When the train reached Linz in Austria, west of Vienna, the Jews were ordered off the train. Panic spread when they were told they would be sent to showers for disinfection. By that time they had heard about the “showers” in the death camps and feared they were about to be murdered. But showers they indeed turned out to be.
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When the train reached the border with Germany, rumors again spread that the train was going to be detoured to Auschwitz. But it continued in the direction of Hannover, stopping at a station near the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Originally built as a “stalag” camp for prisoners of war, this was to be home for most of the inhabitants of the Kastner rescue train for the next six months. It is still not clear why they were interned there; it may have been because of internal disagreements within the German regime about what to do with them. The original plan of sending the train to Barcelona was no longer an option, as the Allies were bombing rail tracks throughout German and France.
At Bergen-Belsen there were no horrific insects to afflict the Kastner passengers as there had been in the Budapest camps. For the first few weeks they refused to eat the awful camp food, living off provisions they had brought with them from Budapest among their belongings. Instead, they passed their rations to Dutch and Polish POWs in neighboring sections of the camp. Once their own food from home was gone, they had no choice but to live off the camp rations, and hunger was rampant.
The passengers split themselves into different camp “communities” and “movements.” There were “congregations” of every religious stripe, from the Satmars to the Neologs, Hungary’s analogue to the Reform and Conservative movements of the West. Even the communist atheists had a “congregation” that held its own Yom Kippur service. The Satmar Rebbe ended every Sabbath prayer service by singing “Ani Maamin,” a song about the anticipated arrival of the Messiah, with tears running down his face.
The Zionist movements were also represented in the camp. Kohn joined the Marxist Hashomer Hatzair for three days, thanks to an attractive girl who was leading it, but left in anger when she threw his cap onto a sand mound. While retrieving the cap he spotted a group of young people in the yard studying Talmud.
He introduced himself and joined their group, spending much of the remaining time in the camp with them, studying, playing chess, getting into mischief. One member of the group was Yehuda Blum, later to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
They gave each other “classes” in different subjects. The boy who taught the others physics, Joachim Joseph, would become one of Israel’s leading atomic scientists. (Joseph kept a Torah scroll from the camp when he was released and later gave it to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon to carry with him into space; billions of people saw it in the broadcast from the rocket.)
Strangely, Kohn felt safe here. His worst fear was to be alone, but here he lived with his uncle, mother, and grandmother. Allied bombers could often be seen overhead.
One evening, they were ordered to gather their belongings and report to the assembly yard. Again panic spread, as they feared they were to be sent off for extermination. They were loaded onto a train and told it was going to Switzerland. The train reached the Swiss frontier the next day and simply stopped. Earlier trains carrying refugees had been turned back after being refused admission by Switzerland. But, perhaps due to Western pressure, this train was eventually allowed through.
In Switzerland, warm clothing and food and blankets awaited the passengers, even some Swiss chocolate. They were shuffled about from camp to hostel inside Switzerland. Eventually they were sent to Italy by train and allowed to board a ship to Palestine. Kohn’s happiest moment was when the ship pulled into the port of Haifa. They could see Hebrew on the signs, flags with a Jewish star, and the port workers tossed Israeli oranges onto the ship.
It was in Israel that year that he celebrated his bar mitzvah. It was also where the family received word of the fate of his father. On a death march from Linz to Vienna, the exhausted man could walk no farther and dared to sit down. An SS guard shot him to death.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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