Hitler’s Holocaust Railways with Chris Tarrant – Channel 5

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It’s a horrible irony that railways, once the ultimate symbol of human progress, were a sine qua non of the Nazi atrocities. Chris Tarrant’s said that he had nightmares after visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t, but it was certainly a very disturbing experience. When you’re there, you can see the railway lines which brought over a million people there from across Nazi-occupied Europe. Without the railways, it would have been almost impossible for the Nazis to have carried out mass murder on the almost unimaginable scale that took place. This programme saw Chris, in a journey through Poland, the Czech Republic and Poland, explore various aspects of what the Nazis did, and the role that the railways played in that.

There are a lot of historical railway programmes around these days. Most of them have quite a romantic feel to them. This one was chilling. It was cleverly done, with a long railway journey taking in various different places and tied in with the timeline of events.  And it was good that it didn’t just focus on the death camps – because some Holocaust programmes do do that, and it’s important to remember that many people either died in ghettoes, because of the conditions there, or were killed close to their homes, whether at large scale killing sites like Babyn Yar or in woodlands near isolated villages.

The programme began in Nuremberg. I’ve been to various places in Germany and very much liked most of them – I have particular soft spots for Cologne/Koln and Oberammergau – but I did get the creeps a bit in Nuremberg, so I was interested to hear Chris say that he found it unsettling as well. The Nazis held annual rallies there from 1923 to 1938, the infamous Nuremberg Rallies. Thousands of people attended them – and they travelled there by train. Those huge propaganda events could not have taken place without the railways, and Chris visited the main station where people would have arrived, and followed their tracks along the local line taking them to the area, now a sports field, where the rallies were held. The Nazis had it all very well organised. Chris said that he wouldn’t like to be there after dark. I’m not surprised.

From there, he travelled on through the Sudetenland, talking about how the railways made it possible for the Nazis to get their troops to all the countries they invaded. Movement of troops by rail’s been important since the mid-19th century, so it’s hardly something specific to the Nazis, but it was still a valid point. He was openly critical of the Munich Agreement, but that’s another story.

On to Prague – and this was one part of the programme which showed how the railways had been used for good, as we heard about the wonderful work done by Doreen Warriner and Nicholas Winton in helping refugees to leave what was then Czechoslovakia. Chris spoke to an elderly Jewish lady who, aged 12, had come to Britain on the Kindertransport. It was very moving hearing about how the children had been separated from their parents – although this lady’s family had eventually been reunited, and had all survived – but at least some lives, around 10,000 in all, were saved.

He then met another elderly Jewish lady, who’d been in the ghetto/camp at … the programme referred to it by its Czech name, Terezin, but I’d’ve thought it was better known by its German name, Theresienstadt. She travelled with him on the train journey, and went round the remains of the camp with him. Again, it needs to be remembered that many victims of the Holocaust died at sites other than death camps: around 33,000 people died at Theresienstadt. This lady, who later became an artist, had drawn pictures depicting her time there. One thing she hadn’t drawn, but bravely spoke about, was seeing a group of young boys hanged because they’d tried to send letters to the women’s part of the camp, to tell their mothers than they were OK.

Thousands of people were deported by train to Theresienstadt – and then the railway line was extended right into the camp, to facilitate the deporting of people from the camp to mass execution sites further east, and then, as the plans for the Final Solution were put into practice, to Auschwitz.

The pictures of those overcrowded trains, from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, carrying people to the extermination camps, are very familiar. Chris, as he travelled on to Berlin, touched on the subject of complicity. How much did people know?   He visited the site, now a memorial, from which deportations from Berlin to the death camps took place. Those being deported were made to pay for their own transport. And he travelled on one of the railway lines along which those trains travelled. It’s a sort of heritage railway now. People go for nice days out on it, like we might go on the East Lancashire Railway or the North York Moors Railway. As he said, they’ve probably got no idea of its history.

Into Poland – and his first stop there was at Gniezno. It’s supposed to have been the first ever capital of Poland. During the war, the Nazis operated a huge railway building yard there. They forced 150,000 prisoners to work on the railways, something that’s not often mentioned.

