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Artifact Rots Away at Holocaust Museum

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A boxcar that may have been used to transport as many as 100 people at a time to their deaths at Nazi concentration camps has been rotting away in front of the Virginia Holocaust Museum for more than a decade.

Built in Germany in the 1920s or '30s, the boxcar came to Richmond across the Atlantic through the efforts of Holocaust survivor Alex Lebenstein in 2003. Assistant curator Megan Ramsey says it's the museum's most important artifact.

The conservation company hired to provide preservation tips had one important guideline, she says: "Keeping it on the street with the weather and the traffic is the worst thing you can do."

The boxcar has sat amid both for 11 years.

Ramsey says it was impractical to move the boxcar indoors. The tobacco warehouse that the museum has occupied on East Cary Street since 2003 is a historic building with limited options for creating space. And the museum couldn't afford to build a permanent shelter for it.

So officials seized an opportunity this month. They campaigned to designate the boxcar as Virginia's most endangered artifact through an online contest run by the Virginia Association of Museums. While the title comes without money, Ramsey says, she hopes it will begin a conversation about better preserving the boxcar.

"A lot of people, when they go to a museum, don't think about having to take care of these items for generations to come," she says.

The immediate restoration issues aren't a financial issue — the boards that are warping and rotting get replaced every few years for a few hundred dollars. But the museum hasn't made plans to establish permanent shelter for the boxcar because it says the cost and potential permitting issues with the city could be prohibitive.

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