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Memory Train

DW staff (jen)January 7, 2008

Organizers of a rolling exhibit that highlights the role of the German transport system in the Holocaust have complained of a lack of support from Germany's largest national railway company.

Margot Kleinberger, who lived through the Holocaust, visits the exhibit in Frankfurt
Margot Kleinberger, who lived through the Holocaust, visited the exhibit in FrankfurtImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The citizens' action group that created the Train of Commemoration, a vintage steam locomotive hauling two carriages containing pictures of child Holocaust victims, has begun touring German cities since early November. It is to reach the Auschwitz death camp in Poland on May 8.

But the group claims it has fought resistance from federally owned German railway concern Deutsche Bahn every step of the way. Representatives are particularly angry that they have to pay the same fees as any other private train operator to use the German railway tracks, despite the company's historic involvement in the transports.

Deutsche Bahn acknowledged on Friday, Jan. 4, that it was charging the group the same toll for track use as other private train operators. A Bahn spokesman said the company had to treat all customers equally.

Bahn's historic responsibility

The Train of Commemoration group argues that the Bahn must face up to its historic responsibility as the transport provider to the Nazis. It said the tens of thousands of euros of tolls charged to the rolling exhibit were "in effect a boycott of this public commemoration."

Portrait of Beate Klarsfeld, paying respects to the victims of Nazi doctor August Hirt at the Jewish cemetery in Strasbourg eastern France, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005.
The exhibit is based on a similar one by Nazi hunter Beate KlarsfeldImage: AP

The exhibition uses letters and biographies to show how Jewish children were caught up in the Nazi machinery of death and taken to the gas chambers in cattle wagons.

The German citizens' initiative behind the exhibit was formed by a group of journalists, artists, lawyers and academics, in the wake of a 2003 French exhibition organized by French Nazi hunters and activists Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. The Klarsfeld exhibit, which focused on the deportation of 11,000 Jewish children via rail from France to Nazi death camps, was shown in

French train stations.

Deutsche Bahn denied a request to display the French exhibit in German train stations.

"That's when we got the idea to do our own exhibit," journalist Hans-Ruediger Minow, spokesman for the Train of Commemoration project, told Germany's Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

No exceptions to the rule, Bahn says

The Train of Commemoration group came up with the notion of creating an exhibit that would symbolically travel through the country on the very railways that were used in the deportations. But both Deutsche Bahn and the German Transportation Ministry, which issued the transport orders under the Nazi regime, failed to show interest in the project.

Deutsche Bahn conductor holding a signal on the tracks
Deutsche Bahn is charging the project to use its railsImage: AP

Susanne Kill, corporate historian for Deutsche Bahn, told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that the company "is processing its Nazi history in numerous projects of its own." She added that Deutsche Bahn would be bringing its own traveling exhibit to appropriate train stations.

Moreover, she said, "Deutsche Bahn can't allow free use of the rails in individual cases."

Earnings could go to charity

According to German law, anyone is allowed to use the railways and train stations -- as long as they meet certain standards, and can pay the costs.

Minow is now trying to drum up support for his cause.

"We expect protests in Germany and internationally until Deutsche Bahn and the ministry of transport see reason," he told the leftist newspaper Neues Deutschland on Saturday.

A transportation ministry spokesman told the dpa news agency that Deutsche Bahn was considering to donate the income from the Train of Commemoration in the form of a corporate charitable grant.