The stranded train’s story started in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where more than 52,000 Jews were murdered.
The concentration camp inmates originated from many different countries: the majority of them were Hungarians but there were equally many Dutch, Slovakians, Poles and almost 100 Greeks amongst them. They were united by one characteristic: they were exchange inmates. They were Jewish inmates who owned foreign passports and were used as hostages by the SS in a special camp in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and were initially exempted from extermination. They were supposed to be exchanged for in Western countries imprisoned Germans or to be ‘sold’ for foreign currencies. At first, these exchange inmates had better living conditions: they were housed together with their children as families, were exempted from work duty, were allowed to keep their own clothes and some personal items, they could receive post and parcels. However, those somewhat more favourable living conditions changed during the last year of the war: as Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was overcrowding due to the evacuation transports, the concentration camp developed into a reception and death camp.
In April 1945 the camp was supposed to be evacuated before the British and American forces could approach it. Three trains in total left Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for Theresienstadt concentration camp. On 7th April 1945 an evacuation transport of 2,500 Jewish exchange inmates was assembled at Celle Station. The train left the station at approximately 2pm the next day.
The train passed three larger towns: Uelzen, Salzwedel and Stendal. Due to a lack of food and insufficient medical care many people died in the overcrowded carriages.
On 12th April 1945 the train stopped between Zielitz and Farsleben; an onward journey to Magdeburg was impossible due to bombardment. This place offered, thanks to its woodland, a last natural protection against air raids.
In the night of the 13th April the train guards defected and thus avoided punishment. The locomotive and the first carriage, on which the anti–aircraft artillery was installed, headed towards Magdeburg.
At around midday on the same day the inmates sighted two American reconnaissance vehicles of the 743rd Tank Battalion of the U.S. Ninth Army under the control of Major Clarence L. Benjamin. The Americans approached the train and liberated the people. To care for them, they evacuated the emaciated, starving and ill people to Farsleben and to an army barrack in Hillersleben.
Amongst the 2,500 inmates were more than 500 children and youth. Consequently, there are still many survivors who take a great interest in exchanges about the incident. Since 2001, the American High School teacher Matthew Rozell is very invested in the history of this train and its inmates; he has organised numerous meetings between the American liberators and the survivors in the US as well as in Israel. Internationally, this topic is very well appraised due to eye-witness accounts, books, art and research, however, here in our region and in the whole of Germany this topic is almost unknown to the public.
Ron Chaulet (USA), currently living in the Netherlands, advocates for a memorial at the tracks near Farsleben.
The amateur historian purchased a letter by auction online, which Gina Rappaport, a survivor of the train, had written to an American soldier in 1945, however it never reached him. Ron Chaulet learned from this letter about the fates of the more than 2,500 mostly Jewish inmates who were liberated by the American troops of the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 30th Infantry Division. George C. Cross received the letter, which the young woman once composed, after 68 years. Ron Chaulet arranged, together with Matthew Rozell (USA), a meeting of the two.
Since then Ron Chaulet champions the historical revision of this story. He has a website http://www.13april1945.com about the happenings in Farsleben.
Due to a few people, such as Herbert Riebau (Zielitz), Daniel and Klaus-Peter Keweloh (Hillersleben), this incident has not been forgotten in our region.
Survivors next to the stopped train, 14th April 1945 (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park )