As Chris said, additional trains were needed because of the invasion of the Soviet Union – but, infuriatingly, he kept referring to it as “Russia”. It is very, very annoying when people do that, and, given the number of people killed by the Nazis in Ukraine and Belarus, it’s particularly annoying when people do it when talking about the Second World War. Whilst I’m having a moan, he also completely mispronounced the name of his next stop, Lodz, over and over again. The researchers should have checked that. Gah!

And he didn’t mention that it was a textile city. Well, I would have done. I’ve seen the sites of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettoes, and those in Vilnius and Riga, but I haven’t been to Lodz … but it always strikes a particular chord with me because it was a textile city, and referred to “Polski Manchester”. Anyway. Like all the major ghettoes, it was close to a railway station: people were brought there from many other places. The sites were chosen largely for that reason. Had Auschwitz, Oswiecim, not been close to a major railway junction, it’d just be a quiet Polish town which most people would never have heard of.

He travelled through the site of the old ghetto on a local tram, and pointed out the former Gestapo HQ, now a pharmacy. OK, I suppose they have to use the buildings for something, but … imagine going into a shop and knowing that it used to be a Gestapo HQ. Ugh. Once there, he met up with 89-year-old Arek Hersh, from Leeds, who, as an 11-year-old boy, was forced by the Nazis to work on the railways, taking away the bodies of men who’d dropped dead from overwork and starvation, and had later escaped from the Lodz ghetto before ending up back there and being taken to Auschwitz. He accompanied Chris for most of the rest of the programme.

The programme showed the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. In addition to the many graves of people who’d died in the ghetto, there were plaques commemorating those who’d been killed at Chelmno. Confusingly, whilst Terezin is better known by its German name, Chelmno is usually referred to by its Polish name, but the programme used its German name, Kulmhof. Oh well, the name doesn’t really matter that much. It was a kind of stately home and surrounding estate, out in the forest, which the Nazis took over and turned into a death camp. People, mostly from Lodz, were brought by train to the nearest railway station, and then taken to the camp by lorry. And it was the experimental death camp. They had mobile death vans. They probably looked a bit like ice cream vans or delivery vans or mobile libraries or whatever, but people were locked into them and poison gas from the exhausts diverted inside. Another step towards the establishment of the gas chambers.

And from there to Auschwitz, where, as I said, you can still see the railway lines which brought all those people there, most of them to their deaths.   There’s no way that all those people, or the building materials and supplies used there, could have been taken there without the railways. It’s so horrible that the railways, the wonderful, romantic railways which enabled people and goods to travel far and wide, which we associate with everything from The Railway Children to Brief Encounter to Harry Potter, with all those lovely heritage railway lines which you can travel on, with the incredible scenic railway trips which you can go on in Switzerland or Canada or India or the Scottish Highlands or any one of umpteen other places, with those really famous trains like the Trans-Siberian Express and the Orient Express, were used like that.

Arek Hersh showed Chris around Auschwitz, so to speak, and explained what conditions there had been like. Then Chris went alone to see the gas chambers. It was a really lovely sunny day, without a cloud in the clear blue sky. It was like that the day I went to Auschwitz, as well. It felt all wrong, somehow, as if it should have been snowing.

Chris spoke movingly about six million people having been killed in the Holocaust. I don’t like to criticise on a point like this, and it is a very sensitive and difficult subject to address – but no. No-one really knows how many people were killed in the Holocaust, but some estimates put the number as high as seventeen million. Certainly at least eleven million. It’s a difficult area, and it’s something that has unfortunately been exploited by far right elements in Poland, who claim that the killing of non-Jewish Poles is overlooked. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Many people who were not Jewish were also murdered by the Nazis – Roma and Sinti people (many of whom were killed at Auschwitz or Chelmno), Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Serbs, and people from Germany and elsewhere because of their political or religious convictions, or because they were gay, or because they had physical or mental disabilities. I really don’t like to criticise on such a sensitive subject, but the programme could have made that clear.

