The Railcar: One Artifact’s Journey to the Permanent Exhibition

As early as 1987, curators were determined to procure a railcar for the Museum’s nascent Permanent Exhibition, despite having just a basic narrative in place. A railcar would represent an iconic portion of many Nazi victims’ journey to death, as well as the extensive bureaucracy that enabled the process of deporting victims to concentration camps and killing centers.

Even though deportations of Jews were conducted throughout Europe, the curators decided that the most representative type of railcar would be one of German manufacture found in Poland, since that country lost most of its Jewish citizens and all Nazi killing centers were located within its borders.

Many hurdles stood in the way of bringing a railcar to Washington, DC, from Poland in the late 1980s, as the Poles were overthrowing their communist leaders and establishing a new government. But locating a German railcar from the time period proved surprisingly easy. In 1988, an administrator at the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland (now part of the Institute of National Memory), whose family had deep roots in the Polish railway industry, offered to help. He located an authentic railcar resting in disuse at a depot; it had most recently been used as a prop on movie sets.

The railcar’s authenticity needed to be verified before the Museum could arrange to have it installed in the exhibition. Ralph Appelbaum, the Permanent Exhibition designer, Martin Smith, the exhibition’s director, and Jacek Nowakowski, Museum curator, knew upon examining it and noting the markings on its body that it was a genuine 1930s German railcar. However, since there is no documentation linking particular railcars to deportations, there was no way to prove with absolute certainty that this railcar had transported Jews to concentration camps. But it matched other railcars shown in photographs being used for that purpose.

The railcar and shipping costs were offered to the Museum as a gift from the Polish state. In early July 1989, the railcar arrived at the port of Baltimore. But much to the curators’ dismay, the body of the railcar had received several fresh coats of paint. The railroad workers responsible for the car’s preparation for transport explained that they couldn’t send such a dirty-looking car to the United States. So before the railcar could be installed in the exhibition, it had to be restored to its 1940s appearance. The Museum contracted conservators specializing in railroad restoration to remove the new paint and restore its past appearance.

The Museum building had to be constructed around an object so large. On installation day, the car was lowered by crane into the third floor of the Museum very early in the morning. Its place in the exhibition was already determined and after many discussions it was decided that visitors would be directed to walk through the car, but would be able to use a bypass ramp if they were too frightened or emotional to do so.

When the Museum opened in 1993, the presence of the railcar as part of the Holocaust narrative was groundbreaking. It was a key example of the Museum’s mission to show the history with objects, not just words or images. The influence of the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition is clear: Today, many Holocaust museums have a railcar or railcar model to illustrate the deportation of Jews and others to their ultimate fate.