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Holocaust train sets off to tell the story of Auschwitz
A train has pulled out of a German railway station to travel more than six decades back in time. Its destination: hell on earth. The Train of Commemoration is a travelling exhibition dedicated to the children deported by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Over the next six months, it will visit 30 cities between Frankfurt and its final destination -- the Auschwitz death camp.
The train left Frankfurt station on Friday to begin a six-month, 1,864-mile trip through southern Germany to the Auschwitz Memorial near the present-day town of Oswiecim in Poland. It is scheduled to arrive on 8 May -- the 63rd anniversary of VE Day.
An estimated 1.5 million children and young people were rounded up between 1940 and 1944 and transported by the former state railway, the Reichsbahn, to the concentration camps. Fewer than 10 per cent survived. The exhibition train is made up of a vintage 1921 locomotive and four carriages detailing both the bureaucracy of genocide and the human responses to it.
The displays include Reichsbahn maps, letters, chronologies, laws and regulations, as well as official documents related to the railway's role in carrying children from across Europe to their deaths. There are also poignant letters, drawings and poems from some of the unwilling passengers who never made the return trip. The exhibition commemorates the Jewish, Sinti and Roma victims of the Nazis from Germany, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Greece, Poland and the former Soviet Union. It also aims to honour the aid organisations which helped to save children from the death camps.
"Trains were the decisive means of transportation for carrying people to the concentration camps and the ghettoes," said Hans-Ruediger Minow, of the private initiative which organised the exhibition. "At that time, it was only in the stations that other people witnessed the fate of the deported at all."
Many Holocaust survivors now live in Israel, struggling with mental health problems and physical handicaps related to their ordeals. Banded together in a new organisation called "Children of the Shoah", they plan to file lawsuits against Germany over the coming months for more money to help them live better lives.
Margot Kleinberger was 11 when she was deported from Hanover. "After we were persecuted everywhere on the streets for being Jews, we thought the trains would take us to a better place," said the 76-year-old. "But almost no one survived the camps where they took us." Stops along the train's route will be used to display the exhibition and to collect more photos and oral testimonies. The organisers say that the exhibition "serves as a warning against the return of racist hatred, right-wing extremism and national megalomania".
The question of how to commemorate the role of Germany's rail system in the Holocaust sparked controversy in October last year. At the time, the German Transport minister, Wolfgang Tiefensee, wanted the country's railway stations to host an exhibition organised by the anti-Nazi campaigner Beate Klarsfeld, which had already been successfully shown in France.
But Hartmut Mehdorn, the head of the Reichsbahn's successor Deutsche Bahn -- -- refused to allow the exhibit in its stations. "The subject is far too serious for people to engage with it while chewing on a sandwich and rushing to catch a train," he said.
The row ended in December when a deal was struck to have an exhibition in German stations and the Deutsche Bahn museum in Nuremberg. That display, which is not related to the Train of Commemoration, will open on 27 January -- the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.
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