Boxcar of death on display

Published February 14, 2007

FORT LAUDERDALE - Three teenagers were pushed onto a cattle car in 1943. Two days they stood in the sweltering car, lurching as the train rattled toward Auschwitz. Only one survived, the digits 5-7-7-7-9 tattooed on her arm.

Joyce Wagner trembled Tuesday before the weather-worn railroad car, just as she remembers trembling before a similar boxcar six decades ago in Poland.

"I was thinking - my brother, my sister. Where did we stand?" said Wagner, 84, of Lauderhill, her voice wavering. "I'm the only one who survived, from nine children."

Wagner and a few friends joined about 150 other Holocaust survivors at the Broward County Convention Center on Tuesday to view a railroad car of the type used to transport Jews from Poland's Warsaw ghetto to a Nazi death camp during World War II.

"We're here, thanks God - but so many perished," said Rose Chruztowski, who rode such a train to Bergen-Belsen, Germany.

"We went in that train to Bergen-Belsen, with no facilities where to go to the toilet, with everybody starving. I can't believe that I lived to today to see that wagon again," said Chruztowski, 83, of Milwaukee.

The 31-foot-long railroad car still bears a faint swastika stamped into the paint peeling off its side. It arrived in South Florida last month from Poland. Officials plan to park it on railroad tracks that end near the site of the planned South Florida Holocaust Museum, scheduled to open next year in Hollywood.

The Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in North Miami Beach is searching through six-decade-old train records to determine whether it ran such a gruesome route.

"This particular car was seized from the Germans at the end of the war on Polish territory," Rositta Kenigsberg, the center's executive vice president, said Monday.

"The trains were the indispensable ingredient that made all this happen," said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust historian who oversaw the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

About half the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust rode to their deaths in such trains, he said.