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.