Anyone who has visited the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland in recent months cannot have missed the brown wooden freight car standing on the railroad track at Birkenau. Thousands of high school students and members of delegations - including many from Israeli schools and institutions - have had their pictures taken beside it. They've documented it from every angle and uploaded the photos to the Internet.
Some of them mistakenly believed that the car had been there for a long time, like the other exhibits at the site. Officially, the wagon has not yet been dedicated as an exhibit, so it is not included in guided tours. Only in April, before Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, will the dedication be held in the presence of high-level international and Israeli representatives.
Until recent years, the managers of the site followed an uncompromising policy: No item not there the day the camp was liberated in January 1945 could be brought in. They didn't want to harm the site's authenticity, and worried what Holocaust deniers might say.
Three years ago, new and younger managers were appointed for the site, headed by a historian, Dr. Piotr Cywinski, who is now 38. The new team decided to break the taboo and allow in an exhibit from without: a freight car that transported Jews to the death camp. The managers believed that the site would now be better able to depict to young visitors the process of annihilation; how between 1940 and 1945 about 1.5 million Jews were brought to the largest death camp set up by the Nazis.
A source close to the railroad car project cites the "struggle of titans" between the veterans and young managers at the museum. In the end, the freight car was brought in.
"Of course, rare changes like these at the site give rise to disagreements," a spokesman for the Auschwitz Museum told Haaretz. "That's natural, but now we are seeing deep emotional reactions by visitors at the site of the train car. It's very important."
Regarding the decision to display the car, Dr. Cywinski told the museum's in-house publication, which comes out in Polish: "Nazi Germany brought people here in freight cars like this one. Nowadays, when we are very far from the days of World War II, young people find it hard to imagine the hell of the transports, which often lasted for many days in a crowded freight car. The possibility of displaying such a freight car on the ramp at Birkenau, at the original commemoration site, is of tremendous educational importance."
At the end of 2007 the museum set out to find a car. The conditions were clear: It had to have been used by the Germans to transport Jews to the death camps during World War II. There are a number of such freight cars in various places around the world, including the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington. In Germany, several such cars can be seen at transportation museums.
The Auschwitz Museum sought an authentic freight car not on display at any museum but in its original form, perhaps on an abandoned railroad track, forgotten and neglected. For about two years the museum looked for such a car in Poland and Hungary, to no avail. Remains of freight cars were to be found in Poland, but this was not enough. So the museum asked organizations in Israel for help, most notably Keren Hayesod - United Israel Appeal.
In the end, veteran print and television journalist Micha Limor, who is now retired and editing Yakinton, a bimonthly publication for immigrants from Central Europe, took up the challenge. The museum people chose Limor because of his connections with organizations and individuals in Germany, as well as his many years of experience as an investigative journalist. Because of financial and bureaucratic limitations, Limor had only one month to complete the mission. The chosen destination was Germany.
Last June, Limor went to Germany with his son Ohad, who filmed the trip and will make a documentary about it. Limor met with train experts, museum directors and diplomats, who gave him lists of addresses where they assumed abandoned freight cars used during the Holocaust were still hiding.
In the former East Germany, Limor found several such freight cars, but they had been renovated and used after the Holocaust as well. After several weeks, Limor's leads took him to the village of Wessum near the Dutch border, near the German town of Duisberg. There, in an open field that contained the remains of a disused railway line, stood an old freight car. It turned out that this was the only freight car from that period still in its original form and not in a museum.
The owner of the car, a local doctor and train aficionado, said he had bought it from British soldiers in 1990, shortly before they left Germany. The British used it for storing tools, but he hoped to restore it and make it a museum exhibit when he had the time and money. "Nowadays it's impossible to say 'We didn't know,'" the owner told the museum's representatives. Everyone who went past the field here said 'Here are the freight cars in which they transported the Jews.'"
During the next three months, experts examined various parameters - the kind of paint, the iron, the planks, the frame and the serial number. The inspections showed that the freight car was manufactured in 1921 and took part in the transports of Hungarian Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz between May and July 1944.
Preservation expert Ulrich Feldhaus has estimated that more than 120 such freight cars were manufactured before World War II. "Going by archival documents and pictures, in many of these cars people were deported to the camp," he said.
The company Die Schmiede, which does restoration work, was hired to restore the freight car, which was sent by truck from Wessum to Auschwitz on the night of September 15. On September 17, a stormy and rainy night, it arrived at the camp's entrance. The next day it was raised onto the old railroad tracks and taken to the ramp at Birkenau, where it now stands.
"I am pleased we found this original freight car and brought it to a place as important as the Auschwitz Museum," Limor told the site's in-house publication. "I am very moved. This part of the Holocaust - the deportations to the camp, especially from Hungary, from which about half a million Jews were deported - will be commemorated in a significant way. This is a special symbol of the entire transport system they used to bring Jews to Auschwitz during the Holocaust."
The camp administration told Haaretz: "For us the freight car is not aimed only at commemorating those deported to Auschwitz, it's also an educational tool. Our guides will be able to explain the deportation process - which was part of the Holocaust - in a clearer way, with the original and authentic freight car from Germany standing in the background."
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