Immersive exhibit’s visit to St. John’s identifies silence as the enemy in the fight against hate
As has often been said, the truest expression of humanity is having empathy for people whose experience you don’t share. Two weeks of co-curricular programming at the Prep has laid bare the scourge of antisemitism and is now culminating with an immersive experience built to literally captivate participants in living history, heighten their empathic response, and even inspire change.
A collaboration between the St. John’s Prep Center for Mission and Research along with the School’s Religious Studies Department and Jewish Student Union (JSU) has brought a 360-degree exhibition to campus: a replica of the cattle cars used by Nazi Germany to transport European Jews and other minority groups to work and death camps. Tours of the installation began Wednesday morning.
The experience itself is stark. Visitors are ushered inside the uncomfortably confined, 300-square-foot dimensions of the rough-hewn boxcar before exhibitors shut them inside, sliding the single-panel door closed from the outside. The interior is thrown into blackness except for harsh gashes of light leaking through the cracks between a few sideboards. Tours are limited to 20 people, but occupants are immediately informed there were 80 or 90 victims jammed into each car for transport.
Projected on all four walls of the freightcar are images from the Holocaust anchored by voiceovers and oral histories that tell the story of two survivors. Hedy Bohm and Nate Leipcinger, both now in their mid-90s, were transported in cars just like the replica, but lived to tell the tale of the relocation and extermination of Hungarian Jews by Nazi Germany.
“Something different happens in the formation of a student when they encounter something that’s tangible and fosters relationship,” said Chris Bauer, the Art Coviello ’71 Director of Justice and Peace at the Prep’s Center for Mission and Research. “Even if that relationship is with a group of people who are deceased, they’re still accessing story in a way that cuts deeper because they’re immersed in it. It’s a different access point and that’s where empathy gets built. It’s one thing to understand something intellectually, it’s another to understand it with your heart. I think you need both, and this exhibit provides that heart piece.”
The cattle car project visits schools and community centers with the goal of educating participants about how hate is sewn and the resulting impacts. St. John’s students in grade 9 religious studies classes are participating in the program during their scheduled classes on May 3 and May 4. Other members of the Prep community were able to enroll in after-school sessions on both days.
“I’ve been to the concentration camps near Munich, and yet I was, until recently, largely unaware of the rise in hate crimes and anti-semetism in the last few years,” said a Prep student in the JSU, who wished to remain anonymous after finding himself emotionally shaken following his time inside the cattle car. “It’s disheartening and scary that normal people can be targeted in their everyday lives for something they might believe in. [There’s a narrative] that this sort of discrimination is ending, but no, it’s not.”
The Anti-Defamation League listed 2021 as the worst year on record for documented reports of harassment, vandalism, and violence directed against Jews. This upward trajectory, which remained steady in 2022, is part of a five-year rise in antisemitic incidents. Hate crimes more broadly have also escalated during the past half-decade; experts sometimes cast antisemitism as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for hate in general.
Never Too Early
Local clergy, school administrators from around the North Shore, members of the Prep’s Board of Trustees, and Danvers Police Chief James Lovell P’26 participated in an early morning tour of the exhibit on Wednesday. That group followed a visit by members of the JSU and their parents.
“It’s incredibly moving to place your feet and body in contact with real history like this,” said Taidgh McClory ’93 P’25, vice chair of St. John’s Board of Trustees. “To touch and feel the magnitude (of this genocide) is a different type of learning. You can read about it and a teacher can bring it to life, but only this kind of experience can make it personal.”
A teaching lab sponsored by the Canadian non-profit ShadowLight, the Hate Ends Now Cattle Car Project is designed to allow people of all ages, especially students, to more deeply empathize with stories of suffering from the Holocaust, connect that history to current prejudices, and internalize a sense individual responsibility to create a better tomorrow. The immersive experience is supported by a collection of authentic artifacts from the diaspora of Holocaust victims and survivors, including powerful examples of Nazi propaganda and hate speech.
“It’s never too early to start thinking critically about the world around you and how you can have an impact on that,” said Evelyn Riddell, an educator and historian for ShadowLight. “The question becomes: What can you do to make a positive difference?”
The broader community programming at St. John’s in recent days included a film-screening of the 2020 documentary “Shared Legacies,” which explores the coalition between the Jewish and African-American communities during the Civil Rights Movement as well as the need to rebuild that partnership. The Center also presented a Jewish and Catholic dialogue about responding to the rise in antisemitic acts across Massachusetts and the country. Panelists included part-time SJP Chaplain Fr. Jim Ronan, a 1962 graduate of the Prep, Rabbi Michael Ragozin from Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, and Deborah Coltin, executive director of the Beverly-based Lappin Foundation.
“As a faith-based, values-laden school, our unwavering goal is to form a community where each individual is known, valued and loved,” said Head of School Ed Hardiman, P’19 ’21 ’26. “The tenets of Catholic Social Teaching challenge us to be agents of change, work for the common good and confront antisemitism and hate in all forms. We share a common religious heritage with our Jewish sisters and brothers and, together, we are witness to and part of a challenging journey that demands action and a commitment to undoing the destructive forces of hate. Programs like the Hate Ends Now project empower us to engage in reflective discourse and help build bridges across the divides that exist in our society.”
In the closing moments of the ShadowLight program, the voice of survivor Hedy Bohm speaks to a different kind of bridge, one that she hopes will span the generations between her lived experience and the youth of today. “The young generation who dare to stand up and not stand by, who form their own ways of fighting prejudice and antisemitism—they are my hope. That they will be braver and stronger. The power of one, I firmly believe in. What one person can do if they put their mind to it—if they dare to be the best they can be.”