WW II-era Boxcar Comes to Holocaust Memorial Center

Bleak Boxcar
Photograph courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Center

Metro Detroiters will have the opportunity this fall to experience one of the Holocaust’s most tangible relics: a boxcar used to transport Jews and other victims to concentration camps in Europe.

The Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills obtained a World War II boxcar from Germany last year and has been working to restore it since. Stephen M. Goldman, the center’s executive director, says he wanted to obtain one of the hard-to-find cars because of its powerful symbolism and emotional impact.

“The boxcar is an iconic image, and it’s a very real thing,” Goldman says. “It’s overwhelming. So I’ve been looking for one. I’d been in touch with my counterpart in Berlin, and it happens his specialty is railroads.”

The era’s boxcars, fabricated from wood, are largely long gone or have disintegrated to just their frames. Goldman says no cars remain in Poland and only a few can be found in Germany. It took him several months to find this one available for sale in a storage facility in the city of Cottbus, near Berlin.

The boxcar’s roof and floor are in poor shape, but its frame and walls remain strong. Goldman is working with a railroad conservator from Henry Ford Museum to restore the original material.

“I don’t want to make it look new,” Goldman says. “Anyway I can preserve and conserve, I’m going to do that.”

The museum plans to expand an atrium for the exhibit so that visitors pass through the boxcar as a symbolic and actual embarkation on their journey through the museum.

The project’s cost is about $1.5 million, Goldman says, and the museum’s ability to unveil it this fall depends on its ability to raise funds. Goldman says it will be well worth it.

“The boxcar is a ubiquitous symbol, and I think it’ll become a new identity item for the museum,” he says. “Relatively speaking, it’s a rare item, and it’s imposing. It creates a lot of thought process.

“It’s also something that, unlike a lot of Holocaust artifacts, a family can look at together,” he adds. “Many of them you don’t want children looking at. With the boxcar, you can have a discussion with relatively young children that they can deal with.”

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