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The Train Journey

The Train Journey: Transit, Captivity, and Witnessing in the Holocaust

Simone Gigliotti
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 254
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  • Book Info
    The Train Journey
    Book Description:

    Deportations by train were critical in the Nazis' genocidal vision of the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." Historians have estimated that between 1941 and 1944 up to three million Jews were transported to their deaths in concentration and extermination camps. In his writings on the "Final Solution," Raul Hilberg pondered the role of trains: "How can railways be regarded as anything more than physical equipment that was used, when the time came, to transport the Jews from various cities to shooting grounds and gas chambers in Eastern Europe?" This book explores the question by analyzing the victims' experiences at each stage of forced relocation: the round-ups and departures from the ghettos, the captivity in trains, and finally, the arrival at the camps. Utilizing a variety of published memoirs and unpublished testimonies, the book argues that victims experienced the train journeys as mobile chambers, comparable in importance to the more studied, fixed locations of persecution, such as ghettos and camps.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-927-7
    Subjects: History, Transportation Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Chapter 1 Introduction: A Hidden Holocaust in Trains
    (pp. 1-35)

    Kay Gundel, Anna Heilman, and Ruth Klüger—three women, three journeys, and indelible memories of captivity. There are countless stories about the horrors of deportation trains that were critical in the Final Solution, the Nazi euphemism for the mass murder of European Jewry during World War II. Irrespective of their origin of deportation, whether from Warsaw, Drancy, Salonica, or Westerbork, former deportees recall resoundingly similar experiences. Deceived into believing that deportation promised survival, seduced by the tantalizing lure of food, violently grabbed and beaten in houses and on streets, intimidated by death threats, volunteering to prevent the break up of...

  2. Chapter 2 Resettlement: Deportees as the Freight of the Final Solution
    (pp. 36-59)

    In his article, “German Railroads/Jewish Souls,” Raul Hilberg asked: “How can railways be regarded as anything more than physical equipment that was used, when the time came, to transport the Jews from various cities to shooting grounds and gas chambers in Eastern Europe?”¹ The railroads were a formative scholarly preoccupation for Hilberg, who trawled the archives, “pondering the special trains, the assembly of their rolling stock, their special schedules, and their financing.”² He concluded that in the hands of bureaucrats and technocrats, the railroads metamorphosed, becoming a “live organism” that “acted in concert with Germany’s military, industry, or SS to...

  3. Chapter 3 Ghetto Departures: The Emplotment of Experience
    (pp. 60-89)

    The unmaking of the modern railway experience began before victims were forced to board the trains. Roundups, unannounced inspections, ruthless extractions from apartments, and beatings were all features of the forced relocation from ghettos, towns, and villages. Observing the deportation of Jews from Salonica, Greece, Rosa Miller wrote: “And the Jews emerge, weighed down by their rucksacks, their bundles, their bags, loaded with baskets containing food for the journey ahead. Children press close to their parents, uncomprehending, fearfully following their every move. Older people have difficulty in walking, they stumble and fall sometimes, but everybody must carry their burden. Young...

  4. Chapter 4 Immobilization in “Cattle Cars”
    (pp. 90-127)

    With this letter, Zalmen Gradowski, a worker in a Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz, issued an invitation. Enter the “eternally traveling Jewish train,” he asked, a plea that is not limited to wartime trains if one looks at the image of the freight car housed in the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC (see Figure 4.1). The image of the freight car fuses historical space and contemporary memory practices. By looking at the platform of Auschwitz from the departure side of the rail car, the photo promises an Auschwitz arrival to the museum visitor....

  5. Chapter 5 Sensory Witnessing and Railway Shock: Disorders of Vision and Experience
    (pp. 128-168)

    To what extent do extreme experiences call for an extreme historiography? What discourse or critical response can do justice to the corporeal and psychological effects, among many others, of immobility in trains? The telling of such effects is as burdensome for the victim as it is for the person reading, listening to, or watching a testimony. Anthropologist Michael Jackson argues that the ethnographic impulse of “co-existence” with suffering is perhaps the most that can be achieved through an ethical engagement with the other.¹ Still, the quest for explanation remains paramount: “But can the intellectual succeed in accomplishing what the sufferer...

  6. Chapter 6 Camp Arrivals: The Failed Resettlement
    (pp. 169-202)

    The camps were not the destinations of promised resettlement. They were points of no return in a human-engineered system of death that polluted the landscape and survivors’ memories, with flames, smoke, and smell. Would not arrival at the camps offer relief from suffocation and stench in the trains? Preparations for arrival at the camp, and the process of unloading, prompted some deportees to return to the hopes they had when the journey began. But how could the promise of safe arrivals, of deportation as a journey of life, be securely carried into the camp world, considering the torments experienced in...

  7. Chapter 7 Conclusion: Memory Routes and Destinations
    (pp. 203-215)

    Conclusions are difficult to write. They promise findings and outcomes, claims and counterclaims. Where does the story of deportation begin and end? Is it more than a journey caught between rhetoric and pain? Why are the trains seemingly on standby to return us to the past, as though we had never left it? Although the Holocaust took place in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe, its memory routes remain open and continue to guide passengers to the dark places of compulsive return and witness. Recall the scene at Oswiecim, Poland on 27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation...

  8. Epilogue: Retelling Train Stories
    (pp. 216-223)

    On a trip to Europe in June and July 2007, the themes of transit and memory weighed heavily on me, as they had for many years. But the weight of that past was intellectual. I labored over it, daunted by the responsibility of the task, letting the experiences of the European victims defeat me and my limited abilities at telling their stories. I sorted through the testimony, the theory, what other people had said about deportation, and how people suffered because of it. Trains and trauma were known mainly through books and other people’s words, and not from experiences of...