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Holocaust memorial train reaches Auschwitz on VE Day

Published on May 09, 2008

Oswiecim, Poland — In an emotional moment on Thursday, a German train approached the site of the Auschwitz death camp at the end of a six month journey of Holocaust commemoration across the German rail system.

A group of 70 young Germans were among 200 Germans and Poles who later gathered at an old rail platform at the death camp where brutal Nazi guards once herded Jews out of railway cattle trucks and sent them to their deaths in the "gas ovens."

"We have no words. We are looking appalled at thousands of suitcases, toothbrushes and shoes," said Luise Rauer, an 18-year-old Berlin schoolgirl, on behalf of the youth party at the ceremony.

"The Nazis tried to kill everyone they thought was not worth living. They failed."

Auschwitz II, the death camp outside the modern Polish town of Oswiecim, has been preserved as a memorial to Holocaust victims, with the baggage found when the camp was liberated by the Red Army as a symbol of the dead.

The memorial train, two veteran carriages containing pictures and mementoes of child Holocaust victims, completed its journey into Oswiecim’s main station on a day of hope, the 63rd anniversary of the May 8, 1945 downfall of the Nazis and Victory in Europe (VE).

An independent group of activists organized the memorial journey, using their right of access to German railtracks to park the symbolic train in stations in many cities. They said the tour highlighted the role of the German railways in the Shoah.

For the final leg, the group selected schoolchildren and apprentices who had been doing projects on young Holocaust victims.

At the death camp site, which is no longer connected to the Polish rail network, Hans-Ruediger Minow, head of the Train of Memory project, thanked the young guests for tracing what happened to young people who vanished under the Nazis.

This had led them to an "emotional identification" with the victims.

A deputy speaker of the German parliament, Greens politician Katrin Goering-Eckart attended the ceremony and referred to an ugly dispute with German rail company Deutsche Bahn (DB).

DB last month refused the train, at that point drawn by a puffing steam locomotive, a berth in its busy, spotlessly clean main Berlin station, saying a two day stop there would hamper traffic.

But it did provide space at six other Berlin stations and all over the country.

DB has organized a Holocaust memorial exhibition of its own in the capital Berlin, also with photos of murdered children, showing how the railways were part of the machinery of genocide.

DB refused both corporate sponsorship to the rival commemoration project and declined to refund railtrack usage charges. Goering-Eckart said DB should refund the charges of 60,000 euros (92,000 dollars) and it was unacceptable to have obstructed the project.

The veteran train was set to return to Germany. Minow said so many towns had invited it to visit "that we could keep going for years if we wanted to. But our little association can do no more."

Organizers said more than 225,000 people have visited the display inside the Train of Memory carriages since the travelling exhibition began its tour of Germany and nearby lands in November last year.