German railway chief sparks angry demonstrations over refusal to allow photographs and papers to be shown in stations

Claudia Keller
Sunday November 12, 2006
The Observer

It was her first trip by train, and she will never forget it. German SS-men were yelling outside, and the cattle wagons had bare wooden floors instead of seats, with observation slits instead of windows. Edith Erbrich remembers how an SS man ordered her father to lift her and her sister up because her mother, standing outside the train, wanted to see her once more. ‘My father told us that mummy cannot join us, she has to take care of the house,’ she said.

Erbrich was seven years old when she, her sister and her father were deported by the Nazis to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt, Czechoslavakia. She survived. Some 11,000 other Jewish children died. Now a new exhibition about their fate has sparked an extraordinary and bitter dispute between the German government and the state-owned national railway.

The exhibition, put together by anti-Nazi campaigners Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, was inspired by stories such as Erbrich’s and has already been shown at 18 French railway stations. Now the couple want to show it at train stations across Germany, but Hartmut Mehdorn, the chief executive of Deutsche Bahn, the national railway, has refused.

‘Railway stations are not the right place for an exhibition on such a serious topic,’ Mehdorn said. ‘They are too crowded, people are in too much of a hurry to concentrate. “Shock and go” tactics do not work any more.’ He claimed the exhibition was a security risk and that neo-Nazis could try to tear it down and added: ‘We at the Deutsche Bahn do not need a new exhibition. We have already one in the national railway museum in Nuremberg.’

Serge Klarsfeld defended his exhibition: ‘The aim of it is not to lock the past up in a museum, but to confront the people in public with it. In France more than 100,000 people have seen the exhibition. They all have been respectful; there have not been any security problems at all.’

The issue is causing a political storm in Germany. Social Democratic transport minister Wolfgang Tiefensee and politicians from other parties have backed the Klarsfelds. ‘National Socialism was a dictatorship that was played out in everyday life and that was drawn from everyday life,’ Tiefensee said.

He warned Mehdorn not to give the impression that Deutsche Bahn was trying to keep the subject away from the broader public and added that he had given permission to show an exhibition on press pictures from war zones from all over the world, which was also a ‘serious topic’.

Politicians from the Green party claimed last week that the issue of the exhibition should be discussed in parliament if Deutsche Bahn continues to refuse permission for the exhibition.

Tiefensee has now asked the historian Jan Philipp Reemtsma to develop a German version of the Klarsfelds’s project that focuses more attention on the German Jewish children who were deported. Reemtsma, who previously caused a controversy with an exhibition on how the German army, the Wehrmacht, was involved in the Holocaust, agreed, on condition that his exhibition would be put up in the stations.

In the meantime, Edith Erbrich and other Holocaust survivors have begun an initiative urging Deutsche Bahn to allow the exhibition to go ahead as planned and have organised demonstrations in several cities across Germany. Erbrich, now 69 years old, is determined to go on with the issue. ‘I am not doing it for my sake,’ she said. ‘I am doing it for those who cannot do it any more.’