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Holocaust Relic Helps Community Heal

Boxcar sparks talk of tolerance in St. Petersburg, Fla.

At first glance, it looks like just a rusting red-brown railroad boxcar. Little would one know that it arrived recently from Poland, where it was once used to transport people on their way to death camps.

At a September ceremony honoring its arrival in St. Petersburg, Fla., Boxcar No. 1130695-5 became not only a part of a history lesson but also a metaphor for needed human harmony, a healing tool in this city torn not so long ago by violent racial riots.

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Hundreds of residents of all ages, religions, and races gathered downtown to follow the 15-ton wood-and-steel cell - one of three Nazi-era boxcars on display in the United States today - as it was being rolled to the new location of the Tampa Bay Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Center.

When the museum formally moves to St. Petersburg in February - it is now in a smaller location in Madeira Beach - it will be the fourth-largest Holocaust memorial in the country. The boxcar will be its centerpiece exhibit, a tool to teach "how to fight hate, bigotry, and prejudice," says Larry Wasser, president of the museum's board of directors.

"It's for the whole city," said Debbie Sembler, a resident whose daughter, fourth-grader Tayllor, was a candle bearer in the ceremony designed to inspire unity and tolerance.

Unity is something St. Petersburg needs. A year ago, blocks from where Mrs. Sembler stood on the day of the boxcar ceremony, south St. Petersburg exploded in violence following the killing of a black teen by a white police officer. A crowd of angry black youths roamed a 25-block area of this disenfranchised neighborhood for days, throwing rocks and burning buildings. It took the Florida National Guard to quell the racial trouble, the worst scene here in years.

The violence destroyed more than buildings. It shattered expectations, aspirations, and friendships in south St. Petersburg, a depressed area in this otherwise tranquil retirement haven of 240,000 on Florida's Gulf Coast.

As America's cities and educators scramble to find ways to teach tolerance, many say the St. Petersburg boxcar can be a part of the solution. It can be effective as "a healing station for the possibilities of the future," said Frank Peterman, a councilman who represents the southside.

DeAnne Lewis, a quiet young woman who lives in south St. Petersburg, had not wanted to attend the ceremony. But as she watched the boxcar being coaxed onto tracks originally from Trebinkla, the Polish concentration camp, she found herself listening intently.

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She remained silent when Mary Wygodski recalled her own experience in the boxcar that transported her from the Wilno ghetto in Poland to Kaiserwald in Riga, Latvia: "There were about 40 boxcars in each convoy and over 100 people were jammed like sardines in one car; the openings were bound with barbed wire," Ms. Wygodski told the crowd, her English still bearing traces of her native Polish. "For the length of the journey there was no food or water. Older people and children suffocated and died en route."

"I was sad and hurt," said Ms. Lewis, who graduated from Dayton Beach Sea Breeze High School in St. Petersburg. She said that she had not known about the Holocaust, about Hitler, about Jews and others being slaughtered until she came to the boxcar ceremony. "I felt sorry for the kids."

As the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, was being read, Lewis came closer to the tracks. Following close behind was a crowd of seventh-graders, Holocaust survivors, their families, the head of Tampa's Seminole community, and others.

"I lit candles for the kids," Lewis says. "I did it to pay my respect to the people who lost their loved ones. I know how it feels."

It was her younger brother who was killed by the police last year, the event that triggered the race riots in her community. Tyron Lewis died when police, who said he had been speeding, fired into his car.

His sister was among 14 youths attending the boxcar ceremony as part of a required assignment for a class in the Urban League's vocational program.

Many of the students who had been lukewarm about attending the museum's opening returned transformed, said Sherrie Lester, Lewis's teacher.

After the ceremony, many black students asked for books and discussions on the Holocaust. "It was mind-boggling for them," Ms. Lester said. "For so many years the only thing they'd learned was that it was their people who'd been oppressed."

One student, Terry Bradley, said the Holocaust put his own experience into perspective: "It was not only blacks being slaves."

And LaToya Henderson remembers being shuttered in her apartment when the riots broke up almost a year ago. Today, she sums up the hope for what the new Holocaust museum may help to accomplish. After the boxcar ceremony, she wrote:

"If everyone would open their eyes they would see that we all cry tears ... and have feelings."

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