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Cattle car at centre of U of Guelph exhibit

Holocaust cattle car replica
Holocaust cattle car replica

When Jordana Lebowitz took on the role of Hillel’s Holocaust Education Week co-ordinator, she thought long and hard about arranging a memorable campus program.

“I felt like I should go big, or go home,” said the 20-year-old Thornhill native who is studying psychology at the University of Guelph.

“I wanted to help every person connect on a personal level to the Holocaust, not just those who have survivor loved ones or share the history. I wanted to bring something to campus to make them feel it.”

About seven months ago, Lebowitz began co-ordinating her ambitious plan to bring to her campus a replica of a cattle car used to transport Jews from ghettos to concentration camps.

“When I came up with the idea, I was telling friends and family, and they all thought it was crazy and didn’t know if I could do it. But I wanted to prove them wrong, that I could do this,” she said with a laugh.

She said she wanted to create an exhibit that resonates not only with the Jewish students on campus, but with the non-Jews as well.

“I wanted them to have something tangible to connect to. Maybe they would go in the cattle car and feel scared, or cramped, see how dark it is,” she said.

Lebowitz said locating the kind of cattle car she was looking for was no easy task.

“I started calling around, calling anyplace I could think of that would have a cattle car,” she said.

“In all of North America, there are only two cattle car exhibits. One at the Paper Clips memorial in Tennessee and one at the Holocaust museum in Washington.”

She tried the Halton County Radial Railway, a museum that gives visitors access to ride in old streetcars and trains, as well as farms – any places she could think of that might have access to a cattle car.

She said that in her search, she got in touch with a man who worked as a GO train operator in Toronto. He told her that on his route to and from Union Station, he passed a 1920s-era German cattle car replica, which was exactly what Lebowitz was looking for.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock,” she said.

She learned that the cattle car belonged to a Toronto-based prop company that supplies a variety of vehicles for film production.

“They offered to donate the car for a week, so that was amazing,” she said.

“I went to Hillel to tell them about what I had found, and what I wanted to do and they loved the idea and agreed to fund it,” she said, adding that the cost of shipping the cattle car from Toronto to campus was about $3,000.

She said she worked with university administrators to go through the proper channels to get approval. While she was met with a little bit of resistance initially because of the logistics involved with shipping the car, in the end, administrators recognized the value of such an initiative.

The exhibit, which was on display in the centre of the campus at Branion Plaza from Nov. 3 to 5, includes information about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Nazi propaganda, the systematic murder of millions, as well as information about contemporary issues like racial inequality in the United States and recent genocides in Africa.

She said throughout the three days the exhibit will be open, there will be student volunteers providing information about the Holocaust, as well as a psychology professor who will be available to students who may feel negative emotions triggered by the graphic images and disturbing information.

She said next year, she hopes to bring an authentic cattle car – one that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps – from Germany to campus. This initiative, she estimated, would cost about $50,000.

“I think that this program really embodies the eternal importance of Holocaust education and learning from humanity’s past mistakes in order to shape a future of equality and tolerance.”