Nazi-era boxcar journeys to Houston

For decades, the wagon sat in the rail yard behind the Blankenburg-Harz train station in former East German town.

holocaust boxcar germany (photo credit: Toby Axelrod)
holocaust boxcar germany
(photo credit: Toby Axelrod)
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 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 Society, which educates unemployed youth and older workers in this economically strapped area. "But when we thought that we were 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, the wooden car may also have been used to transport Nazi troops, then East German troops and/or 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 Holocaust Museum Houston were looking for just such a boxcar. Susan Llanes-Meyers, 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 (DB) 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 railway role in the Holocaust. Today, some 10 museums worldwide display such cars, including the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority at Yad Vashem 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 are all 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. 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 will donate tracks and bedding for the exhibit. The educational program will likely 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 because the Houston museum did not want to take any chances of losing its 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."