Replica Holocaust cattle car set up in Times Square to counter widespread ignorance

Exhibit including innovative 360-degree video brought to New York for Holocaust Remembrance Day, as surveys show majority of public unfamiliar with basic facts of the genocide

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Visitors disembark a replica Holocaust-era cattle car on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in New York City, April 18, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Visitors disembark a replica Holocaust-era cattle car on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in New York City, April 18, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Jewish groups set up a replica Holocaust-era cattle car, modeled on those the Nazis used to transport Jews to concentration camps, in New York City’s Times Square on Tuesday to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The exhibit included an innovative multimedia display inside the cattle car and was meant to commemorate the Holocaust and educate visitors, amid widespread ignorance about the genocide in New York and record levels of antisemitism in the US.

The Orthodox Union put the exhibit together through its Southern NCSY youth group, alongside ShadowLight, a Toronto-based nonprofit focused on Holocaust education.

The exhibit is titled “Cattle car: Stepping in and out of darkness,” and is a part of NCSY’s “Hate ends now” initiative. NCSY and ShadowLight launched the cattle car program in 2021.

The cattle car’s worn plank siding with faded German lettering and barred windows presented a striking image among the throngs of tourists in Times Square beneath a flashing animated billboard and in front of a Levi’s outlet store.

Some passersby, including European tourists, stopped to ask about the exhibit, read information or view the display inside the cattle car, although most of the bustling crowd walked past without a pause.

A replica Holocaust-era cattle car on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in New York City, April 18, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Some of those who stopped, including locals and tourists, had no knowledge of the Holocaust, organizers said, reflecting public ignorance about the basic facts of the genocide. A 2020 survey found that a majority of New Yorkers did not know six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and could not name a single concentration camp. Surveys in other countries, including in Europe, have found a similar lack of knowledge.

“Some people are completely unaware,” said Southern NCSY director Todd Cohn. “We can change the trajectory.”

Antisemitism is also at a record level in the US, according to a study released by the Anti-Defamation League released last month, although some skeptics have begun to question the efficacy of Holocaust education in combating antisemitism.

Most visitors to the cattle car exhibit were students from the New York area, mostly from Jewish schools.

The visitors walked up a ramp into the dark interior of the cattle car and had its heavy sliding door shut behind them, simulating the experience of Jews and others who were shipped to the camps.

A 360-degree video then illustrated their journey during the war, focusing on interviews with two survivors, Hedy Bohm and Nate Leipciger.

In the video, the survivors described their experiences in the cattle cars as actors portrayed Nazi troops herding their Jewish victims into the cars in a state of fear and confusion.

“I remember the loud shouting, the rifles in the soldiers’ hands and how they pushed and shoved everyone into the cattle cars, 80, 90 people, like sardines in a can we were standing against each other,” Bohm said in her testimony.

She described reading signs next to the train tracks as they traveled, noticing the language on the signs change, and realizing they had been lied to about their destination when they boarded, as the air in the cramped, crowded space turned rancid.

At Auschwitz-Birkenau in May of 1944, Hungarian Jews arrived in cattle cars and prepared for the SS-conducted ‘selection.’ (Auschwitz Album)

Bohm and Leipciger also discussed being separated from their families in sorting lines after they left the cars and their experiences in the camps, as the video showed Jews sharing a final embrace upon departure from the cars.

Other images in the video showed Nazi propaganda demonizing and dehumanizing Jews. The film ended with present-day footage highlighting modern hatred and intolerance.

Organizers estimated that at least 700 people viewed the 20-minute video inside the car by the end of the day.

Sagi Kahane-Rapport of ShadowLight said the nonprofit had first interviewed the survivors for the video project, then developed innovative techniques to display the immersive video in the cattle car.

They essentially created a long, horizontal video, with sections of the image tailored to fit each of the four walls of the car, and wrapped the footage around the interior. The video was broadcast onto the walls using eight projectors mounted on the ceiling.

ShadowLight cast actors meant to look like younger versions of Bohm and Leipciger for the live-action portion of the videos. Some of the filmmakers’ family members acted as extras to stretch out the project’s shoestring budget.

A visitor watches a video display inside a replica Holocaust cattle car, in New York City, April 18, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Other exhibits, including Israel’s Yad Vashem, have made use of cattle cars, but Kahane-Rapport said he was not aware of any others using an immersive video presentation.

The cattle car installation is meant to be mobile and easy to set up, and was towed up to New York from Southern NCSY’s home base in Florida behind a Ford pick-up truck for Tuesday’s events. NCSY is the Orthodox Union’s international youth movement and its southern branch covers the US southeast region.

The exhibit departed Times Square on Tuesday night and will head next to Massachusetts to visit Harvard University, Salem State University, and Jewish community centers and schools.

The project has previously visited four states in the US Southeast, and New Jersey, reaching around 60,000 visitors, organizers said.

Tuesday’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, known as Yom HaShoah in Israel, marked 80 years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

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