The wrong side of the tracks

The development of railways brought tremendous benefits to mankind, but they have also played a part in wars. An author takes a look at their role in the Holocaust.

Train to Auschwitz 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Train to Auschwitz 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For railway enthusiasts, the undeniable fact that railways made it possible for the Nazis to carry out their diabolical project of mass murder is very painful. One of them, however, decided to do something about it. Robin Jones, the author of Railways and the Holocaust, is not just an ordinary railway enthusiast, but the editor of the prestigious British magazine Heritage Railway, a journal devoted, in part, to news of the numerous steam trains still kept running in the UK and elsewhere It was the appearance at “Wartime Weekends,” historical reenactment events at such heritage railways that are so popular in Britain, of misguided youths dressed in SS uniforms that raised his ire. As he says, this is not only offensive to Holocaust victims’ relatives but historically inaccurate, as German soldiers never invaded Britain.
Luckily for me, I may say. In World War II, I was a schoolboy growing up in an English country town, and on Jewish holidays we took railroad trips to join our extended family in the city, in spite of the bombing. In an introduction to this book, Rabbi Walter Rothschild, the editor of Harakevet quarterly, points out that if Hitler had not made so many strategic blunders, Germany might have won the war and occupied Britain.
In that case, a very different rail journey would have awaited us: one way only, right into the Nazi killing machine.
But Jones’s book does not just describe the part played by railways in the Holocaust. It traces, in detail, the background to the rise of Nazi racial superiority ideology, the anti- Jewish laws and persecution and the methodology of transporting, in the most cruel ways, millions of innocent people to the death camps as well as to slave labor facilities.
The development of railway networks in most countries of the world, initially made possible by the invention of the steam locomotive in 1802, brought tremendous benefits to mankind. Industry, trade, job mobility, transportation of food from production areas to consumers, tourism – the list is long, and all were facilitated as never before by railways. But railways also played a part in wars – by both sides in the American Civil War and in World War I. The railway constructed from Egypt to Gaza by the order of Gen.
Allenby enabled him to defeat the Turks in our own land in 1917.
It was an English scientist, a relative of Charles Darwin, who conjured up the concept of racial superiority and its advancement by sterilizing people considered “less desirable.” This idea, termed “eugenics,” took root in the US, and with generous support from, among others, railway magnates, resulted in over 60,000 “inferior” people being forcibly sterilized there. The Nazis eagerly embraced this concept of racial purity, and began to carry it even further; to euthanasia – killing the “undesirable” people themselves, who included the mentally ill or challenged, disabled, etc. – in a program known as Aktion T4.
Remarkably, a public outcry in Germany eventually forced the Nazis to cancel the program. But by the time they turned their murderous gaze to annihilation of the Jews, they had learned to keep their activities hidden from those in Germany who might protest – by moving them far away to Eastern Europe, which they could only do via the railways.
In the chapter “Blind Hatred,” Jones analyzes the subject of anti-Semitism and reviews the many reasons given to “explain” this irrational hatred.
Among these, he remarks that if the reason to persecute a people is because their ancestors killed Jesus 2,000 years ago, then it should be the Italians – not the Jews – who should be at the receiving end. The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, despite their being shown up as a fake, gave Hitler a welcome excuse for his anti-Semitic ranting. Although anti-Semitism far predates National Socialism, it morphed into its most extreme forms under the Nazi regime.
The beginning of the use of railways to get rid of Jews came in 1938, with the expulsion to Poland of 12,000 Jews of “foreign origin.” The Poles sent 8,000 of them back, and we may guess at their eventual fate. Indirectly, the Kristallnacht pogrom was triggered by the murder of German diplomat Ernst Eduard vom Rath in Paris, which was in revenge for this action.
Later, when the Nazis began to organize the Final Solution with the intention of shipping the Jews to sites in the east to be murdered, it became clear that this could only be achieved with the full cooperation of the German railways. Later, the railroads of the occupied lands would be roped in to this scheme. The Dutch, French, Belgian and Polish railways willingly participated in this human traffic. The SNCF, France’s national state-owned rail company, says Jones, had its workers clear the bodies of the hundreds who did not survive a journey of days without food, water, toilets, air. And SNCF had the nerve to present bills for their “services,” even after the liberation.
There are many books on the Holocaust, but a lot of these are personal stories of survivors. This “bookazine,” so called because it is profusely illustrated, is a serious and comprehensive review of the whole ghastly operation, from the seeds of hate to the execution of the plan.
Jones is the antithesis of an anti- Semite. He recognizes the positive contribution made by Jews and by Israel, and is appalled by the demonization of the Jewish state by so much of the media. We are lucky to have friends like him.
Railways and the Holocaust is available in Israel at A complete electronic version can be downloaded from or a text-only Kindle version from Amazon.