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Confronting hate through history: Boxcar provides Holocaust education at UF's Hillel

A replica cattle car sits at 2020 W. University Ave on Monday. (Gracie Kurtz/WUFT News)
A replica cattle car sits at 2020 W. University Ave on Monday. (Gracie Kurtz/WUFT News)

A railroad boxcar sat on the lawn of the University of Florida Hillel building on Monday. It was a replica of the cattle cars that delivered Jewish people and other targeted groups to Nazi death camps and stood as a harrowing testament to the perils of unbridled hate.

As visitors entered the boxcar, they encountered painted footprints on the wooden floorboards, representing the men, women and children packed into a single boxcar, often hundreds at a time. Afterward, visitors engaged in a 360-degree experience that retold the journeys of two holocaust survivors, Hedy Bohm and Nate Leipciger.

“The boxcar plays heavily on my mind because that is the transition from being a human being to becoming a number,” Leipciger said during the presentation.

The most impactful part of the experience for Linda Lewis, 64, was when the boxcar door closed.

“We were standing there, and the door was closed, and it was dark and I went, ‘Oh, God,’” she said.

Lewis said the small space inside the boxcar felt surreal, like she could close her eyes and imagine the people inside, trapped and frightened.

During the presentation, Bohm said, “Like sardines in a can, we were standing against each other,” describing how her family was crammed into a boxcar bound for Auschwitz concentration camp. After three days and nights of uncertainty, Bohm and her family were unloaded off the boxcar and into the unimaginable.

Bohm was 15 years old when her father was taken from her in a matter of seconds. By the time she reached for her mother’s hand, her mother was swept ahead of her. She called out but couldn’t reunite with her mother. Bohm never saw her parents again.

The “Hate Ends Now: The Cattle Car Exhibit” was brought to UF by its Hillel chapter, for which Lana Kolchinsky is a programming and engagement associate.

Kolchinsky said she had the chance to go to Poland around 10 years ago and visit the Majdanek concentration camp, which was left almost untouched.

“What the cattle car reminds me most of is just like this preserved wasteland of destruction,” she said.

Knowing the remaining survivors of the Holocaust won’t be alive after the next 10 to 20 years, Kolchinsky said exhibits like this are extra crucial in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.

Dylan Warnes is an educator with Hate Ends Now. She said she believes historical education often focuses on the “before” and “during” of the Holocaust. The moment of in-between gets neglected, she said. Victims didn’t know where they were going or what would come of them, Warnes said. The cattle car captures a glimpse of that uncertainty.

The Holocaust is still a living history, and Warnes said it can be easy for students to forget that with traditional methods of teaching.

“[The Holocaust is] in a history textbook that they're never going to actually read,” she said. “It's very easy for them to forget that there are still people who every day are affected by what happened.”

In her work educating high school students, Warnes said she talks to many who knew nothing about the Holocaust.

“We're very happy to be the ones educating them, but it is a little shocking,” she said.

The danger of this lapse in education, Warnes said, is that people start to take the idea of the Holocaust lightly, which could result in history repeating itself.

Maia Gelert, another educator with Hate Ends Now, presented a lineup of artifacts that ranged from an ad of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kamph" to a prison uniform retrieved from a liberated concentration camp.

“These are real people's lives,” Gelert said, gesturing to the neatly folded uniform in the glass display. “Like someone really wore this, and someone would have passed away, maybe while wearing it.”

Since October, the exhibit traveled to Florida, Philadelphia and Texas and is now back in Florida, Warnes said.

Gracie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing