The picture above is a photograph of a rail track I pass over nearly every day. Yesterday, when I passed it, I had to think of all those who went on train journeys and never returned.
The trains that travel over this rail track are comfortable, They have soft seats you can sit on, and some even have restaurant facilities on board.
On 20 January 1942, a conference was held in Berlin and became known as The Wannsee Conference. It was there that they decided what to do with the remaining Jews in Europe, not only occupied Europe but also The United Kingdom and Ireland. The Nazis wanted to murder all 11 million Jews in Europe. They called it, “The Final Solution.“
It was on that day when they decided that all Jews, Roma, undesirables, and non-Aryans, were to be transported by train to the concentration and extermination camps.
Trains were used before that, but more to concentrate the Jewish populations in the ghettos or to transport them to forced labour and concentration camps for economic exploitation.
Not like the luxury trains that pass the rail track above. The trains the Nazis used didn’t have the same facilities. The Nazis used both freight and passenger cars for the deportations. There was neither food nor water available on those trains. The toilet was one bucket for the hundreds of people per wagon. The people were deported in sealed freight cars with extreme heat in summer, freezing temperatures in winter, and the stench of urine and excrement. Some were transported in passenger cars, but the majority were deported on cars which were originally built to transport cattle. The difference was the cattle would have been a lot more comfortable because there were fewer of them, and they would be fed and given water. Without food or water, many of the deportees died before the trains reached the camps. Armed guards shot anyone trying to escape. They even had to pay for the train tickets. Everyone was pushed into the trains regardless the age, sex, or health condition. Young babies, pregnant women, people of old age, and sick people all in one car.
There is no denying how the railway transports of the Deutsche Reichsbahn operated. However, all other Railway companies across occupied Europe complied and were therefore complacent.
In France, it was the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français railway, or short SNCF. It became an instrument of death during the Holocaust. Under German occupation, it provided the trains that transported 73 convoys of Jews eastwards. French railway workers operated the trains until they reached the border with Germany, where they were replaced by German staff
In the Netherlands, Westerbork became the main transit camp in 1941 and the first deportees left on 15 July 1942. The final train left on 13 September 1944, with 279 Jews on board. Among those deported from the camp were 245 Sinti and Roma. Approximately 100 trains left Westerbork.
The prisoners at Westerbork lived from transport to transport and between hope and fear. The evening before a departure was unbearable because the names of those who would be transported were announced then. The next day there was no escape. Sometimes as many as 70 people with all their bags were crammed into each filthy boxcar of the lengthy train.
A representative of the National Westerbork Memorial, Dirk Mulder, said in a TV interview that the NS(Dutch Railways) had “complied with the German order to make trains available. The Germans paid for it and the NS had to come up with a timetable. And the company went and did it without a word of objection.”
There are some miraculous stories of survival though.
Mirjam Lapid-Andriesse was 10 years old when she was taken from her home in the Dutch city of Utrecht and placed in an Amsterdam “ghetto” with her family in April 1943. In an interview with the BBC, she recalled her memories.
“I was a little girl during the war, so my memories are childhood memories, not political, I was the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls. I remember we were taken from the ghetto by train to the Westerbork transit camp in June 1943.”
Shortly before the war ended, the Nazis began destroying evidence of concentration camps, including sites and documentation, and transporting prisoners to other locations within Germany. It was at this time, as Mirjam was travelling through Germany in 1945 on one of three trains that had departed from the camp at Bergen-Belsen, that she recalls the moment she was freed.
“Our train was known as The Lost Train,” she said after the vehicle intended to travel to Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic, was forced to reroute due to bombing, before stopping in the small German village of Tröbitz. Many of the people on board died in transit due to malnutrition and illness. I celebrated my 12th birthday on the train, on 17 April 1945. Since then I celebrate my second birthday on 23 April—the day we were liberated by the Russian army in Tröbitz, where we were held for two months. We were then returned to the Netherlands.”
Mirjam was one of the few lucky ones. Most went on a journey of no return.