MARCO ISLAND — The railroad car sitting on a trailer in the parking lot in front of the Marco Island Charter Middle School doesn’t look extraordinary, noteworthy at a glance only for being much smaller than rolling stock in use in this country. But this boxcar belongs to the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida, and was in use in Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Watching the children troop cheerfully into the boxcar, you couldn’t help wonder if, 70 years ago, some other children had boarded the same conveyance, under very different circumstances. The eighth grade social studies students in Kerri Lampos’ classes got to inspect the boxcar, initially built in 1919 as a cattle car, after studying about the Holocaust and related topics.
“I’m not going to hover over you – it’s kind of a personal experience,” Lampos told the students in the classroom before they headed outside for their close up look. “When you’re in the boxcar, be respectful. This is a somber place. I know I can count on you.”
Before they toured the boxcar, Lampos reviewed the lessons they had learned. The word “genocide” didn’t even exist until after World War II, but was coined to describe the mass killing of a race, and then expanded to other groups, such as homosexuals.
Seeing the train car, which was possibly an accessory to such a monstrous act as rounding up innocent victims and delivering them to forced labor and annihilation, it was hard to conceive of such systematic brutality, let alone wrap one’s head around the idea this may have been the death conveyance for thousands.
“The Holocaust seems so not real,” said eighth grader Ariel Schneider. “It was so horrible – who could do that?” She looked around inside the wooden walls, and said if she were trapped inside, she would have tried to scratch her name, or something, into the sides.
Other kids asked if anyone tried to escape. The windows would have been closed, or blocked with barbed wire, explained Sara Gottwalles, education program manager for the Holocaust Museum. And no, she said, they never close anyone into the car.
“For one thing, the door gets stuck sometimes,” said Gottwalles. “And we don’t know if someone is claustrophobic, or may have had bad experiences.” But mostly, she said, no one living safely in this country, where even if they did get momentarily locked in, should ever think they can comprehend the absolute horror of the victims who were herded, packed into the cars literally like cattle, and sent off into the unknown to captivity, toil and death.
“I am a student of the Holocaust. I can sympathize, but I can never know what it was actually like. God willing, these kids will never have to find out.
“Even the survivors have a hard time understanding each others’ ordeal,” she said, “each one was so different.” Three Holocaust survivors came to MICMS on Wednesday to speak to the students about their experiences under the Nazis. Lampos made the point to her students that the survivors are now all aged, and their class is one of the last that will be able to hear this testimony firsthand from those who lived through it.
The biggest point, said Lampos, is that while we may think of genocide as something out of the past, it is still taking place today. Africa, Cambodia, and even Europe have all recently been the sites of genocide.
After each class went back into the clean, air-conditioned school, the boxcar sat outside in the bright sunlight, not divulging what exactly had taken place inside so many decades ago.