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Holocaust Museum & Cohen Education Center

Nazi boxcar dedicated in Naples, a reminder of atrocities

By I.M. STACKEL, Published January 27, 2008

“God bless mama America,” Virginia Bukowski called out joyously after a speech or song. “God bless mama America.”

Bukowski was in a Nazi concentration camp because she defied the Germans when they entered Poland.

She wasn’t Jewish.

All she did was tell the Nazis that they wouldn’t succeed, and shouldn’t be there.

The St. Agnes Catholic Church of Naples member attended the dedication of a Nazi boxcar on Sunday at the Naples Depot because she witnessed, and survived, the atrocities committed against 12 million people during World War II.

Bukowski and her daughters Carol and Wanda were three of thousands who turned out Sunday to ensure that a power like Nazi Germany will never again be allowed to rise.

Rabbis, priests, imams, ministers, pastors of every shape, color and personal commitment, turned out Sunday, along with political and civic leaders, taking the stage to speak out against any kind of tyranny or persecution that would ever again invite genocide.

The unity alone could cause one to weep.

Three years ago, the United Nations declared Jan. 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day, because on that date in 1945, advancing Soviet troops liberated the largest Nazi death camp: Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland.

Anatole Kurdsjuk is also a survivor. Not because the North Fort Myers man was or is Jewish. He was merely Russian and the Nazis didn’t like Russians. So, Kurdsjuk and his family were dragged off to a German slave camp before being liberated by Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Kurdsjuk moved to the U.S. and served in the Air Force.

He remembered the Nazi boxcars.

“We were in that upper corner,” Kurdsjuk said, pointing to the boxcar that Jack Nortman and his family located, purchased and brought over to Naples last year. The 10-ton freight car arrived from the Port of Rotterdam, Netherlands in May, and has been undergoing restoration since.

It wasn’t that boxcar Kurdsjuk and his family were forced into, but might as well have been.

Measuring 10 feet in width and 30 feet in length, between 90 and 130 men, women and children were crushed into each boxcar en route to one of the Nazis’ numerous concentration camps.

Through a pilot program, the boxcar will be used as a traveling educational tool, visiting Collier County schools this year. Eventually, organizers hope to visit schools throughout Southwest Florida.

The goal is to never, ever forget that cruelty and atrocities can result when people don’t stand together to prevent them.

Fort Myers resident Paul Tenenbaum attended Sunday’s event because he and his family also survived. His Jewish family was hidden and protected for 3½ years by a Christian family in Belgium.

“We owe our lives to them,” Tenenbaum said. He came to the United States in 1950 and immediately joined the U.S. Army, in which he served for 16 years, something the Korean War veteran calls a “privilege.”

Many thanks were given, but one seemed to catch Jack Nortman by surprise.

It was a plaque presented by Naples Mayor Bill Barnett from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, honoring Nortman for his work in finding, restoring and presenting the boxcar to the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” Nortman said, adding that he is amazed that the entire Southwest Florida community could come together with a sense of obligation to stand against bigotry and violence.

Nortman’s parents “inexplicably” survived the camps, he said.

In addition to numerous local dignitaries and spiritual leaders, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp spoke at Sunday’s event, as did U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, and Frank Dewane, Bishop of the Venice Diocese. Dewane said that he visited Auschwitz last year with a group of various spiritual leaders, and walked along the train tracks that led to one of the Nazis’ most notorious death camps.

“We walked in silence,” Dewane said, all of them devastated by what those grounds represented. Most heart- and soul-wrenching in that “factory of death” was a display case containing childrens’ shoes, he said.

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