As a young Jewish girl living in Toronto, Jordana Lebowitz decided her purpose in life was to help keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
Lebowitz, now 26, was just 16 years old when she traveled to Poland and Israel with the March of the Living, an international program that educates people about the history of the Holocaust by taking them to those countries.
Three years later, by then a psychology student at the University of Guelph in Canada, Lebowitz founded ShadowLight, an organization that uses immersive programs to connect people to the Holocaust – and aims to ensure that such an event never happens again.
“We have to be aware of the issues going on in society, be it hatred, prejudice, genocide, even just little acts of oppression here and there,” she said. “We have to be able to stop those in their tracks before they become the Holocaust.”
Not long into her advocacy efforts, Lebowitz found a replica of a German cattle car, the kind used to transport roughly 100 Jews and others at one time from their homes to the Nazi-run concentration camps. It was “literally on the side of the street,” in the back lot of Canadian set company MK Picture Car Services, which had created the replica for a movie, she said.
It’s now “The Cattle Car: Stepping In and Out of Darkness” replica exhibit promoting Holocaust education. In 2015, it started with displays of photographs and words on the interior walls. By 2020, it had projectors and speakers to create an immersive experience that allows attendees to feel as if transported in the car just as Holocaust victims were.
The freight car’s U.S. leg of the North American tour began in December and made its way Monday and Tuesday to the outside of Jewish organization University of Florida Hillel’s building across University Avenue near Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
According to UF spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez, the originally requested location, which would have been on UF property, had already been reserved by the time the Jewish Student Union made its request late last week. But, according to UF Hillel executive director Rabbi Jonah Zinn, the final location worked out for the best.
“I had someone who drove by the other day and said, ‘I came by, I saw this and I pulled my car over because I had to stop,’” Zinn said.
Videos of people acting as Jewish men, women and children of the time period are projected on every inside wall of the cattle car.
During the free, 21-minute experience, attendees heard from Holocaust survivors Hedy Bohm and Nate Leipciger, whose interviews are also projected on the walls. Videos and photos of concentration camps and their starved prisoners – both dead and alive – accompany images of Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler and German war propaganda.
Jared Marino, 23, oversees the technical aspects of the program. A film graduate from Sheridan College in Ontario, he makes sure the generators have gas, the computers are properly working and the internet is stable. Marino is also in charge of keeping it all operable when the hardware overheats, a problem the team doesn’t encounter in the Canadian weather.
“It makes me so happy to be a part of something that is changing some people’s lives,” he said. “It certainly changed mine.”
“The Cattle Car” tours high schools and universities, but students aren’t the only ones to take advantage of the experience. UF Hillel associate director Stefani Rozen said she spoke to visitors Monday from an interfaith women’s group in Ocala.
Other attendees live right down the road. Ashley and Ethan Fieldman, both UF graduates came from just a few blocks north of campus Monday while their children were at school.
Ethan Fieldman, who has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, as well as the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, said the freight car replica is “as good as it gets” without having to travel overseas to learn about Holocaust history. Ashley Fieldman said, “It’s a lot more powerful than reading a book or even just hearing about it.”
Cleo Gilmore, 21, of Jacksonville, is a UF junior studying psychology. Adopted into a Jewish family as a baby, she said much of what she saw and heard in the exhibit Tuesday wasn’t new. However, that didn’t change the way being in the freight car made her feel. She said it helped her see that “people just like her” were packed into the real thing during the Holocaust.
Gilmore said while the reminder of Jews’ difficult history was saddening, she also felt feelings of frustration over the idea that antisemitism hasn’t completely gone away. She urged her Jewish friends to each bring someone with them to the exhibit who wasn’t Jewish.
“It’s a reminder that it didn’t begin or end with the Holocaust,” Gilmore said. “The Holocaust was just one instance out of many of antisemitism.”
Barrett Uhler, 33, of Fort Washington, Maryland, is a graduate student of critical museum studies at UF. When her classmate told her Tuesday about the exhibit, Uhler knew she had to go. The car only had a few other people in it when she stepped inside, but she said it still felt disconcerting when a volunteer closed the door to the outside.
To Uhler, learning the stories of the Holocaust from the people who experienced it – even if virtually – made the program both emotional and realistic.
“The personalization of the stories and the environment really work together very well,” she said.