Railroads and Cattle Cars

July 22, 2019

Railroads and train stations have been a recurring theme of this trip. Railroads seem to have new meaning when I see them as we drive through the country side, as we come closer to entering the next town or city. Our guides reiterated how important both rivers and railroads had been. Obviously, the closer your town was to either, the more profitable it was and the better the chance it had of developing with industrial innovation and trade. On the other hand, during the Holocaust, railways had a very difference importance to the Nazis. It was a way of moving large numbers of people at once.

Two “stations” stick in my mind. I put stations in quotations because I cannot connect the concept of a train station as we know it (a place where we go in order to visit another town or city, or to go home) to what a train station stood for the people of the ghettos across Poland (the place were people were deported on mass to their death). Another reason for the quotation marks is due to the deception at Treblinka: a building decorated like a train station to quiet any panic from the people who were being sent to their deaths. A fake clock. A fake sign pointing to a city in one direction, another city in the other. I wrote about Treblinka in a previous entry. The second station that remains in my head is Radegast Station, outside Lodz.

Unlike Treblinka, Radegast Station was not used to deceive anyone. It was a real train station that became a place of despair, fear and suffering on the way to the death camps, mainly Chelmno and Auschwitz. Similar to the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw, it was a gathering point; a place where the Nazis took the ghetto Jews to be deported. It has been turned into a museum and memorial to those who perished. A thoughtful and simple museum, it contains the infamous Nazi lists which they kept such meticulous care to record. Number, name, date of birth, place of birth, profession. Thousands of people. It also has a model version of the city of Lodz. On the far wall it shows gut-wrenching film footage of the ghetto itself.

Before you walk in you see the memorial, a tall chimney in a brick building. To the right the long platform and station building. At the far end, large rounded tombstones with the names of various camps on them: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen Oranienburg, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbruck, Stutthof, Kulmhof am Ner (Chelmno). I walked on the platform, came to the and turned left around the other side of the building where the museum has a cattle car that was used to transport human beings out of the city and to the death camps mentioned before.

The cattle car. How can I describe the cattle car? The rest of the group was in the museum. I had just a little time to myself so I walked inside it and, like so many place I’ve been on this trip, it was terrifying. The sliding doors, the windows, the barbed wire, the locks on the doors. It went to the window and looked outside imagining what it would be like to not know if I would ever see my home again. I imagined seeing people watching as their neighbors were being sent straight to death. 80 or more people would be crowded into these cars. People died in these cars. I wondered how many people had passed in the car I was standing in. I thought “I’m so sorry.” So much suffering.

Passing the car you see a long tunnel in front of you, lit dimly, the railroad continuing into it only about 20 yards or so. The tunnel leads to the chimney you see upon arrival but inside it there is a timeline from 1939 to 1945 outlining the movement of Jews, contains lists of people who were transported from this station, displays small personal belongings such as the buttons that came from people’s clothing. The cattle cars would have come this way and ended up by the chimneys.

The Nazis knew who was in those cattle cars. The lists were so detailed. They knew every single person and they sent them off. It felt like there was something reaching out from inside me, like I could still help them; like I could do something. I wanted to do something. It was overwhelming. I knew I could not do anything for these poor people who now gone. I cannot do anything for them to stop their suffering. I thought about what I could still do for them; what I could do for the survivors. How can I pass on this sense of empathy to people who will probably never see these places? To people who will never fully comprehend that atrocities like this continue today and that this history is relevant to our society now and in the future? I do not fully comprehend all myself. No one really can. Where can I find that meaningful and personal connection?

Each time I see railroads now I think of them. I wonder if that railway carried innocent souls to extermination. I think about how I can find that method of conveying empathy to students, to my family and to my community. Not a small endeavor, especially in the world we live in today. However, I feel that I owe that to the millions who suffered then and the millions that suffer today.