As my colleague and I drove up to the LJD Jewish Family and Community Services parking lot, my stomach churned as I saw the cattle car from a distance. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect — only an innate feeling that it would be something I would never forget. Stepping inside, the very first thing I noticed was the black footprints painted onto the wood beneath me — a variety of sizes — ones that matched mine and ones that would have matched my 5-year-old daughter. The Shadowlight representative gave us a short introduction explaining this was an exact replica of the cattle cars which were used by Nazis to shuttle Jews to concentration camps, at 100 people per car. I looked around and counted the mere 20-something of us that were currently cramped into the space and shuddered at the thought. The representative closed the door behind us, and the interior darkened even in the daytime, with only tiny slivers of light making their way through the cracks.
As the video started, I began to understand why this is described as a “fully immersive” experience. The images are projected all around you, covering and moving life-like along every wall of the car — in such a way that you feel right in the middle of these men, women, children and babies and right in the middle of the fear and violence and pain they suffered. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this experience was worth an entire history book.
The film itself follows the stories of two survivors, Hedy and Nate.
“The boxcar plays heavily in my mind because that’s the transition from being a human being to becoming a number which they could dispose of at their own will,” a now-elderly Nate shared in his interview.
I found it impossible not to cry for Hedy as she recounted being separated from her mother upon reaching Auschwitz, looking into her eyes for what would be the final time. None of her family survived the concentration camps, but she did. In fact, we learned, she was there on-site touring with the exhibit, in her 90s, willing to be loud and brave in sharing her horrific experiences for the sake of making sure that history is never repeated.
At that moment, I reflected honestly on times in my life, as someone who attended both Protestant grade school and a public university, when I knew I was witnessing antisemitism right in front of me. From the time I shrugged off that “joke” involving Jewish tropes by a high school friend, to the time I once listened to a college professor passively propagate an anti-Jewish conspiracy theory and wondered if anyone was going to say anything … and at that moment, I felt ashamed — ashamed that I hadn’t always been loud and brave in the face of bigotry and ashamed that I hadn’t always realized that this is my fight, too.
The greatest value that I have gained from my education and career in nonprofit and social justice is that standing up to hatred and bias in any form is everyone’s fight — even more so for those who enjoy the privilege of being the majority — if we are to ensure that Hedy’s mission is honored.
Working for the Jewish Federation & Foundation for the past four years, I’ve become much more acquainted with Jewish life than I was prior; I’ve been very lucky to be invited to many Shabbat dinners, and I now make it a point to try to do my daily mitzvah.
However, I believe of far more importance to being the kind of ally that I hope to be, lies in what I teach my daughter as she grows up. While she is still a bit young to learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust, I teach her about acceptance and tolerance and try to introduce her to different beliefs and traditions in the little ways that she can grasp thus far. This past winter, our family lit the menorah, taking the opportunity to teach the kids that Chanukah is not actually “Jewish Christmas,” but actually a completely unrelated celebration involving the Maccabees and the miracle of oil that never ran out. But as she gets older, I can promise that she will be taught the exact truth about what happened to Hedy and Nate, and how it is imperative that she be part of a better future that takes part in never forgetting so that it can never happen again.
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