The vintage steam engine train that has steadily moved across Germany since November will halt today in Auschwitz, Poland, retracing the final stop on a route that thousands of Jewish children travelled during the Second World War, arriving only to meet their deaths.
Commemorating the Nazi transportation of Jewish children to the notorious death camp in Auschwitz, The Commemoration Train stirred up not only raw emotions but also controversy. Thousands of visitors here in Berlin stood in line to board the museum of photographs, biographies and letters beginning on April 13. In a move met with wide protest, the German railway, Deutsche Bahn, refused to let the train stop at Berlin’s central train station, citing a probable disturbance of train traffic and other technicalities. Eventually, the train was allowed to halt in the city’s Ostbahnhof, the central train station in the former East Berlin.
The real clincher was not just where the train was allowed to stop, but at what price. For the use of their tracks and exhibition space, Deutsche Bahn—which was only given a new name at the end of the war— charged the organizers of the train exhibit 100,000 Euros ($153,398 USD). Critics say Deutsche Bahn— then called The Reichsbahn— already profited once from the transportation of Jews. The Nazi state paid The Reichsbahn 4 cents per kilometer per child, half for children under 10, for the transport on rickety, crowded trains intended for cattle.
Perhaps realizing their image blunder, the Deutsche Bahn then announced it would donate the 100,000 Euros in operating fees to Jewish charities. The general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephen Kramer, called the offer a “selling of indulgences,” and said the Jewish community would vehemently reject the money. “It confirms anti-Semitic clichés, as if they could keep us quiet with 100,000 Euros,” he said on public radio last month.
But the controversy could be beneficial in bringing the memory of the Holocaust beyond the emotional level. Because we’re often so jarred by the horrifying images of cruelty and inhumanity, we don’t necessarily consider that there was a very precise financial machine driving the Holocaust. The list of companies that participated in and profited from the genocide of European Jews, homosexuals, Afro Germans, Roma, Sinti and disabled people is disturbingly long and possibly still incomplete. Only at the end of the 1990s did big names like Daimler Chrysler, Volkswagen and IBM begin to surface as companies that profited from the Holocaust.
The cruel fact is: the gas that sprayed out of the shower nozzles were first developed, tested and manufactured. The gold stolen directly from victims’ gold-tooth fillings were processed and re-sold on the market. Banks allowed theft of the funds of Jewish account holders. Real estate companies helped assure the Aryanization of neighborhoods. Life and property insurance policies of Jews remained unclaimed or were stolen. The cars, trucks, machines and weapons that perpetuated not only the war, but the business of transporting and murdering Nazi victims, had to be built (much of it through slavery) and sold. The Final Solution could have only been realized by the logistical transport of the train system built, maintained and operated by the Reichsbahn.
But Deutsche Bahn insists that it has paid its dues. The federally owned company lists its ongoing exhibit in Nürnberg’s Deutsche Bahn Museum about the role of the Reichsbahn during the Nazi era and its support of similar projects, as well as their “voluntary contribution” to the Memory, Responsibility and Future Foundation, a government initiative that paid over 4 billion Euros to almost 1.7 million people in 100 countries to forced laborers and other Nazi victims.
Still, Deutsche Bahn’s inflexibility and shallow attempt at revamping its image has left a sour taste in the mouth of many Berliners. “I think it was shameless of The Deutsche Bahn to expect the exhibitors to pay,” says Ulla Müller, who was born in Berlin at the war’s end. “Everyone knows that it was once the Reichsbahn and the role they played during the war.”
That role was precisely what sent Berliners in droves last month to tearfully board the moving exhibit and take in the heart-wrenching stories of the 4,660 Berlin children who were deported to Auschwitz.
“The Holocaust was thought out and planned in the German capital,” Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit said last month, in response to the controversy. “Berlin’s Jews were systematically brought by the Nazis to death camps . . . by train.”
Sixty-three years ago today, on May 8th, the trains finally came to a halt and the very long, still incomplete process of penance began.
- by Rose-Anne Clermont