Holocaust Memorial Center docent Abbe Sherbin tells the group about the Werkstattagen Nr. boxcar No. 4050 942 0784-3 during a tour Oct. 23 at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.

Holocaust Memorial Center docent Abbe Sherbin tells the group about the Werkstattagen Nr. boxcar No. 4050 942 0784-3 during a tour Oct. 23 at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.

Photo by Maria Allard

Holocaust Memorial Center visit is emotional, enlightening

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 3, 2019

 Grosse Pointe Woods resident Don Witt reads about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising while visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Grosse Pointe Woods resident Don Witt reads about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising while visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Photo by Maria Allard


FARMINGTON HILLS/GROSSE POINTE WOODS — The Werkstattagen Nr. boxcar No. 4050 942 0784-3 used by the Nazi Party during the Holocaust is a somber reminder of the horrors inflicted on innocent people as World War II raged.

The freight car is one of many artifacts located inside the Holocaust Memorial Center that tell countless stories of European Jews enduring prolonged train rides to their deaths under Nazi rule.

“They did not know where they were going or how long they would be on the trains,” Holocaust Memorial Center docent Abbe Sherbin told a group of Grosse Pointe Woods residents when they visited Oct. 23. “It could be very, very cold or oppressively hot. There was no food, no water, no air, no place to sit.”

And when the families arrived at their destinations — at concentration camps such as Auschwitz in Poland, Bergen-Belsen or Dachau, both in Germany, and others — they departed the trains confused, frightened and “greeted with orders in a language they didn’t understand,” Sherbin said.

The 55,000-square-foot Holocaust Memorial Center, located at 28123 Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills, is packed with photographs, displays, text panels, video testimonies, sculptures and more that outline the death and devastation of the Holocaust. The pictures are disturbing; the stories are heartbreaking. Hearing the grim details of how prisoners, who were once everyday citizens happily living their lives, working and raising their children, were brought to the death camps and slave labor ghettos while living in dismal barracks was part of the tour.

“There was absolute chaos. Children were separated from their parents. The very old and the very young and the weak and the frail were put in one line and marched off to the shower room,” Sherbin said. There, they were gassed to death. “The other grown-ups would be worked to death. They were given numbers and issued a uniform. No coats, no hats, no underwear. Stripped of their human rights.”

The visit was arranged through the Grosse Pointe Woods Community Center, which offers a number of day trips to various locations throughout the year. The Grosse Pointe Woods group was divided into two groupings: Sherbin took one group around while docent Ken Posner took another group. Grosse Pointe Woods residents and nonresidents were welcome on the tour.

“Very enlightening,” Grosse Pointe Woods resident Don Witt, 77, said. “I just looked and listened, trying to absorb everything. It was moving, definitely. We have to have this to say the future should be different than that.”

“More than 6 million Jewish (people) were systematically slaughtered at the hands of Adolph Hitler,” Sherbin said, adding that 1.5 million of them were children. “Hitler wanted this pure, superior Aryan nation. The only thing different than them is they were born Jewish.”

World War II lasted in Europe from 1939 to 1945, but the persecution of Jewish citizens began in 1933. Many non-Jewish people died during the Holocaust due to their religion, sexual orientation, politics, ethnicity or because they were disabled.

“Genocides like the Holocaust continue to occur every day around the world,” Sherbin said. “We study history and learn from the past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

The Holocaust Memorial Center’s core exhibits are “The Eternal Flame and Memorial Wall,” “The Museum of European Jewish Heritage,” “Descent into Nazism,” “The Postwar Period” and “The Camp System.” There is also “The Abyss,” in which then-U.S. military Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower required civilian news media and military combat camera units to record their observations. Sherbin’s tour included a stop at the center’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising exhibit, where countless Jewish residents were massacred. Warsaw is located in Poland.

“In the Warsaw Ghetto, Jewish property was confiscated. Jewish schools were closed. The inhabitants were forced to live in a 1-1/2-square mile area. They were under constant Nazi supervision to make sure they didn’t leave, or (to) confiscate food or medicine (being brought) into the ghetto,” Sherbin said. “Food rations were minimal. We have men that were forced into labor. They were being worked to death.”

During the tour, the visitors learned about people at that time, like Irena Sendler, who tried to save the lives of Jewish people. The museum’s Viola and Garry Kappy Anne Frank Tree Exhibit & Garden was another stop on the tour. The Holocaust Memorial Center was selected as one of 11 U.S. sites to receive a sapling from the tree that grew outside Frank and her family’s hiding place in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, from the Nazis during the war. Sherbin said that when she walks by the Anne Frank exhibit, she always gets goosebumps.

“She knew the seasons by the tree outside,” Sherbin said. “I see it as a symbol of hope and survival.”

“I was very, very impressed. It was very profound,” Patricia Cupples, 84, of Clinton Township, said. “I went to Catholic school. We were taught all this in history (class). The younger generation needs to be taught this. I think everyone needs to go there, school age, all ages. I see a rise in anti-Semitism all around the world. We need some kind of awakening. I hope we can all get together and love one another.”    

For Grosse Pointe Woods resident Aurora Honjas, 70, looking at the various maps set up in the museum was interesting. She said that visiting the museum was “emotional.”

Also moved was Marianne Hodge, 64, of Clinton Township.

“It’s quite emotional. They say you learn from history, and history can repeat itself,” she said. “My dad was in Poland when Hitler invaded Poland and World War II broke out. He went to Frankfurt, Germany, to join the American Army.”

Until Dec. 31, the museum will display the special exhibit “Kindertransport–Rescuing Children on the Brink of War.” The display, created and organized by Yeshiva University Museum and the Leo Baeck Institute, New York, illuminates the story of the Kindertransport, the organized rescue effort that brought thousands of Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe to Great Britain in the late 1930s.

For more information about the Holocaust Memorial Center, call (248) 553-2400 or visit www.holocaustcenter.org.

For information on the Grosse Pointe Woods Community Center day trips, visit the City Hall complex at 20025 Mack Plaza Drive or call (313) 343-2408.