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There is a replica Nazi cattle car currently parked a few feet off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This is the Hate Ends Now Cattle Car Exhibit, which the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation (PHRF) created in partnership with the Atlantic Seaboard NCSY and ShadowLight, with support from the Philadelphia 76ers and Philly Parks & Recreation. Its arrival at PHRF’s Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza coincides with the fifth anniversary of that site. It's an immersive experience meant to elicit empathy and understanding about the Holocaust and build knowledge around the circumstances that created it.
But why do we still care so much about the Holocaust? It was a long time ago, right? Didn’t we all learn about it in school anyway? And why did PHRF put a Nazi cattle car in the middle of a plaza on the Parkway?
In the middle of it all
Inside the cattle car, visitors will find 100 sets of footprints to represent each person who would have been crammed aboard during deportations. I was in there with about 20 people and had to frequently remind myself I could leave at any time in order to keep my claustrophobia from overwhelming me. When the door closes, the presentation begins. It features interviews with two Holocaust survivors, but as they speak, the walls are also filled with images of people being forced onto the car, facing down the barrels of Nazi rifles, being forcibly separated from their families. You are meant to feel like you are in the middle of this—and you do.
The second half of the program documents the rise of Nazism, the atrocities of the Holocaust, and its aftermath. It speaks of the victims and the survivors of antisemitism: “Their memories are now your memories. Do not let them fade into the dark.”
Because here’s the thing: the Holocaust is not ancient history. The camps were liberated less than 80 years ago. Before they were deported to concentration and death camps, the Jewish and queer and Romany and disabled and dissident captives had access to electricity, hot and cold running water, radio, movies, and family vehicles—just like people today. Televisions, although not a common household item, did exist. So did commercial air travel. Today, we can directly relate to life in the 1940s, probably more than WWII-era people could relate to life during the Civil War, which happened less than 80 years before the Nazis rose to power in Germany.
And there are still a small number of people alive today who were deported to the Nazi camps. There are fewer than 50,000 Holocaust survivors still alive in the United States. These include survivors who were too young to remember the atrocities of the Nazi concentration and death camps and those who are too old now to remember what happened then. The number of survivors who are able to bear witness to the Holocaust is much smaller—and the number of those who are willing to relive their trauma is smaller still. Within a generation, they will all be gone.
Denial is growing, along with hate
And despite the recency of these atrocities and the fact that many of its survivors are still alive, there are people today—people my age, people whose grandparents were of the same generation as these survivors—who couldn’t tell you how many Jews died during the Holocaust, who can’t name a single Nazi camp, who don’t know that Hitler rose to power through a democratic process, who even deny the Holocaust ever happened.
According to the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year, reports of antisemitic incidents in the US hit an all-time high in 2022. I just experienced one this week. As I joined my fellow journalists and other Philadelphians (some of them in religious garb marking them as visibly Jewish) at a preview of Hate Ends Now, a man walked through the press conference muttering about “the Jews.” Upon his removal from the site, he proudly, loudly, unabashedly yelled out, “Fuck the Jews!”
It is, in fact, imperative that we continue to care about the Holocaust.
The Hate Ends Now Cattle Car Exhibit would be stirring even if it didn’t land in Philadelphia the same week that saw the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. It would be stirring even if it wasn’t here just before the fifth anniversary of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. But what it is now isn’t just stirring: it’s important.
The Hate Ends Now Cattle Car Exhibit takes place in a replica of the cattle cars used in Nazi deportations, which is accessible only by stairs. Once inside, the program is about 30 minutes long, and seating is not provided.
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