Holocaust Education Through Experience


By Matan Josephy

Photos by Risha Sinha

Just past the manicured lawns and half-filled city hall parking lot, directly facing the dozen-odd steps leading up to its columned façade, sits a cart.

It’s small, less than a hundred square feet, and not much more than a worn, copper-and-steel shell encasing dusty wood. Ladegew: 1500kg, reads the faded, painted-on German in the corner. Load weight: 1500 kilograms.  

The cattle car stands out against Commonwealth Avenue’s serenity, almost as if an artist had dabbed, by mistake, a splotch of brown against the backdrop of groomed trees, blue skies and Ionic pillars. 

My first interaction with “The Cattle Car” came before I saw it in Newton. The exhibit had propped up in Harvard Yard just a week earlier; walking by and glancing at the adjacent signs, my apprehension — or, maybe, discomfort? — beat out any curiosity. It wasn’t until it arrived in Newton that I convinced myself to go inside. 

For me, Holocaust education never began or ended; it always was — a macabre constant within a Jewish identity that I never fully embraced. Hearing about great uncles, great-grandparents or cousins who died or were enslaved by the Nazis isn’t a unique experience for a Jewish teen, let alone one who emigrated from Israel.

 Everyone has a relative who disappeared, or who died, or who remembers too much but won’t mention the camps unless prodded. The Holocaust isn’t a single unit taught in sophomore history or an uncomfortable fact of the past, but a permanent patch on every family’s historical quilt.

Still, it’s easy to brush by it. Growing up in Newton, where one in three people are of Jewish descent and bar mitzvahs form a middle school staple, antisemitism and genocide feel like a world away. It’s because of this privilege — because living in Newton allows me, as an American Jew, to often take my status for granted; because Newton, unlike so many other cities, enjoys such a vibrant and thriving Jewish population — that “The Cattle Car” is so important.

I’ve never loved how we learn about the Holocaust in history classes. 

Four years long, based on texts and materials from the Anti-Defamation League and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and filled with both survivor accounts and historical analyses, Newton’s approach to teaching about the Holocaust seems ahead of the curve. Even after Massachusetts began requiring genocide education in schools,  something always felt detached, if not outright impersonal, lacking the visceral understanding and human experiences that make up the foundation of genocide’s horrific impact. 

“The Cattle Car” doesn’t shy away from the personal. Stepping inside a space smaller than a college dorm room yet meant to house over a hundred, it’s hard not to feel a sense of vertigo. 

The video exhibits projected onto the walls move from historical overviews to interviews with survivors, each recounting — sometimes stoically, sometimes emotionally, but always in vivid detail — how tight it was inside the cars, the cries for food or water that eventually tapered off and the stench of death that slowly circulated. 

Tucked into the corner of the car, past a crack in the wooden façade where a single stream of light can get in, are a child’s footprints. The number of children forced into the cattle cars — with or without their parents, crushed against hundreds of others, perhaps unaware that they sat mere days away from annihilation — is a number lost to any textbook or lesson plan. But standing there, seeing even the barest of physical monuments to the experiences of those children lost, forever, to the Holocaust, felt more moving — more real — than any number of classroom discussions.

It is through this unrelenting willingness to impart to visitors even a fraction of the actual feeling of being in the cattle car — creating a physical representation of the space, shutting the doors, enveloping those inside with detailed recollection — that “The Cattle Car” makes a far more important statement on how we must approach the Holocaust and other genocides in the classroom: that there is no education without experience.

The impacts of the Holocaust, as with any genocide, cannot be replicated. Yet, “The Cattle Car” shows that we cannot take that fact and use it as an excuse to wall ourselves off, to confine such vital education just to lectures or documentaries in the classroom. 

Living in Newton, brushing off the importance of compliementing standard classroom education on the Holocaust with ungarnished reminders of its brutality can be easy; after all, Newton chose to place “The Cattle Car” in front of city hall even as universities like Harvard, public schools in Brookline and even the original car in Canada all brought the exhibit to school campuses. 

Seeing the car in public can be a jarring experience, and even more so after learning about its meaning. But to dismiss it as unnecessary or heed to fears that it may be inappropriate only continues to brush its message under the rug. It insulates students from immersing themselves, even temporarily, into what it really means to be brutally, mechanically dehumanized — into what genocide really represents. 

What “The Cattle Car” represents at its core is the sheer strength of stepping back into the past, even for a moment, and understanding how crushing genocide can really be: no victim of the Holocaust had the luxury of opting out, of closing their eyes in the face of pure evil.

The longer we sit in our bubbles, and the further we get from the Holocaust’s horror, the harder it is to remember what it really means to “never forget.”

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