Holocaust-era railcar unveiled by US museum

Houston holocaust museum inaugurates German railcar exhibit, "the most universally known symbol of the Holocaust."

Just seeing the German railcar, of the type used to shuttle her as a small child to concentration camps during the Holocaust, made Chaja Verveer feel anxious and "chilled to the core." "It is a living reminder of a terrible journey that I do not remember but feel in my bones," she said. "It is a symbol of calculated evil, where technology, bureaucracy and efficiency became killing instruments." Verveer, a Holocaust survivor now living in Houston, told of her visceral reaction to the railcar as it was publicly unveiled Sunday during a ceremony honoring the 10th anniversary of the city's holocaust museum. The World War II-era German railcar is of the type used to carry millions of Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust. It is one of seven at museums in the United States. Only two, including the one in Houston, are German railcars. The 25-foot (7.5-meter) railcar, built in 1942, arrived from Germany in December and will be a permanent exhibit at the Houston Holocaust Museum. Museum officials can't say for certain whether it was used to transport people during the Holocaust but they believe it is a powerful symbol nonetheless. For Verveer, 64, the railcar is a reminder of what happened to her when she was 3 years old. Although she has no memory of what happened, extensive research and eyewitness testimony has documented that on Sept. 13, 1944, Verveer was one of about 50 children from the camp of Westerbork in Holland who were loaded into a railcar and experienced a grueling three-day journey to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany. "The Germans told us, 'You are going to such a good camp.' The wheels did not sing sweet lullabies to the infants. They were more shrieking accentuations of the children's crying," she said. A few months later, Verveer and the other children were loaded onto a second railcar and experienced another torturous three-day trip, this time to Theresienstadt, a ghetto and transit camp in Czechoslovakia. In May 1945, the camp was liberated by the Russian army and Verveer was eventually reunited with her mother and her three brothers. "What does having the railroad car here at the museum mean to me? In all honesty, I prefer not to go into the railcar. Is it rational? No," she said. "I survived despite the unbelievable odds against it. But I mourn the many thousands transported in those railcars that did not." After the public unveiling of the railcar, about 50 of the more than 200 Holocaust survivors who live in the Houston area went up to wooden steps put at the foot of the vehicle and placed stones and yellow and white roses in remembrance of the 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis. According to the museum, 30,000 railcars transported more than 3 million Jewish people to their deaths during the Holocaust. Some died aboard railcars, while others were killed at concentration camps located along the rail lines. Trains had up to 50 cars, each holding from 50 to 200 people. Except for the swastika, "the railroad cars, which took so many innocent people to their deaths, are the most universally known symbol of the Holocaust," said Peter M. Berkowitz, president of the museum's board of directors.