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Cattle car exhibit returns to U of G before beginning American tour

The Holocaust education project was first created by a University of Guelph student in 2015

Six years ago, Jordana Lebowitz was a first-year University of Guelph student looking for a way to connect her peers with the lessons of the Holocaust. Lebowitz was the chair of Jewish student organization Hillel’s Holocaust Education week at the time. 

“I saw that the messages of the Holocaust are universal and can be applied today and that if we did apply them to today we’d really have a better world,” she recalls. “And we could really make the survivors feel that their suffering wasn’t for nothing.”

While it might be easier for Jewish students to connect to the Holocaust if it’s in their family history, most are now three generations removed from the event and it’s even more difficult for non-Jewish people to relate to something their immediate family members didn’t go through, Lebowitz says. 

“So I thought, how could I create an environment that would induce this kind of connection and empathy with the stories of the survivors? And obviously I needed something portable. So I guess the idea just came to me, what about a cattle car?”

After extensive searching, Lebowitz located a replica of the cars used to transport millions to concentration camps under the Nazis. Hillel Guelph filled it with photos and information on the Holocaust. 

The powerful vehicle for Holocaust education is back on U of G campus this week before heading south of the border on its first American tour. 

The first exhibit inside the car on U of G campus in 2015 attracted over 2,000 visitors. As part of the week’s programming, Holocaust survivor Hedy Bohm spoke at the university and 1,500 students attended. The university said it was the biggest event ever held on campus aside from convocation. 

“I think that’s when I realized, ‘wow, we’re doing something really important here,’” Lebowitz says. 

In subsequent years the exhibit grew to include items on loan from major Holocaust museums and the voices of survivors piped into the car. 

An organization dedicated to Holocaust education and founded by Lebowitz grew out of the project. It was called Shadowlight. Last year it unveiled an immersive 360-degree audiovisual exhibit inside the car.  

Historical images and re-enactments are projected onto the car’s walls, as survivors recount their stories of being transported to concentration camps by similar vehicles. Footprints on the wooden floor mark where the 100 or so people packed into the car might have stood. 

Among the voices of the survivors featured in the exhibit is Bohm’s. She tells of how she and her family travelled for three days and three nights in a cattle car watching signs outside slip from Hungarian into a foreign language and realizing they’d been lied to about where they were being taken. She also recounts the trauma of being separated from her mother upon their arrival in Auschwitz. 

While Bohm and other survivors featured in the exhibit find it difficult to go inside the car themselves, Lebowitz says they’re incredibly supportive of the project. 

“You can see it makes them so happy,” she says. “I don’t know, my greatest wish in the world is just to make them feel like their families are spoken for.”

The exhibit is open Nov. 8 to Nov. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Branion Plaza. 

After that it's headed to Florida and a three month tour of schools in the United States, Lebowitz says. 

“Conceptualizing numbers is not something a lot of people can do,” Hilell Guelph co-president Ariel Oren, says of the exhibit. “So stepping in there seeing the footprints on the floor, seeing how crowded they are, putting yourself in that scenario and imagining 100 other people around you, it makes it a lot more real.”

Also as part of the Holocaust Education Week, a virtual presentation by Holocaust survivor Sol Nayman is set for Thursday at 7 p.m. 

Because of the nature of the information shared during the week-long event a virtual processing space will be offered on Zoom to ask questions and access more information. It begins Friday, Nov. 12 at 11 a.m. RSVP to Hillel Ontario to receive one.

Students and staff will also be given a small gift box containing a number of items, including a journal to write their thoughts in, a memoir of a survivor and a memorial candle. RSVP to the same email address to receive one.

An open Shabbat dinner will take place on Friday, 7 p.m. for students, staff or faculty of U of G, using the same RSVP email.



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Alison Sandstrom

About the Author: Alison Sandstrom

Alison Sandstrom is a staff reporter for GuelphToday
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