As a young Jewish girl living in Toronto, Jordana Lebowitz decided her purpose in life was to help keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
Lebowitz, now 26, was just 16 when she traveled to Poland and Israel with the March of the Living, an international program that educates people about the history of the Holocaust by taking them to these countries.
Three years later, while studying psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada, Lebowitz founded ShadowLightan organization that uses immersive programs to connect people to the Holocaust – and aims to ensure that such an event never happens again.
“We need to be aware of the issues in society, be it hatred, prejudice, genocide, even small acts of oppression here and there,” she said. “We must be able to stop those who are in their way before they become the Holocaust.”
Shortly after beginning his advocacy efforts, Lebowitz found a replica of a German cattle car, the kind used to transport about 100 Jews and others at a time from their homes to concentration camps run by the Nazis. It was “literally on the side of the street” behind Canadian filming company MK Picture Car Services, which had created the replica for a movie, she said.
It is now a replica of the exhibit “The Cattle Wagon: In and Out of Darkness” which promotes Holocaust education. In 2015, it started with displays of photographs and words on interior walls. In 2020, it had projectors and speakers to create an immersive experience that makes attendees feel transported in the car, much like Holocaust victims.
The freight car’s US leg of the North American tour began in December and traveled outside the University of Florida Hillel Jewish Organization building across University Avenue on Monday and Tuesday. , near Ben Griffith Stadium.
According to UF spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez, the originally requested location, which would have been on UF property, had already been booked by the time the Jewish Student Union made its request at the end. of last week. But, according to UF Hillel executive director Rabbi Jonah Zinn, the final location was the best.
“I had someone walk by the other day and say, ‘I walked by, I saw this, and I stopped my car because I had to pull over,'” Zinn said.
Videos of people playing the roles of Jewish men, women and children of the time are projected onto each interior wall of the cattle car.
During the free 21-minute experience, attendees heard from Holocaust survivors Hedy Bohm and Nate Leipciger, whose interviews are also projected on the walls. Videos and photos of concentration camps and their starving prisoners – dead and alive – accompany images of Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler and German war propaganda.
Jared Marino, 23, oversees the technical aspects of the program. A film graduate from Sheridan College in Ontario, he makes sure generators have gas, computers run smoothly and the internet is stable. Marino is also responsible for keeping everything operational when the equipment overheats, a problem the team does not encounter in the Canadian climate.
“It makes me so happy to be a part of something that changes some people’s lives,” he said. “It certainly changed mine.”
“The Cattle Car” is touring high schools and universities, but students aren’t the only ones enjoying the experience. UF Hillel associate director Stefani Rozen said she spoke to visitors Monday about an interfaith women’s group in Ocala.
Other participants live just down the street. Ashley and Ethan Fieldman, both UF graduates, drove up Monday from a few blocks north of campus while their children were in school.
Ethan Fieldman, who has visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, as well as the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, said the freight car replica is “as good as it gets” without having to travel to the stranger to learn more about the history of the Holocaust. Ashley Fieldman said, “It’s a lot more powerful than reading a book or even hearing about it.”
Cleo Gilmore, 21, of Jacksonville, is a UF junior studying psychology. Adopted by a Jewish family as a baby, she said much of what she saw and heard in Tuesday’s exhibit was not new. However, that didn’t change the way she felt in the freight car. She said it helped her see that “people like her” were crowded into reality during the Holocaust.
Gilmore said that while the reminder of the difficult history of Jews was saddening, she also felt feelings of frustration that anti-Semitism had not completely disappeared. She urged her Jewish friends to each bring someone who was not Jewish with them to the exhibition.
“It’s a reminder that it didn’t start or end with the Holocaust,” Gilmore said. “The Holocaust was just one example among many of anti-Semitism.”
Barrett Uhler, 33, of Fort Washington, Maryland, is a graduate student of critical museum studies at UF. When her classmate told her about the exhibit on Tuesday, Uhler knew she had to go. The car was only carrying a few other people when she got inside, but she said she was still taken aback when a volunteer closed the door to the outside.
For Uhler, learning the stories of the Holocaust from people who lived through it — even virtually — made the program both moving and realistic.
“The story customization and the environment work really well together,” she said.