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Jewish Journal

The repressed story of the Austrian railway

Itamar Treves-Tchelet

August 31, 2012 | 7:51 am

The express night train from Vienna to Prague was supposed to leave at 23:15. But in the evening of March 11th 1938 at 20:00, thousands of people were pushing each other, squeezing themselves into the train while demanding to depart immediately. Suddenly, the S.A troops showed up with their whips, drunk from victory and eager for revenge. One by one, they went from wagon to wagon, pulling men, women and children back to the platform, leading them to prison (reconstructed version)

This is how George Eric Gedye, a British journalist, described the events in Vienna’s in the evening before the famous “Anschluss”, the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany.

This was also the evening that changed the history of the Austrian railway company. The company, which back then was named BBÖ (today ÖBB), has turned this year 175. For this occasion, the management has decided that it is time to cope with the company’s history. It was considered inevitable, that a crucial and central institution in the Austrian day-to-day life like the national railway will neglect and ignore its role in the most severe crime in the history. That led the company to prepare an exhibition, describing the way Hitler has used the rail company for his purposes.

The initiator of the exhibition was Michael Wimmer, a strategic consultant to the management. A few years back, Wimmer returned from a visit in Paris; there he met the former Nazi-Haunter and former candidate for the presidency of Germany, Beate Klarsfeld. She suggested the idea to tell the company’s story through an exhibition, the same way as it was done before by the German rail company. “I passed the idea on, and it was accepted right away by the CEO Christian Kern”, he says.

The next step, he joined forces with the project manager Trude Kogoj and the PR specialist Milli Segal. The result: an informative exhibition named “Repressed Years” which was inaugurated in June 2012. Recently the exhibition was prolonged till the end of October.

“There were some people that said this step is wrong because it may lead to bad publicity. People claim that the current rail company did not exist in 1938-1945”, Wimmer says. “But the management went through with it by insisting: we owe to the victims, we owe it to ourselves”.

Well educated Nazis

Adolf Hitler understood already from the beginning, that without an efficient and innovative rail system, his plan is meant to fail. That is why he hurried to hold a speech in front of 12,000 admirers at the Nordwestbanhof, a former central train station in Vienna, indicting the important future role of the railway.

Practically, the Austrian train became overnight a part of the German Reich’s rail system, that earned 2,122 locomotives, 36,990 wagons and 5,000 km long tracks. Julius Dorfmüller who was appointed as transportation minister was also in charge of the railway.

The merger between the railway systems took a year and brought a change of general atmosphere in the company. 20% of the workers were fired immediately because they were either Jewish or “unfit”. Instead, some 9,000 Nazi party members were appointed to different positions. Moreover, youngsters who dreamt of becoming loco drivers or technicians could join the railway already at the age of 14 and go through the training free of charge. Women, who wanted to join the crew, had to write a composition about “the women’s role in the war”. All the railway members had to swear loyalty to the Führer.

Due to their centrality in the daily life, the stations became a stage for Nazi propaganda. The workers had to be the example for the “the perfect Nazi”, including the welcoming every passenger with “Hail Hitler”. They were also enforced to read the daily propaganda newspaper for their further education, and it was their job to encourage young passengers to join Nazi youth movements. Those who sold tickets, or were even seen with Jews weren’t eligible for promotion. Furthermore, the station’s halls were used for different exhibitions, like the famous “Eternal Jew” exhibition in the summer of 1938 in Vienna. In order to prevent behavioral problems, the Gestapo was put to supervise the happenings on the platforms.

War tool on tracks

After the occupation of Poland in the fall of 1939, the train began to function as a military unit. The workers were compelled to high devotion and self sacrifice, as the parole dictated: “The wheels must turn for the victory”. As the battles went on, the Nazis required more and more equipment to keep up to the war plan. 1.1 Million People were employees of the railway all over the Reich, working sometimes 56 weekly hours. 200,000 forced workers from Poland and Hungary were enslaved for 1.5 Reichsmark per day. These workers participated in the construction of 7,000 war locomotives, including the Steam Locomotive from series 52, which was lighter, faster and above all – could operate in the soviet winter.

Only the most loyal workers could take part in the military aspect of the railway. Those who were selected joined the “Wehrmacht” in the Russian front and risked their lives, sometimes in the cold of -42 degrees Celsius. Their missions varied between building bridges on the occupied territory and the adaptation between the Soviet track standard (152.4 meters) to the German one (143.5 meters). These workers were trained to use weapons, wore uniforms and served with pride and devotion. Hans Ebenwaldner, a travel manager, wrote to his relatives on January 9th 1942: “I am situated now in the wild and wintery nature in Russia, proud to wear the uniforms of the German soldier and happy to take part at the destruction of the Bolshevism”.

The exhibition reveals also that there were also a few people who tried to oppose the Nazis’ plan. Around 300 railway workers were sentenced to death and 1,400 were sent to labor camps due to underground sabotage activities. These employees belonged mostly to socialistic and communistic circles. These organizations were banned already during the dictatorship in Austria before the war. Their moves were monitored closely by the Gestapo and varied between sabotaging the tracks (putting them out of order for a few hours), putting sand in the engines, damaging the brakes, blocking the oil tubes of the train, confusing documents and schedules and distributing anti-Nazi propaganda. After all, the damage they succeeded to make is considered minor.

Train of life

128,000 Jews managed to escape Austria by train. The journey out was involved with high costs and the issuance of documents which were sometimes missing not available. Furthermore, a special supervision was put in order to tax or confiscate every valuable object as gold, securities – and mostly to make sure that those who leave are left poor. One of the most famous escapers was the father of the psycho-analysis, Sigmund Freud, who had to leave behind a third of his fortune in order to leave to London. Three of his sisters were left behind and murdered later on in the holocaust.

The trains took also a big part in the “Kindertransport”, where 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austrian and Czechoslovakia were brought to safety in England or USA. There they were taken to host families. For many children, the moment before the departure was the last time they saw their families alive.

Train of death

With the decision upon the “Final Solution” in Wannsee on Januray 20th 1942, the train took up the mission of transporting Jews, Roma and Sinti and others to their death in the extermination camps in eastern-Europe. The command and the control over the “Sonderzüge” were made in Berlin, as Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of the mission. It was his authority to coordinate between the local German police and the railway. The railway could decide how many wagons were used to take a given amount of people, sometimes 5,000 people on one transport. In order to make the extermination efficiently – special incentives were invented: if the train leaves with more than 400 passengers, then the one that ordered the train would pay the half of the price for “passengers” in the third class. Children under 4 were taken for free. Bringing the empty train back was already included in the price.

The aftermath

The end of the war left the Austrian railway in a desperate condition: the whole management escaped or was arrested. The Nazi workers were fired or sent on forced vacation. It was the simple workers who had to rebuild everything all over. Years after the war, the railway reimbursed owners of property that was confiscated for the usage of the railway. In 2000, the railway paid 14 Million EUR for some reconciliation funds.

The bloody account of the railway system stands on 3 Million people who were sent to their death during the holocaust. Those who survived were left with sights they will never forget. This is how Edith De-Zeub –Kleber described her journey from Vienna to Riga: “The little we packed will be kept for us in the last wagon, so they promised…the journey to the unknown lasted 5 days and the more it went, the colder it got. Till we reached the station in Riga. The youngsters had to go 2 hours by foot to the Ghetto. The elderly, and my mother among them, were supposed to be taken by a truck. She never came. You probably understand that only the expression “Train Station” still gives me nightmares”. (restored version)

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Jews visiting Central & Eastern Europe frequently come with stereotypes and prejudices about the region.  In particular, group heritage and education tours for young Jews...

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