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.
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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