Holocaust-era railcar comes to Ariz. for museum

By Karina Bland

The Arizona Republic

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

At a factory, she saw people being forced onto trains, and she panicked. Her brother Nandor, who was 17, was missing. She adored Nandor and called out for him, but her mother hushed her.

Handler would later figure out that her mother was hoping her son had escaped. But just minutes before the family boarded the train, Nandor appeared. Handler took his hand.

The cars were "crowded with pain," she said. The cars were "crowded with fear."

If a person died on the train, the body stayed there, Handler said. If a woman was in labor, she gave birth there.

Handler doesn't remember what they did to pass the time, only her mother repeating, "We must stay together. We must stay together," and holding her and her brother Micky, 9, close. That refrain would ring in Handler's memories for all the decades to come.

After Handler spent four days locked in the railcar, the heavy metal door finally slid open to a gray, foggy morning.

"As I got out, all I could see for miles and miles was barbed wire," Handler says.

She could see men in striped pajamas, women with shaved heads. Handler's mother murmured, "Maybe this is a hospital."

The men in the striped pajamas, Jews who had arrived at the camp earlier, shouted advice, trying to help. Leave everything, and just go, they said. Don't make the soldiers yell at you. Give the small children to their grandmothers.

Handler would learn later that the old and the very young were sorted out to die, and a mother in her 20s or 30s could save her own life by letting her youngster go. But the men in the striped pajamas couldn't tell them all of that.

"They knew if there was a panic, and we ran, we would all be shot on the spot," Handler says.

The passengers from the train were lined up, side by side, and a tall SS officer looked them over. Handler remembers looking at the officer's boots. They were black, and shiny.

The man in the boots was Josef Mengele, the doctor who became notorious for selecting Jews arriving at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp for the gas chamber, and for ghastly medical experiments.

"For the rest of my life, I remember that smile," Handler says. Mengele pointed at her, and she was pulled roughly out of the line: "With his riding crop, he decided over life and death."

She was sent one way, the rest of her family the other. She would never see them again.

"One minute I was surrounded by a loving family, and the next minute I found myself alone in the middle of Auschwitz. I was 15 years old. I grew up in that minute," Handler says.

Handler has spoken to thousands of people over the last 20 years about the Holocaust and how she survived.

There were tiny miracles everywhere in the camp. A piece of bread that was left by her head as she slept. A hand that pulled her up when she fell. The time she slipped unseen from one line of prisoners to another, saving her own life.

"There was always someone who made it their business to help me," she says. "Since God created us, that was God helping me."

The railcar that would come to Arizona started its journey in early January.

As it was lifted off the ship and settled gently on the pier at the Port of Long Beach, Calif., on March 30, work came to a stop. Dockworkers gathered, hats in hands, silent, and a mile-long line of trucks waiting to pick up cargo idled, as a rabbi prayed.

The car was loaded onto an open trailer, and Andy Peterson, a driver for Empire Transport in Mesa, climbed into the truck cab to haul it the more than 400 miles to the Valley.

"You look at it in the rearview mirror and picture what happened in there," Peterson said, shaking his head. "It's almost like pulling a death box."

At rest stops, his load was surrounded by people, their faces grim. Two old soldiers who served in Germany during WWII. A woman whose great-grandmother had been at Auschwitz. Everyone seemed to know what it was.

As difficult as it was for Handler to enter the railcar, it was also as important. It was in such a car the last time she was with her family.

"These were the last hours that I had a touch from my mother, that I had two brothers, that I had grandparents, one grandparent on each side," Handler said.

"Even if I had to take a tranquilizer, I wanted to walk into that box, where I last was with my family," she said. "It was what my mother wanted. The family was together."

Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com

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