The Cattle Car: Stepping In and Out of Darkness experience comes to Greenville, SC March 16-18, 2022. Learn about the Holocaust and what people endured in this immersive educational experience. We sent Kristina to experience it and here is what it is like.
A small woman with wispy white hair and piercing green-yellow eyes sat next to the cattle car, an exact replica of the train cars that took Jews and other targeted groups to concentration camps during World War II. The woman’s name was Hedy Bohm and she survived the Holocaust. Hers is one of the two stories that are told inside of The Cattle Car: Stepping In and Out of Darkness immersive experience.
Hedy, originally from Hungary, is in her 90s. She was 15 when she was rounded up by the Nazis, along with her parents, into a cattle car not unlike the one she was sitting next to, and taken to Auschwtiz. She was the only survivor. Her parents were killed there. She worked at the concentration camp for three months and then was liberated by the U.S. military.
I looked into her eyes, which were still filled with the painful memories of that time so many years ago. She forgot nothing of it. I was looking at history personified and couldn’t look away. The moment was lost on my two children, ages 11 and 7, but she told both of them they could make a difference in this world. She is quoted in the Cattle Car experience as saying: “I believe in the power of one.” That’s why she’s sitting outside the cattle car that holds so many deep, penetratingly painful memories for her – because she believes people need to know what happened and need to know they can make a difference for good and not evil.
The Cattle Car Experience
The cattle car is hard to miss. When I went for the media event, it was in the parking lot of a local high school so it wasn’t hard to miss. It looks like a regular train car, albeit a little older and with steps leading up to the door.
The entire experience is about 20 minutes long. I went inside with a high school class of maybe 20 people. A representative from the organization that founded and runs the experience, Shadowlight, tells us a little bit about the train car, about the footprints on the floor that are easily noticeable, about how it was common to put at least 100 people inside a car like this. With about 20 people, it was not crowded but there wasn’t a ton of space either. I could not even imagine 100 people in that small space.
When the Shadowlight representative leaves, the show begins. You are asked to sit in the middle of the train car as images are projected on every wall of the car. It’s a 360, immersive experience that grabs your attention at first sight. As typical high school students do, the kids were talking as the Shadowlight representative left and closed the door but less than 30 seconds into the experience, they were quiet and watching and listening with attention.
Connecting to history
Reading about history is totally different than experiencing it in a way that puts you at the center of a historical event. Walking into the cattle car, imagining the horror, fear, and uncertainty the Jews felt pressed up against each other in that space, and then learning about the experience from those who actually went through it is an entirely other way of understanding history.
The film is presented so that you feel like you’re in the middle of the people who were forced into those train cars. People show up on the walls of the cattle car dressed in plain clothes with a yellow star pinned to their jackets. There are families, individuals, babies, children, soldiers.
Hedy and another survivor, Nate, tell their stories during the first part of the film. You learn about what happened when they arrived at the concentration camp, how the quick thinking of Nate’s father saved him from certain death, and the moment when Hedy saw her mother for the very last time.
Visualizing the Holocaust
The second part of the immersive experience is more graphic than the first half featuring Nate and Hedy. It is a lesson on how the Nazis carried out their destruction and has several disturbing photos of the Jews and other targeted individuals and groups of people held inside the concentration camps.
There are black and white images of the people stuffed inside barracks, half-starved children with their ribs protruding, and a photo of women holding their babies as they lined up outside the gas chambers.
The narrator explained that when the United States liberated those inside the concentration camps, the visuals were so stunning and unbelievable that President Eisenhower ordered photos be taken of everything so that people would never forget what happened or question the authenticity of the Holocaust. Words matter but images tell the stories – and those images should never be forgotten.
Shadowlight closes the presentation by asking guests to turn inward, to think about how they can love others instead of joining people who are promoting hatred. The goal of the organization is to provide “an immersive and interactive educational experience for students so that they can empathize with the stories of suffering during the Holocaust and be able to connect history to current prejudices”
The Cattle Car and Kids
Given the topic of the Holocaust and the atrocities committed against men, women, and children, the recommended age for the Cattle Car experience is at least 12 years old. But if parents want their younger children to do it, they are welcome to do that.
For myself, I really wanted my children, ages 11 and 7 (5th and 1st grade) to continue learning about the Holocaust through this exhibit. We have read Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, a story of a Jewish family who is aided in escaping the Holocaust, but their knowledge is age-level and they are still grasping the enormity of what happened.
Shadowlight suggested that the first half of the presentation inside the Cattle Car would be fine for my kids but the second half may be too heavy for them. So they sat with me inside the car for the first half and then they waited outside for the second half (thanks to the Shadowlight people who watched them!).
They had some questions after but definitely did not grasp the more deeply disturbing parts. And that’s ok for now. I wanted them to at least do something they may remember down the road that impacted their thoughts about history, helped them to understand the sacrifices and sufferings of so many families and individuals, and planted a tiny seed to instill compassion and love for others.
If you are claustrophobic, you may want to sit near the door. It’s an enclosed space but it’s not completely dark given the light that comes in from in between the boards on the sides of the train car.
After we went through the experience, I asked Hedy what she hoped young people took away from the exhibit, what they would remember.
“That they matter,” she said.
I wasn’t expecting that answer. Jordana Lebowitz, the founder of Shadowlight, walked up at that moment and I asked her how she and Hedy had met. She said that when she was 16, she went to Auschwitz. When she walked out of the gas chamber and obviously upset, Hedy was there and gave her a hug. Jordana said she couldn’t understand why Hedy was comforting her when it was Hedy who had lost everything at Auschwitz. Jordana told me she knew then that she had to do something to help people – particularly, students – today understand what happened there and to learn to be more compassionate and understanding.
Getting to talk to Hedy was almost surreal. Here was this person who had suffered so immensely and was still willing to use that suffering – in fact, use it standing right outside of something that made her experience all those terrible things over again – so that others would not go through what she did.
I told her I had the opportunity to go to Auschwitz years ago while on vacation and I passed it up. I still think about it and asked her if I should have gone. She paused, that pain coming back into her eyes, and nodded. But she also said, “it’s not for everyone.” One of her grandchildren does not want to go and she said that’s ok. Her selflessness and innate compassion struck me so deeply.
Experience the Cattle Car in Greenville, SC
The Cattle Car experience, which Southern NCSY is helping to bring to the Upstate by partnering with Shadowlight, will be in Greenville at the following locations It is free and open to the public. Shadowlight told me that Hedy is planning to be there.
Please reserve your timed tickets at the links below.
- March 16 (3-7 pm): First Baptist Greenville, 847 Cleveland Street, Greenville (register for a time slot here)
- March 17 (10 am – 4 pm) and 18 (10 am – 4:30 pm): Upcountry History Museum, 540 Buncombe Street, Greenville (ticket times can be reserved here).
- March 20 (9 am – 4 pm): Congregation Beth Israel, 425 Summit Drive, Greenville (register for a time slot here)
This is the first time that this exhibit is in South Carolina.