Holocaust-era railcar comes to Ariz. for museum

By Karina Bland

The Arizona Republic

Published: Wednesday, April 18 2012 1:05 a.m. MDT

In this April 12, 2012 photo, holocaust survivor Helen Handler rests her head and cries on the wall of a rail car that will go in the Holocaust & Tolerance Museum, in Phoenix. The railcar was brought 11,000 miles from Macedonia to Arizona. The last time Handler saw her family together was on a similar car on the way to Auschwitz.

The Arizona Republic, Pat Shannahan) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES, Associated Press

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PHOENIX — Helen Handler climbed the steps carefully, unsure what might happen next. Just as she was the first time she boarded a railcar like this one.

She was 15 then, just a girl, living in what was part of Hungary in 1944. She's 83 now, and although this railcar was bathed in bright Arizona sunshine, it still felt dark, heavy with history.

Handler paused in the open doorway.

The car was empty, and quiet. But as she took in the small space, Handler saw again the people who were no longer there, heard again their whispered prayers from long ago. Another moment or two, and she crossed the 10 feet or so to the other side, to the spot her family occupied in another railcar so long ago.

She raised her arms, gently pressing her hands against the rough plank wall, feeling again the texture she remembered would be there. And then she dropped her forehead to the backs of her hands and began to sob.

The last time Handler saw her mother, her two brothers and her maternal grandparents was when she and her family and at least 40 other Jews were crammed into a railcar like this one for four days on their way to Nazi concentration camps.

As hard as the moment was for her to see this railcar present day, Handler had been an advocate of the effort to find it and bring it here in the hopes that what was once a symbol of evil could become one of hope. It is one of six Holocaust-era railcars now in the United States.

Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a renowned Holocaust scholar who served as project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., came across the railcar while working in Macedonia, which was occupied by Germany during World War II. While it is not 100 percent certain the car was used to transport Jews bound for concentration camps, the car is certified as being of the type.

This railcar, built in 1918, arrived on April 6.

Sold as scrap metal for $3,500 and costing almost $40,000 to transport, the car will be the central display in the $20 million Holocaust & Tolerance Museum being built on 4.6 acres next to the East Valley Jewish Community Center in Chandler.

There is no construction timetable for the museum, but the railcar will be on display Tuesday in Chandler to commemorate Yom Ha'Shoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, which begins at sundown on Wednesday and continues Thursday.

Inside the railcar, Handler's soft sobs broke the silence; her fingertips felt the gouges in the wood, and then one hand felt its way along a seam on the heavy metal door, rusted and flaking now but closed tightly and locked, like before.

At 15, Handler, whose name then was Ilona Ackerman, was a happy teenager.

But the war would change all of that. The time came when her best friend and neighbor, a Christian, wasn't allowed to play with Handler anymore. Handler had to switch schools, and her mother sewed a yellow Star of David onto her coat to identify her as Jewish.

And then a few days after Passover in 1944, a few men came to Handler's house, where she lived with her mother, brothers, and grandparents, and told the family that they could each pack one bag, and that they had to leave.

"You have to understand the power of what this did to us," Handler said. "It ruined our security that my family carried for five generations, the belonging (that) my family felt for five generations."

She packed photographs, a memory book covered in blue velvet, and the little outfit she used to wear to synagogue with her father, who died when she was 6. Her mother told her to leave room for food and water in her bag, since they didn't know where they'd be going.

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