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Germany

Deutsche Bahn Threatens Suit After Chief Called "Nazi at Heart"

Months of debate over the transport fees that Deutsche Bahn is charging a traveling Holocaust memorial escalated when a Jewish community leader called Bahn chief Hartmut Mehdorn "a Nazi at heart."

Rails leading to a building in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Rails in the former Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

"If Mehdorn had held the same position in the Third Reich he would have arranged the deportation of Jews with great conviction," Michael Szentei-Heise, a Jewish community leader said at the opening of the Zug der Erinnerung, or Train of Commemoration, exhibition in Dusseldorf on Sunday, March 9.

The German state railway company responded with a statement Tuesday that it was considering legal action.

"The remarks are unforgivable and we will ask our lawyers to look into the matter," the statement said.

Taxing the Train of Commemoration

The disagreement further escalated tension over transport fees that Deutsche Bahn is charging the Train of Commemoration exhibit, for the use of its rails and stations. Housed in a series of old railway cars, the traveling exhibit is set to visit 15 cities before arriving at Auschwitz in May.

A black and white photo of a crowd lining up at Auschwitz.

Victims were often brought by train to Nazi death camps

Initially, Deutsche Bahn had refused to host the exhibition in its stations, saying that the difficult subject matter, which traces the plight of the 11,400 Jewish children who were deported from France to Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944, deserved more than the divided attention of hurried commuters.

After drawing sharp criticism for their stance, however, the rail company relented and instead had to charge the exhibition organizers fees that, according to Szentei-Heise, total of "a laughable 100,000 euros ($166,000)."

"Head of the new Reichsbahn"

"We have nothing against serious exhibitions," a spokesperson for Deutsche Bahn told the Rheinischer Post newspaper Tuesday. "But we are obligated by law to collect fees."

Referring to Mehdorn as the "Head of the new Reichsbahn," Szentei-Heise used rhetoric that harkens back to the Nazi era. The Reichsbahn, the wartime predecessor to Deutsche Bahn, received 25 Reichsmarks, or about 25 euros for each child it transported to the camp.

The Zug der Erinnerung leaves Dusseldorf for Cologne on March 13 and will stop in an additional 14 stations throughout Germany before closing at the Auschwitz Memorial in May.

Number of survivors falling

The debate continued on the same day German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned Tuesday against allowing memories of the Holocaust to fade as the number of survivors of one of the darkest periods in European history dwindles.

"The survivors are leaving us," he said at a ceremony marking the opening of the secretariat of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research (ITF). The natural authority of their voices is fading.

"We have to make sure that the memory does not fade into the distance, become more abstract or disappears behind the veil of history," Steinmeier added.

The ITF was initiated by former Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson in 1998 and formally established at a founding conference in Stockholm in 2000. It currently has 25 member states and consists of governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Its aim is to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and promote Holocaust education and research as a means of countering anti-Semitic tendencies in society.

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