Arek Hersh told Chris about how he’d been taken on one of the death marches, in the snow, with temperatures 25 degrees C below freezing, as Red Army approached and the Nazis evacuated the camp. He’d been moved from camp to camp – and then taken on one last railway journey, on a coal train, to Theresienstadt. He was liberated by the Soviets, and was one of the “Windermere Boys”, the 300 young Holocaust survivors brought Windermere to recuperate. Windermere, to where, from the 1840s, where trains have carried so many people from industrial parts of Northern England to spend some time in the most beautiful part of England. Most historical railway programmes are about romance and beauty. It sounds daft, when you think how mucky steam trains can be, but it’s true. This one was anything but.

It was very well put together, and it explained different aspects and different stages of the Nazi atrocities very clearly. Chris was obviously moved by what he saw, and it must have been difficult for the three people he spoke to to discuss their experiences, but it was done sensitively without ever being lecturing or over-emotive.  A good job done on a very difficult subject.

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Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman

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Earlier this month, the Italian government announced plans to carry out a census of Roma people.   Last week, an attack on a Roma camp in Lviv left one person dead and several others injured; and it wasn’t the first attack on a Roma camp in Ukraine recently.  The president of the Czech Republic has described Roma people as “asocial”.  There’s also been “ethnic cleansing” of Roma people in Kosovo – an area much in the news this week, for rather bizarre reasons relating to Swiss footballers – due to allegations that they sided with Serbia during the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s.  Stalin used false allegations of siding with the enemy to deport thousands of Chechens and Crimean Tatars from their homes.

A lot of Nazi-related terminology is being used lately, in relation to everything from American immigration policies to the World Cup.  Some of it isn’t being used appropriately, but the Italian government’s plans, in particular, do have worrying connotations of what happened during the 1930s and the Second World War.

It’s not known how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, but estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials, and, despite the designation of August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day, the Romani genocide is not widely discussed and maybe not even widely known..

There doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as might be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  The only two books I’ve found on it in English are And The Violins Stopped Playing, which I read earlier this year, and this one.  And The Violins Stopped Playing was a memoir, written in the form of a novel, given to a non-Romani third party to publish on the author’s behalf.  This one is written by an American Jewish woman whose German Jewish father escaped from Nazi Germany, and who says that she had always felt an affinity with gypsies (she used the term “gypsies” in the book, published when that term was still widely used) because of the Holocaust, in which many members of her family were killed.

So neither of them are “direct” memoirs as such, but, in writing this, Toby Sonneman worked closely with Reili Mettbach Herchmer, a Sinti woman who’d moved from Germany to America, and some of her relatives, most of them living in Germany, who told of the horrors they’d experienced under the Nazi regime.   It’s not a very well-written book, it has to be said.  The grammar and syntax leave rather a lot to be desired, and it jumps about a lot.  However, what is has to say is important.

For a start, it explains clearly the difference between Roma and Sinti culture, which very few books do.  There have been Sinti communities in central and northern Europe for many centuries.  Roma communities lived mainly in southern and eastern Europe – many in the Danubian Principalities (that’s me using the term I’m used to from reading a lot of Russian history!  The areas that are now, roughly speaking, Romania and Moldova), where it was legal to hold Roma people as slaves until 1856 – until the 19th century, when some groups moved into other areas.  When I was a kid, gypsy (the term we used then) ladies would sometimes knock on the door, selling pretty lace or clothes pegs: I didn’t know until this week that that is a Sinti “thing” only, and it would be very unusual for a Roma lady to do that.  So that’s all quite interesting to read.  It’s so easy to lump cultures and traditions together – the author uses the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish cultures and traditions as a comparison.

However, the book is about the Romani genocide – I’m not going to say “Porajamos” because that term isn’t generally used by Sinti and Roma people – and not about culture and tradition.  A textbook would start with something scholarly.  This starts with strudel.  Reili, who like Toby’s father was from Bavaria, welcomed Toby to her home with platefuls of strudel.  A relative of mine always used to make strudel when we went to visit her.  Did the recipe come from her grandma, who was born in Austria?  I don’t know, and, seeing as she’s been gone for nearly twenty years, I can’t really ask her now, but Toby Sonneman made such a good point about how it’s recipes that get passed down through the generations.

