Restored boxcar destined for Dallas Holocaust Museum

Sharon Grigsby The Dallas Morning News
Friday, March 15, 2019

AP PHOTO
Jeff Green, left, and Dennis Manske erect a door on March 8 on the rail car to be displayed at the new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum under construction in Dallas.

DALLAS (AP) — When the archivist at the Dallas Holocaust Museum began looking for the right person to restore local survivors' prized artifact, a World War II-era German boxcar, Ron Siebler's name came up half a dozen times in the first 20 minutes.

In the two and a half years since, Siebler hasn't had a decent night's sleep.

"There's enormous pressure. They've entrusted this to me and that's a big, big deal," the Dallas historic preservationist recently said his team erected the restored boxcar in the museum's new home, which will open in September.

In the early 1980s, about 150 Holocaust survivors who called Dallas home wanted to educate others about the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II death camps and to create a place to mourn the loss of family members and friends.

On behalf of that group, Mike Jacobs traveled to Belgium to secure the boxcar, which was built in Germany and sent to Belgium as part of World War I reparations. After invading Belgium in 1940, Hitler's forces seized the entire rail system, including this car, for military use.

No documentation exists on whether the Dallas rail car, installed in 1984 in the basement of the Jewish Community Center, transported Jews to their deaths. But to the local survivors who were part of those harrowing journeys, that didn't matter. As Jacobs told museum visitors up until his death in 2014: His group had reclaimed an artifact that was not just one of the most iconic symbols of the Holocaust but was their reality.

Already more than a half century old when it arrived, the boxcar was twice torn apart and reconfigured in Dallas — many of its pieces stored or thrown out. Altered first to fit into the JCC basement, the rail car was reconfigured again in 2005 to occupy a spot in the museum's 6,000-square-foot West End space.

As plans took shape for the new 55,000-square-foot Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, stakeholders and staff considered acquiring an intact World War II-era boxcar to replace its ramshackle original — but wisely chose to stick with their own.

The "basement boxcar," broken down as it might be, is the link to the local survivors' original vision for a Holocaust museum. And it is revered by many in the community, including the scores of parents and grandparents who saw the rail car as kids and who have since accompanied their own children on school field trips to the museum.

Like many longtime North Texas residents, Siebler first saw the weathered red boxcar three decades ago in the JCC basement, and his voice broke as he described his first encounter with this "accessory to murder."

Trains have entranced Siebler all his life. "I have this wonderful memory of them bringing family members to me, not taking family away — and certainly not taking families away to their deaths."

Years later he heard the atrocities that his father witnessed during his World War II service and the horror stories of one of his wife's inlaws. When the Germans invaded her Polish homeland in 1939, she fled with her Jewish family to Russia, where they were deported to a forced labor camp. It wasn't the Holocaust, but as the family member described it, death was always around the corner in the Gulags.

Siebler says that the boxcar restoration has challenged him to grow at every turn — not just technically but emotionally and spiritually. "The history, the images and the personal stories I've heard from those who lived through it are never far from my being."

Because of the boxcar's repeated teardowns, Siebler first had to gather the many random pieces that had been stored through the decades and determine what had been tossed out or lost.

"There was no roadmap for putting it all together — it was a game of architectural sleuthing to find the holes," Siebler said. About 58 percent of the final boxcar will be original and the other 42 percent created with period-appropriate materials and using tools and processes from 100 years ago.

Siebler hired more than 30 artists and craftspeople to help and he's adamant about extending credit to each of them. For example, Fort Worth craftsman Dennis Manske has spent countless hours shaping 100-yearold timber needed to fill gaps in the boxcar.

Manske brings his own personal mission to the restoration. His mother was German and his grandfather was a tank commander in Hitler's army. His parents met in Berlin, where his dad was stationed in the U.S. Air Force. That heritage makes him passionate about getting the work just right: "I feel an emotional attachment to it — like I'm doing something to make a difference, especially in today's climate."

Understanding the history of the Holocaust is a requirement for each member of Siebler's team. "Everybody who has worked on this is sensitive to what the project is and recognizes that while this boxcar may not have carried human cargo to the killing centers, even if it was hauling freight for the Nazis, it was enabling other cars to transport Jews."

Siebler's name is well known in North Texas historic restoration circles. His work includes the Pilot Grove Church and the MKT Depot and flatcar at Dallas Heritage Village and Dallas' Sharrock-Niblo log cabin. He has a shelf's-worth of local preservation awards; in May, his restoration of the Lawrence Farmstead outbuildings in Mesquite will receive Preservation Dallas' Gail Thoma Patterson Award.

Local documentary filmmaker Mark Birnbaum, who has chronicled several of Siebler's projects, said it's impossible to overstate the significance of the boxcar work. "Every marking from the original car, every board, every piece of steel that Ron has endeavored to preserve ... It's just a great honor to be associated with it."

Mary Pat Higgins, museum president and CEO, said Siebler's North Texas roots — as well as his talent and resume — made him the perfect fit for the boxcar project. "Ron has been a consummate artisan but, more than that, a caretaker of this artifact that is so precious to us."

Her hope is that the restored boxcar will fulfill the wishes of those 150 survivors — to build empathy as visitors better understand that "the Holocaust is not a European story or a Jewish story but a humanity story."

Siebler acknowledged he's sleeping a little easier in the last week or so as the installation work wraps up. "But there will never be another opportunity that is this personal, this challenging and this important."

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