Representatives of the Dutch National Railway have agreed to meet with Jewish leaders to discuss making “a collective expression” that will recognize “the suffering and fate” of more than 100,000 Jews whom the railroad transported to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.
The suggestion that the railroad consider making a “collective expression” was made by a committee created by the railroad in January to establish the company’s historical responsibility.
Earlier this year, the railroad, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, known as NS, acknowledged its role in the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe and announced it would make a “moral gesture,” paying between $5,700 and $17,000 to Jewish survivors of the camps, their spouses and children. The “collective expression” the railroad has agreed to discuss would be an acknowledgement of those who were transported by the railroad to the camps. Of the 107,000 Jews carried to the death camps, all but 5,100 were murdered there.
“I’m glad they are doing something,” said Alfred Kurz, an 82-year-old Dutch Holocaust survivor who in 1943 was transported by the Dutch National Railway to Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany.
Kurz, who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., told The Jewish Week that although he was only six, he remembers living in Amsterdam when the Nazis “did a block-by-block roundup of the Jews. They came with sirens and dogs to rouse people out of their houses and onto the train. We were taken – my mother, sister and I. I’m guessing that it was in early July. The railroad took us about 100 miles” to a transit camp at Westerbork at the country’s border.
From there, the Nazis put them on transports to concentration camps and extermination camps outside of the Netherlands. Kurz said his father had been taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz almost a year earlier and was killed there after about a month.
“I’m very critical of the timing [of the Dutch payments],” Kurz said. “The money at this point is meaningless. I’m 82 and one of the youngest survivors around. Ninety percent of those who survived are dead. Just the fact that they waited 70 years to make restitution for their bad behavior is a travesty. I have learned that the world is not concerned about moral issues if there is money involved.”
The committee did not suggest ways for the railroad to enact its recommendation, but in some prior Nazi-related compensation programs a lump sum payment has been made, with the money going to help needy Holocaust survivors and for educational Holocaust-related programming.
The railroad did not respond to an email request for comment.
In a statement, Gideon Taylor, chief of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said: “Making symbolic payments to individual survivors is important, but those who survived are only a small fraction of those who were deported on the trains. Most perished. The idea of a `collective expression’ in acknowledgment of those who died is at the core of coming to terms with this dark chapter of history.
“The Dutch National Railway (NS) compensation program is a significant acknowledgement of the role that NS played during the Second World War in the suffering endured by Dutch Jews transported on NS trains. We look forward to working together with the Dutch Jewish community and to having a dialogue with the Dutch Railway on how best to honor the memory of those who were killed.”
In France the state-owned railroad system, S.N.C.F., set aside $60 million following a 2014 agreement to make restitution for its role in transporting Jews and others to Nazi concentration camps. In 2011, S.N.C.F. formally apologized for its actions. The money was paid to survivors, as well as victims’ families and estates.
In addition to suggesting NS make a “collective expression” for its actions during the Holocaust, the railroad’s committee, called the Committee on Individual Compensation for Victims of WWII Transport by NS, recommended that the railroad conduct an “in-depth investigation into the role of NS during the Second World War, focusing on `transports during the war,’ with a view to deepening historical insight and reflecting on its own actions during the war years.” It noted that the role of the transports during the war “has never been the subject of historical research.”
It added that “investigating sources that can shed more light on the execution of transports commissioned by the occupying forces can deepen one’s understanding of this episode in the history of the company [and] contribute to the historical perspective on the war years in the Netherlands. …”
Taylor said he would welcome such research, noting that the “research published so far is limited and partial.”
In its report, the NS committee observed that the railroad acted on the instructions of the “German occupier” and noted that the railroad “sent the occupier invoices” for this work.
“NS regards its cooperation with these deportations to be a black page in the history of the company,” the report said.
It added that there were “at least 20,000 children who were put on transport during the war to extermination camps where they were almost immediately gassed.”
The committee noted these children are materially excluded from the scope of reparations because they do not have any direct surviving relatives who could be eligible for compensation, although “their fate and NS’s share in it merits explicit attention.
The committee advised NS to consider “a collective expression of recognition of the suffering and fate of the large group of transported prisoners, for whom the [compensation payments] can no longer be invoked.”
Kurz said he, his sister and mother all survived the war because his mother learned in Bergen-Belsen that the Nazis kept a list of Jews who were to be traded for German nationals who were living in the Middle East.
“She got us on the list,” he said, noting that 90 percent of the Jews who were transported to Westerbork were then sent onto “the killing centers at Auschwitz and other places.”
“We were part of 1,000 Jews who were supposed to be exchanged through Switzerland,” Kurz recalled. “The first stop of the exchange was to be Bergen-Belsen. We got different treatment there than the others.”
But as the war dragged on, he said, “Bergen-Belsen became terribly overcrowded. In the beginning, there were two to a bunk. I was seven and my sister was eight. We slept in one bunk. Later, we had to share it with two other people. We were there 1½ years.”
Although the British liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, Kurz said he, his sister and their mother were put on one of three Nazi-operated trains, each holding 2,500 people, just one week before liberation.
“There was no food or water or sanitary conditions,” he recalled. “We were on the train 14 days and nights. We were in a war zone and the Allied planes strafed the train. But before that happened, we were commanded by German officers to get off and lie alongside the tracks.”
Asked how they survived without food or water, Kurz said “some young people on the train got off when it stopped and were able to forage [for food] in the fields around us. As a result, we got some sustenance. … The Russians liberated the train.”
But Kurz said his mother was so ill by the end of the war that she died three months later at the age of 37. His sister died 15 years ago.