Some people emigrate because they’ve been offered good jobs in another country.  However, historically as now, most people have emigrated to escape poverty and or persecution, and have taken very little with them but the clothes on their backs – but they’ve been able to take recipes, in their heads.  A couple of generations down the line, the descendants of those immigrants don’t speak their language, and, in many cases, don’t dress like them, or follow their cultural or religious practices, but the food tends to live on.  And spread.  Manchester’s Curry Mile, the Birmingham baltis, the Scouse (originally lobscouse) brought to Liverpool from the ports of the Baltic, the New York bagel, the ice cream vans that bear Italian surnames, the Swiss origins of the lovely cakes you get in Bettys … and, if you believe the story, the original recipes for fish and chips were brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  There are a million and one other examples: being a very greedy person, I could write about food all day.

I know it seems a strange thing to pick up on, when writing about a book about genocide, but it is very true that food tends to survive everything.  Toby Sonneman said that recipes were the nearest thing that her family had to heirlooms.  The same could probably have been said about Reili Mettbach Herchmer’s family.  It’s an interesting thought.

Another point she made was that the Romani genocide doesn’t have a “face” in the way that the Jewish Holocaust has Anne Frank.  It’s horrible to think of someone as being the “face” of a genocide, or of any other form of horror and persecution.  There was a lot of talk in April, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, of Stephen being the face and the personification of the horrors of racism in the UK.  The famous picture, in September 2015, of the dead body of little Alan Kurdi focused attention on the Syrian migrant crisis.  I’ll never forget the faces of Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, the two young lads killed by the IRA bombing in Warrington in 1993.  No-one’s legacy should be that, to personify and symbolise such horror – but it is so very true that it’s the personal accounts, and the faces, that really bring it home to people just what has been done.  All those shoes, and false teeth, that you see in the museum at Auschwitz, all of which once belonged to someone.  And that’s why personal accounts are so important.  They do a lot of things that all the scholarly works in the world can’t.

A lot of Holocaust memoirs have been published, even if not by Roma and Sinti survivors, and that means that a lot of what’s in this book is tragically familiar – the introduction of laws persecuting particular groups of people, the taking of people to concentration camps, the experiments carried out by Josef Mengele and others, the question of whether or not those living close to the concentration camps – Dachau is very close to residential areas outside Munich, where many of the Mettbach family lived – knew what was going on, the horrific conditions in the concentration camps, and, of course, the gas chambers.  But every personal story is that little bit different, every experience is that little bit different.  And it is personal – and personal accounts are what really brings it home to the reader.

There’s also a lot in this book about forced sterilisation.  That isn’t really addressed in And The Violins Stopped Playing, and it’s not generally addressed in the memoirs of Jewish survivors because it was Roma and Sinti people who were the target.  The idea of the Final Solution would have meant that forced sterilisation of Jewish people was pointless, because they wouldn’t live to have children, but there seems to have been some idea of … a postponed genocide, for lack of a better way of putting it, by preventing Roma and Sinti people from being able to have children.  Former soldiers were even given a choice of going to the gas chambers or being sterilised and then released.  There are some graphic and very distressing descriptions of what was done to Reili’s relatives, both male and female, some as children, some as adults.

This has never been spoken about much until recently, because of cultural taboos, but it should be noted that forced sterilisation of Romani people was carried out in the 20th century in a number of countries, including Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, the last places you’d associate with that sort of policy.  It was particularly common in Czechoslovakia, and then in the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the country split into two, and was going on as late as 2003 or 2004 – yes, 2004.  An online petition was launched earlier this year to demand compensation for those affected: this is not something that’s just part of the past, this is something that’s affecting people to this very day.

This isn’t the world’s greatest book, but it’s an important reminder of something horrific, that happened within living memory, that is still not spoken about very much.  And can you imagine the headlines, and the international outrage if the Italian interior minister announced plans to carry out a census of any other community?   But next to nothing’s been said about this.  It’s horrible.  It’s frightening.  A lot of unpleasant stuff is going on in Europe and in the United States at the moment, but this is arguably the worst of it.  This isn’t a great book, but it would be great for people to read it.