Since the construction of the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin in 2005, visitors to the city have had a central location where they can pay their respects to the victims of the Holocaust and contemplate the crimes of National Socialism. In-fact the area surrounding this memorial also features other sites dedicated to the other groups targetted by Nazi racial policy and state violence – a memorial for the Roma and Sinti, a memorial for the persecuted homosexuals, and a memorial for the first group to suffer at the hands of the Nazis on a genocidal level – the mentally handicapped, the depressed, the people who were considered ‘life unworthy of life’ and murdered as part of the T4 euthanasia programme.
What ties almost all these sites together, more than their shared commemoration, is that (with the exception of the T4 memorial) they were all constructed in locations that have nothing to do with the crimes they reference. No extermination camp or deportation point was constructed on the current site of the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. During the Second World War this site served as the back garden of a Prussian palace, adjacent to the site of Hitler’s Führerbunker, but relatively untouched by the barbarism of the period.
Not the same can be said for the Gleis 17 memorial at the Grünewald train station – which in its current form was unveiled in 1998 – chronologically documenting the 186 deportation trains that left Berlin from 1941 until 1945, transporting more than 50,000 Jewish Berliners to their fates further east. Many sent to their deaths in places such as Theresienstadt and Auschwitz or the ghettos of Łódź or Riga.
The first deportation train to leave from this station departed on October 18th 1941, with 1,013 Jews – the day the systematic deportation of Berlin’s Jewish population began.
Until this time, persecution of Germany’s Jewish minority had largely taken the form of legal restrictions – designed to create unfavourable circumstances for those who the Nazi state deemed racially impure and encourage emigration, at a high cost to any who chose that route. Violent attacks would occur but largely like ‘summer thunderstorms’, as described by one prominent journalist of the time, loud and cruel but sporadic rather than standardised.
Not the same could be said for those Jews unfortunate enough to have found themselve in the territories occupied by Nazi troops following the start of the Second World War in 1939 with the invasion of Poland. By the end of the year, Jews living in Poland would be required to wear yellow stars on the upper left part of their chest as identification – a measure that would not be introduced in Germany until two years later, in September 1941.
The establishment of detention camps and ghettos across occupied Europe would see the continent’s Jewish population gradually segregated and corralled into these compounds as part of an organised resettlement strategy. Simultaneously, dedicated Einsatzgruppen (special task forces), coordinated by Heinrich Himmler’s SS (Schutzstaffel), would be entrusted with the job of massacring civilians, members of the intelligentsia, Communists, alleged partisans, and Jews. A long list of people deemed part of groups that needed to be annihilated to pacify the newly acquired territories.
The final role of these Einsatzgruppen would be to also gather those Jews who were not murdered outright into ghettos with good railway connections where they could be held either to be slaughtered at a later date or would die as a result of the poor conditions of their confinement.
The last deportation to take place from Berlin left on March 27th 1945 - exactly one month later the Soviet armies would encircle the city and begin their final push into the Nazi capital.
The debate as to the intention of the increasing oppressive measures against Germany’s Jewish population has been a hot topic since the end of the Second World War. Whether these were part of an planned direct line towards the attempted extermination of the entire European Jewish population or whether these measures and the techniques used by the Nazi regime evolved organically, around the limitations and possibilities of the time. The intelligent conclusion being that it was simply a measure of both – with more than the fair share of the latter.
From the initial stages of the Nazi takeover, with the proclamations of a new Volksgemeinschaft (Peoples’ Community) and the use of extrajudicial imprisonment to deal with the Gemeinschaftsfremde (“Community Aliens”), a system of coordinated oppression was being forged – to implement official Nazi Party policy.
In the case of the country’s Jewish population, this would mean the exclusion of Jews from civil service, a ban on Jewish doctors, and the Nuremburg laws of 1935 formalising the definition of who exactly would be classified as Jewish – based on the maternal and paternal line. From this point, marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and non-Jews would be forbidden. So severe were these restrictions that by 1938, around half of the German Jewish population had left the country – although those who did were often expected to contribute up to 90% of their wealth to the state as a tax upon leaving the country. If they could find a country willing to accept them.
Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg would famously state that the persecution of European Jews would follow a three-part trajectory, where Jews were initially told: “You have no right to live here as a jew; you have no right to live here; and finally you have no right to live.”
The rapid conquest of the east by the German Wehrmacht meant that millions more Jews fell under Nazi control from 1939 and following the invasion of the Soviet Union, the implementation of what would be called ‘The Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ would see around six million Jews eradicated by the genocidal fanaticism of Nazi rule. The expansion of existing concentration camp facilities and wholescale utilisation of industrial killing facilities serving to rapidly multiply the number of victims already dispatched through other earlier methods – such as those employed by the Einsatzgruppen.
Walking along the Gleis 17 memorial today, it is possible to discover the dates and destinations of the deportations that took place from Berlin from October 1941 all the way until the final phase of the war.
The Grünewald train station was one of three deportation stations in Berlin used by the Nazis – the other two being Moabit and Anhalter Bahnhof.
When analysing this memorial it is important to note the destinations, that many of the earlier trains would deliver their human cargo to places like Łódź in Poland and Riga in Latvia, the former a ghetto transformed into a major industrial centre, manufacturing war supplies for the Wehrmacht – and the latter, where many of the arrivals were immediately massacred in the nearby Rumbula forest or imprisoned in a ghetto to be murdered later. Regular transports to Theresienstadt in nowadays Czech Republic and Warsaw, Poland also featured prominently in this chronological memorial.
However, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, Auschwitz, notably does not appear until much later – when you walk along the platform of the track to the second side – with deportations starting in November 1942. This being due to the priority the Nazi administration placed on dealing with ‘the Jewish question’ first in Poland and then in other territories such as Germany – following the negotiations at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942.
When inaugurated in 1998, this memorial – far removed from the centre of the city – was largely a matter of German train company Deutsche Bahn recognising the role of its predecessor organisation Deutsche Reichsbahn in the Holocaust – providing a place of pilgrimage for people to observe this history and pay their respects to the victims. Unlike the other similar memorials throughout Berlin it is exceptional in that this was previously a ‘perpetrator site’ – the cast-iron plates laid on both sides of track 17 documenting all the journeys from Berlin with the number of deportees and destinations, from exactly where these people were deported from.
Take note: the distance between the location’s previous use and its present form is as important as the opportunity for contemplation it now offers as a memorial. Unlike the thousands who were mercilessly sent from here to their deaths, visitors to this site can now descend back into the train station and continue to go about their lives. The contrast could not be clearer. The track is maintained but no train will ever leave this platform again.
Some useful links related to the Gleis 17 Memorial:
The Berlin government page on the Gleis 17 Memorial
Learn more about the Battle of Berlin and explore this urban battlefield with our Battle of Berlin tours.
Learn more about the history of Nazi Germany and life in Hitler’s Third Reich with our Capital Of Tyranny tours.
Learn more about the history of East German and life behind the Iron Curtain with our Republic Of Fear tours.
Learn more about the history of Prussia and the life of Frederick the Great with our Glory Of Prussia tours.
Learn more about the Nazi Concentration Camp industry and visit Sachsenhausen on our Invention of Hell tours.