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In August 2013, I visited Berlin and the Museum Stutthof (Stutthof Concentration Camp) near Gdansk in Poland. For me, it was an emotional journey in remembrance of horrible atrocities that occurred in the world, long before I was born. As I started reading the novel, The Children’s Train, I had images come to life, enhanced by places I had visited. I thought I’d share some of the pictures I took, along with my review of Jana Zinser’s captivating new book.
It has been estimated that from 1938 to 1940, the Kindertransport spared the lives of 10,000 children from almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Most of those children, from infant to age 17, were the only members of their families to survive the brutality of World War II. Parents desperate to protect their children, handed them over to strangers to be boarded on trains that would take them to safety.
Zinser has written a heart-wrenching, epic story that follows lives of several children that survived (as well as the fates of their families); from the beginning occupation through the end of the war.
Zinser takes readers from escape of occupied territories, into hiding, to safety, the concentration camps; and then back undercover behind enemy lines.
Here’s the description from the publisher:
In November 1938 on The Night of the Broken Glass, the Jewish people of Germany are terrified as Hitler’s men shatter their store windows, steal and destroy their belongings, and arrest many Jewish fathers and brothers. Parents fear for their own lives but their focus is on protecting their children. When England arranges to take the children out of Germany by train, the Kindertransport is organized and parents scramble to get places on the trains for their young family members, worried about what the future will hold. Soon, trains filled with Jewish children escaping the Nazis chug over the border into Holland, where they are ferried across the English Channel to England and to freedom. But for Peter, the shy violin player, his sister Becca, and his friends Stephen and Hans, life in England holds challenges as well. Peter’s friend Eva, who did not get a seat on the Kindertransport, is left to the evil plans of Hitler. Peter, working his musician’s hands raw at a farm in Coventry, wonders if they should have stayed and fought back instead of escaping. When the Coventry farm is bombed and Nazis have reached England, Peter feels he has nothing left. He decides it’s time to stand and fight Hitler. Peter returns to Germany to join the Jewish underground resistance, search for the mother and sister he left behind in Berlin, and rescue his childhood friend Eva.
It’s a story of fear, torture, loss, hope, freedom, survival and most important of all– it’s a story of heroism of epic proportions.
As someone that has had an ongoing interest in Holocaust studies and education, what I really like about The Children’s Train is that this novel gives the reader an in depth look; both in varying viewpoints and through a broad scope of experiences, making it a perfect introductory-look into the history of the Holocaust. It is thoroughly engaging from start to finish. After reading, you not only have a better picture of the many devastating situations endured by Holocaust victims and survivors; you also have a clearer understanding of Nazi and German (not mutually inclusive) people’s positions and actions. Yes, some believed in Hitler’s plan of hate. Others acted based on financial reasoning and many more out of fear.
The subject matter may be a little heavy for young readers but I’d certainly recommend it for high school through adults. Zinser tells the story simply, without over-dramatizing or trying to be graphically-shocking. By the very nature of the events, even through the author’s delicate handling, it might be too overwhelming for younger children.
The young lives of Peter, Eva and all the others will tug at your heart and inspire you. You’ll discover hope in humanity though quiet, unassuming acts of courage and heroism; and mourn the lives of those that were lost.
Though 10,000 children may have been spared by the Kindertransport; 6 million Jews lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis — many of them children. This is their unforgettable story.
I received an ARC of The Children’s Train, A Novel through NetGalley.
It’s hard to know where to even start this post. I have so much I want to say– that to include it all in one post would be impossible. I’m going to try to keep this post focused on our visit to Stutthof, itself; and I’ll follow up later with a more personal post about my feelings on the subject of the Holocaust and my commitment to the importance of retelling the horrific story that can not and should not be forgotten.
I must say here that my involvement in education about the Holocaust began nearly twenty years ago with a play adaptation I wrote, that in subsequent years, has been performed for more than 25,000 students.
I had to visit here.
I had to witness it with my own eyes.
Michael was able to arrange a private tour to the Stutthof Museum through our travel agent way in advance of our trip. On past Regent cruises, it had been offered as an excursion but it was not on the itinerary for our cruise. Our travel agent, Judy Perl, whose family was also on the cruise, thought the prospect of going would be a good experience and asked if we minded if her family joined us. We readily accepted. So that morning, our party of seven, boarded a mini bus for Stutthof.
(A side note: The tour to Stutthof was later offered to our fellow cruisers as a late add-on and they ended up with five full buses!)
In 1939, the Stutthof Concentration Camp was built in the former Free City of Danzig territory, 34 km (21 miles) from Danzig (now, Gdansk). It is now known as the Stutthof Museum or Muzeum Stutthof w Sztutowie.
Stutthof was the first camp built outside of German borders and was the last camp to be liberated in May 1945.
It was originally intended to house Polish undesirables as an internment camp but in 1941 became a labor camp. In early 1942 it became a concentration camp. It is believed that approximately 110,000 Poles and Jews from all over Europe were sent here. The crematory and gas chamber were built in 1943, used primarily to execute patriotic Poles. In June 1944, they were used for Jewish executions as part of Hitler’s Final Solution.
The original, old camp had only eight barracks but was then expanded with many more barracks as part of the new camp. Surviving documents show people from at least 28 countries were imprisoned here. Outside of the Stutthof facility, there were 39 sub-camps scattered throughout Poland.
Men, women and children lost their lives here. It is estimated that more than 85,000 people were either shot, hung, gassed or died of malnutrition and disease here. In 1945, of the 50,000 remaining prisoners in the Stutthof camp system, half of them died. 5,000 died on a death march to the Baltic Sea, where they were forced into the water and machine-gunned.
When we arrived at Stutthof, we stood for a long time inside the main gate near the SS headquarters just outside the camp itself which was completely surrounded by barbed wire. Quite frankly, I tuned out most of what our tour guide was saying, lost in my own thoughts. Most of the information she was relaying to us, I had heard before– this was a deeply, personal experience for me.
The camp and the museum exhibits are quite sterile. By that, I mean there is nothing displayed in an effort to encourage emotion. Still, I couldn’t help but shudder when I walked through the Death Gate, past the barbed wire and into the camp.
My head was full of the atrocities that took place here. The horrifying conditions, the torture… they even experimented with making human soap from the victims’ remains.
Some of the barracks still stand. Guard Towers surround the camp, assuring that no prisoners could have escaped. In the center of the large fenced yard are the crumbling foundations of the workhouses. Of course, much of the camp was destroyed as the Allied troops approached, in an effort to eliminate any evidence of what occurred here.
At the far end of the camp stands the gas chamber and crematory. I couldn’t believe how incredibly small the gas chamber was… the interior, possible 12 feet by 20 feet at the most.
In the corner, a marker and replicated gallows stand where hangings took place. It stands very near an old wooden gate crossing train tracks that brought in cattle cars full of prisoners.
Outside the old camp, the location of the new camp barracks is memorialized with large white stone markers.
The majority of the camp is a wide open field, scattered with what remains from this defining moment in history.
I’ll let the rest of the pictures speak for themselves.
I will never forget this day.