Germany’s transport minister wants to mount an exhibition on how the national railway deported 11,000 Jewish children to their deaths in concentration camps. But the CEO of Deutsche Bahn is refusing to comply, saying his stations are the wrong venue.

The identity card of a young Jewish girl shown as part of the exhibition in Rennes, France.

The identity card of a young Jewish girl shown as part of the exhibition in Rennes, France.
The German government and the state-owned national railway are currently locked in a bitter dispute over a proposed exhibition on the role of its predecessor, the Reichsbahn, in the Holocaust. Federal Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee wants to see the exhibition shown in the country’s train stations, but the head of Deutsche Bahn, Hartmut Mehdorn, is vehemently opposed to the idea. There seems to be little prospect of a compromise in sight.

The dispute centers on plans to develop an exhibition which focuses on the role of the Reichsbahn in the deportation of Jewish children to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The project, which was originally conceived by the well-known anti-Nazi campaigner Beate Klarsfeld, is entitled “11,000 Jewish children. With the Reichsbahn to death,” and has already been shown in 18 French train stations.

Mehdorn has refused to agree to allow the exhibition to be shown in Germany’s train stations, citing financial, organizational and technical reasons. Tiefensee had already written to the rail boss back in the spring requesting that he give the green light to the project. However, no one from Deutsche Bahn even turned up to the briefing meetings in July and September. The minister then summoned Mehdorn to a meeting which is reported to have ended in a furious argument. When Mehdorn refused to budge, Tiefensee is said to have stood up and left the room.

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Now the fight is being played out in the open. This weekend Mehdorn said he would be happy to have an exhibition in a museum or another chosen location, but not in train stations. “The subject is far too serious for people to engage with it while chewing on a sandwich and rushing to catch a train,” he said. Tiefensee immediately retaliated. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he said “National Socialism was a dictatorship that was played out in everyday life and that was drawn from everyday life.” That is why, according to the minister, an exhibition on the deportation of Jewish children by train belongs “in those same places, in the train stations”. He warned that Mehdorn should not give the impression that Deutsche Bahn is trying to keep the subject away from broader public attention.

Tiefensee has said he wants the German version of the project to be developed by Jan Philipp Reemtsma, who was responsible for a previous controversial exhibition on the role played by the German army, the Wehrmacht, in the Holocaust. Reemtsma has already said he will only work on the project on condition that it is shown in the train stations.

In Beate Klarsfeld’s exhibition in France, 180 pictures showed the fate of Jewish children who were deported by the Reichsbahn to concentration camps. It is thought that around 11,000 children were led to their deaths in this way. The German exhibition is slated to open on Jan. 27, 2008 to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.

While the plan is to show the exhibition in a number of different German cities, the current very public dispute means it is still unclear whether this will be in those cities’ train stations or in other venues.