Tracking How Jews Were Taken to Their Final Destinations

JERUSALEM — Nini Ungar clearly recalled that Friday in February 1942 when the Nazis loaded her, her husband and her parents on a cattle cart and transferred them, standing upright, to the railway station in Vienna.

She was in her mid-20s and did not yet know that she was pregnant. The family had already spent days in the squalid compound of a school where thousands of Jews destined for deportation were warehoused. She was among 1,000 on the transport that set out that day for the ghetto in Riga, Latvia.

“The Viennese were standing and laughing. ‘Finally they got the Jews out!’ ” Ms. Ungar, who was born Mina Tepper and was one of only 36 from that transport to survive the war, recounted in video testimony. “We scraped the ice from the windows — we were so thirsty. We didn’t have water. We didn’t have anything,” she said of the train journey.

Her journey across a wintry Europe can now be traced on a database that documents about 1,100 transports, searchable by train (or boat or bus) or victim’s name. A project of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research center, the database sheds new light on the cross-border, Europewide nature of the stages leading to the mass extermination of some six million Jews, known in Hebrew as the Shoah.

“Very often people think of the Shoah as something that took place in the camps and killing sites in Eastern Europe from a geographical perspective,” said Joel Zisenwine, who has directed the “Transports to Extinction” project since 2008. “By focusing on the transports, I think we provide a more precise image of the Final Solution,” he said. “This is a continental enterprise, if that is the right word.”

The database first went online in 2010, but Yad Vashem is promoting it now in connection with Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, because it has amassed enough information to map most of the deportations from Western and Central Europe. Dr. Zisenwine said the research illuminated how railroad companies and the local government authorities were complicit in the transports, and how many of them ordinary people saw.

“In Paris, Amsterdam or Salonika, people may not have witnessed mass murder,” he said, “but they did witness Jews being marched to the train station.”

Ms. Ungar’s train departed from Vienna’s Aspangbahnhof at 5:40 p.m. on Feb. 6, 1942, and arrived in Riga on Feb. 10.

In the video, recorded in the United States in the 1990s, she described carriages packed with people, their suitcases piled above them, and scenes of overflowing lavatories. On arrival at the Skirotava station in Riga, the deportees were told that they had to walk miles to the ghetto, and that those unable to make the distance could take buses instead.

Ms. Ungar’s mother, her feet frozen, got on board along with about 700 passengers, many of them old, or sick, or children. Yad Vashem researchers said the vehicles were not buses but gas trucks, and their passengers were murdered.

The database shows the transport routes on reconstructed maps based on Google imagery. Their details have been cross-referenced with other sources, including Nazi documentation, railroad company documents, material from war crimes trials and the diaries and testimonies of deportees.

Some survivors, for example, recalled seeing signs out of train windows, giving researchers clues.

“We are trying to tell the story of the transports as a historical event, not just the technical movement of people from A to B,” Dr. Zisenwine said. For example, earlier transports from Vienna to the Lublin district of Poland took Jews to some kind of Jewish reserve for a short-term plan of “resettlement,” he said, “but by 1942 the purpose was mass murder.”

Half a dozen researchers are beginning the next phase: mapping the transports in Eastern Europe, where documentation is harder to come by.

One day this week Avi Kotsere-Burg, a German speaker, and Marina Spivak, a Polish speaker, were poring over documents relating to the German-annexed Warthegau region of Poland, where the Lodz ghetto was. Ms. Spivak had a scanned testimony from the Yad Vashem archives on her computer screen, handwritten in Polish by an anonymous girl who had survived.

 

Jews in Westerbork waved to deportees on a train to Auschwitz in southern Poland. CreditYad Vashem

So many did not. One of the many chilling stories of the transports tells of the last journey of three of the sisters of Sigmund Freud. According to Yad Vashem’s records, Marie Freud, Adolfine Freud and Pauline Winternitz were deported on Transport 29 from Vienna to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia in June 1942. There were 1,005 Jews on board. Most were over 60.

Adolfine, who was about 80, died in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, according to a list of Theresienstadt camp inmates cited by Yad Vashem.

On Sept. 23, 1942, Transport Bq left Theresienstadt for the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, carrying 1,980 Jews.

The train is believed to have gone north to Dresden, Germany, then east to Breslau, Posen and Warsaw before stopping inside the camp. According to the same list of Theresienstadt inmates, Marie, who was 81, and Ms. Winternitz, then 78, were on board.

Samuel Rajzman, a Treblinka survivor, said in his testimony before the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal in 1946 that he had witnessed their arrival in the camp.

He described one of the sisters — it was not clear which — approaching the commander of the camp, showing him an identifying document, saying she was the sister of Sigmund Freud and asking to be given light office work. The commander said there must have been a mistake and told her that in two hours there should be a train to Vienna.

“She could leave all her valuables and documents here, have a bath, and after the bath she would receive her documents and a travel permit to Vienna,” Mr. Rajzman cited the camp commander as saying. “The lady, of course, went to the bath house, from which she never returned.”

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