concerned that we are located in a residential neighborhood, we were concerned that there is an elementary school across the street, and there was the question, are you doing this for promotion and publicity or are you doing it to honor and remember.”

The museum talked to survivors, held a community meeting and consulted with Terri Ruyter, the principal of P.S. and I.S. 276, the school across Battery Place.

Ruyter said she is “highly supportive” of the installation. She spoke to her PTA and blogged about it, and advised parents on how to respond to questions from children. “Charlottesville, the rise of the alt right. I just think you have to look at what’s happening in the news,” Ruyter said in a telephone interview. “It’s really important that our kids have some historical perspective and some way to have a conversation around it.”

“There are those statistics about the number of Americans who don’t know what Auschwitz is, and not really clear about what the Holocaust was,” she added. “It’s very concerning.”