I remember being 27 and pregnant with Mia; my first child when I read a book titled “The Good Mother” by Sue Miller. Very briefly, the book is about a woman who faces losing her daughter in a custody battle. Reading that book, I realized there could be nothing worse than a child being forcibly separated from his or her mother.
I thought of that book when I viewed the memorial Trains to Death – Trains to Life at Friedrichstrasse Railway Station in Berlin. Unlike most of the memorials in Berlin, this memorial is not abstract, instead it depicts children, life-sized children, on a journey. “The monument depicts seven life-sized children on a bronze railtrack plinth. At the back, two neat children in brown bronze, their smart suitcases and violin case upright, look ahead to the West. In front, East-facing, in black bronze, are five anguished children in shabby clothes and laceless boots. Behind them is a huddle of black battered suitcases gaping empty but for a tiny naked baby doll missing one leg in the corner of one case.” (Bronia Veitch)
From November 30, 1938 to September of 1939, 10,000 children were sent by their families or sent from orphanages if their families had already been arrested to possible safety in England. Most of their parents and grandparents would be killed in concentration camps. Some of the children, such as my friend’s mother Ingrid, went to Sweden and safety. While Ingrid’s parents would never know that their daughter survived the Nazi regime, they at least knew they had made the right decision when they brought Ingrid to Friedrichstrasse station to put her on a train to Sweden in 1939. Three years later, Ingrid’s parents were among the 140,000 Jews deported to Theresienstadt. Approximately 33,000 died there, while 90,000 were sent on to extermination camps, such as Auschwitz where both of Ingrid’s parents were murdered. While 10,000 children were saved by the kindertransports, it is important to remember that 1.5 million children met a different fate during the Holocaust.
There is much more to this story; there is the complicity of the German state railway system which ran trains that eventually transported 1.5 million people to their deaths. The German state railway did apologize for their significant role in the Holocaust. But when did it apologize? A full 62 years and 7 months after the end of the war in Europe. 62 years. Our group visited another memorial at track 17 of the Grunewald S-Bahn station from which more than 50,000 of Berlin’s Jewish citizens boarded trains taking them to extermination camps. This memorial was created in 1991 and lines the platform of the railway.
On my free day in Berlin, we happened to walk by the Friedrichstrasse station and see a mother with her two children standing in front of the memorial. Her children were having their pictures taken with the ‘kinder’. The little girl put her arm around the bronze child almost unaware that her mother was taking a photo. She was just a child at play. But any mother looking at the statue can’t help but ask, would I have been good’ enough to send my child off to an uncertain fate knowing that in all likelihood I would never see my child again? Most Jewish mothers were not given this ‘choice’; their children were ripped from their arms and sent to their untimely deaths. And the kindertransports lasted but 8 months.