Tisha be-Av post: Raul Hilberg’s studies on the role of German railways in the Shoah

Today is Tisha be’Av (9th of Av), the day when practicing Jews commemorate a long litany of calamities, of which the Destruction of the First and Second Temples and the 1492 Gerush Sefarad (Spanish Expulsion) are but the best-known ones. (In general history, August 1-2, 1914, or 9-10 Av, 5764 also happens to be the date on which Germany entered World War One.)

The date has at least two links to the Shoah (Holocaust) that I can think of:

(a) August 2, 1941 (9 Av, 5701): two days earlier, Göring’s infamous letter charging Heydrich to “submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time the phrase Endlösung der Judenfrage]

(b) July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportation trains leavethe Warsaw Ghetto for the extermination camp Treblinka.

In fact, some religious Jews (and Menachem Begin z”l, who had lost his parents and brother in the Shoah and had himself escaped by the skin of his teeth) objected to the creation of a separate Yom HaShoah, and instead wanted to commemorate it on Tisha Be’Av. 

While I did not observe a full fast this year due to COVID19,  I took a “yom bechira” (optional day off) as is my wont, and spent it reading material appropriate to the sadness of the day. I just finished this book:

The centerpiece of the collection are two essays by Raul Hilberg, written in his vintage style: a dry, pitiless barrage of facts that eschews philosophical reflection on the “why” in favor of painstaking document research into the “how”. But the pieces by Christopher Browning and Peter Hayes add a lot. Some things I learned from this collection:

(a) it is received wisdom that the Nazis (y”sh) shortchanged their own troops in their obsession to free up trains for transporting Jews to their death. In fact, as the authors lay out in great detail, the death camp trains accounted for about 0.7% of all the capacity in the network, and the rolling stock used were often ramshackle, decommissioned railway cars (usually boxcars) that had been kept at marshaling yards for emergencies rather than sent to the scrap heap. 

There were indeed pauses in the deportations when every bit of network capacity in Poland was needed, such as in the autumn of 1941 during Operation Typhoon (the Wehrmacht’s push for Moscow).  

(b) The degree of cooperation on the part of the Reichsbahn was absolutely astonishing. Anybody who was paying attention would have understood that these people were not merely being “resettled”. But most chose to look away and to focus instead on the logistics of most efficiently slotting these “DA” trains (as they appeared in logistics documents: DA=Deutsche Aussiedler, German emigrants).

Indeed, creative logistics were applied throughout: for example, goods trains that had delivered military supplies to the garrison in Greek Macedonia, and otherwise would have returned empty, made the return trip with Jews from Thessaloniki who were brought to Auschwitz.

The Reichsbahn indeed charged the RSHA for these trains, at the 3rd class passenger rate, with 50% discount under age 10, and free under age 4. (Never mind they were not even providing 4th-class carriages but box cars.) For special trains, a group discount was applied for 400 passengers and up. The RSHA, with typical cynicism, extorted the transport costs from the Jewish community or squeezed the hapless “passengers” themselves.

If the Reichsbahn bothered to provide any comfort at all, it was to the guards (who typically got a 2nd class car for their usage when not on watch).

(c) For a variety of reasons, nearly nobody in the Reichsbahn was ever punished. The CEO, who wore a second hat as Transport Minister, died from cancer just after the war. His deputy, Albert Ganzenmüller, fled to Argentina but returned ten years later, and a later prosecution against him was eventually suspended due to (real or feigned) mental deterioration of the defendant.

Lower-level officials and technical personnel found themselves desperately needed by the Allies to get the railway network back to working condition again — which they did with the same efficiency with which they had earlier acquitted themselves of their most grisly work.

That old saw “to understand all is to forgive all” is a load of tripe. Some things, the more you understand, the more you loathe them.

(Robert A. Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”)

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