The railway car at the Museum has a very interesting history. The organizers of the Museum’s narrative, the members of the content committee, were already in the 1980s beginning to scour the European landscape for artifacts large and small that would help tell the story of the Holocaust at America’s Holocaust museum and memorial. When a small group discovered a Holocaust-era railway car in Poland, they realized they must have it and they began negotiations with Polish authorities to secure its acquisition for the Museum. There is an interesting story about the railway car, that when it finally arrived at a port in Baltimore the World War II era railway car sported a new coat of red paint, which many at the Museum felt really symbolized the concerns some Poles had with making the railway car look nicer, shall we say, for its display at the Museum, but the Museum’s interest was really in stripping away that new coat of paint and trying to get to the history beneath it. So the railway car underwent some significant care and attention and conservation until it really was returned to its World War II state as an example of the type of car that was used to deport Jews. And this is another example of the story here at the Museum which is so interesting. It’s very difficult to verify whether a particular railway car was used in a particular deportation. Research that’s been done on this has shown that the numbers that show up on the car itself may or may not actually date to the war, they may or may not appear in any Nazi wartime records of deportation, even though those records were so meticulous, nonetheless it’s very hard to trace any one particular example of a railway car. And also in this respect, once you realize it there are several hundred of these railway cars still sitting around rail yards in Europe, in whose context the Holocaust does not figure at all as a significant event. But for this one obviously the Holocaust was very important so members of the Museum’s research team worked on the railway car to try to determine whether or not it was actually used to deport Jews, and they finally could not come to any conclusive answer and so because of their sense of responsibility to history you’ll notice that the placard at the entrance to the railway car in the Museum says this car is “of the type” that was used to deport Jews, which was really the best that the research team could do. Now when you encounter the railway car in the Museum it might not be clear to people just how significant it was to get it in to the Museum itself, and that’s also part of the story of the railway car and of its symbolism. The Museum was literally built around it. It had to be lowered in by crane at a very particular moment in the construction of the Museum, the floor had to be strengthened in a certain way to allow this very large object to be accommodated into the Museum’s Permanent Exhibit. Now when you go through the railway car another thing that people don’t always pay much attention to is the fact that this example of a railway car, unlike some others, is open for visitors to walk through. It’s not completely open, visitors can’t explore the entire interior, they’re protected by guard rails and there’s actually a metal plate so that when one walks through the railway car one isn’t actually touching it in any significant way, and that I think is very important when understanding the position of the railway car as a symbol of the Holocaust here in Washington. In short, I think the railway car here really functions as a symbol of historical integration. You’ll note that in the Permanent Exhibit the railway car is positioned in a place that comes in the progression from ghettoization through deportation to incarceration in the camps. So it serves as a symbol for exactly the same thing that railway cars were used for at the time, which is that deportation phase. So obviously historical chronology is very important here in the Museum, but equally important is the issue of integrating the artifact into the Museum as a whole so that when one is a visitor and walks through, one encounters this as a natural object, as it were, in the path of the visitor, as something that should be encountered and that should be experienced in some way, with rails, nonetheless, so that a total identification is not assumed but nonetheless the Museum is asking visitors to put themselves in the position of people who went through the events at the time. So there’s a strong current of identification and integration going on in the railway car here in Washington.
For his Museum fellowship in 2004, Dr. Oren Baruch Stier conducted research for his project “Holocaust Symbols: The Icons of Memory,” examining the historical and cultural contexts of symbols commonly associated with the Holocaust and exploring how a variety of iconic images, including personalities, artifacts, texts, and visual forms, convey awareness of and associations with the Holocaust.
Dr. Stier is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Judaic Studies Program at Florida International University in Miami.