I first heard of The Lost Transport when I was researching my Uncle Paul Rehfisch. He was Mom’s older brother, who fled to Amsterdam with his wife, in 1938 after Kristallnacht, to escape the Nazis. His wife was Käthe Franken. They lived together at Jan van Eijckstraat 11 until their arrest and deportation by the Nazis in 1943.
Like so many other deported Dutch Jews, their trail followed the same path as Anne Frank and her family. They were first sent to the Dutch Transit Camp at Westerbork. Then months later to the notorious Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Celle, Germany.
At the end of WWII, my parents received a letter from the Red Cross that said that Paul and his wife died in Bergen-Belsen. So, I assumed that was the end of my Uncle Paul’s story.
But all of that changed when I received an email a message that referred me to a web site that honored all the Dutch Jews who had perished in the Shoa. To my surprise, I found Paul and Käthe Rehfisch on that site, linked to the name, “Tröbitz”.
But that stumped me. At first I thought it might refer to a specific section of Bergen-Belsen where they were buried. But I really had no clue what the word meant. So, I sent out inquires on the internet asking, “What or where was Tröbitz? And how did it relate to Bergen-Belsen?”
It didn’t take very long to get answers. But they were truly shocking because they told me that Paul and Käthe didn’t die in Bergen-Belsen after all, but in a little German farming village called Tröbitz, located about sixty miles from Dresden, near the Czech border.
Just as I began to wonder how and why Paul and Käthe got there, someone sent me documentation. It came in the form of a monograph, originally written in German by Erika Arlt, and then later translated to English by Holocaust historian, Robert Wolf. In fact, it was Robert who answered my query and sent me a copy of his translation. He had shortened the title to “Niemals Vergessen (Never Forget) – The Story of “The Lost Transport”. Within its pages, I learned the horrendous details of what really happened to my uncle and his wife. Here’s what I learned:
In April 1945, the Allies were already inside Germany and the war was nearing an end. But, just as the British were about to liberate Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi SS now began to fear reprisals and war crimes trials. So they chose to get rid of as much of the evidence as they could. They did it by loading seventy five hundred sick and dying Jewish inmates onto three transport trains, all bound for Theresienstadt, which was close to Prague, near the Czech border.
Theresienstadt or Terezin was originally a fortified Czech village, but had been established early in the war as another Nazi concentration camp. However it gained a unique reputation
The Nazis were getting bad press. So, they turned Terezin into a showplace to prove to the world how well the Third Reich was treating its prisoners. The ruse lasted just long enough to shoot a movie about it and prove to the Red Cross how humane life actually was for the inmates. The deception worked.
Then it was back to business. Many of the Jews who participated in the movie were dead within six weeks. Most were shipped to Auschwitz for extermination. But in January, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet forces. So, in their infinite wisdom, the SS began to build their own gas chamber at Theresienstadt, and turn it into an extermination camp. But they began too late.
Meanwhile, the wheels had already been set in motion to destroy the wretched, human evidence at Bergen-Belsen. The first train left the camp on April 6, and actually reached Theresienstadt, but was liberated by the Russians just a few days later.
The second train left the following day but only made it as far as Magdeburg before it was stopped and liberated by troops of the U.S. Army.
Then, two days later, on April 9, the remaining twenty five hundred prisoners were loaded onto a third train, many of them sick and dying. But when it left Bergen-Belsen it essentially disappeared from the outside world. That’s how it became known to historians as “The Lost Transport”.
Actually, so many railroad tracks had already been destroyed because the allies were bombing and strafing anything that moved on rails. So, instead of heading southeast toward the Czech border, the engineer chose to take a long and torturous route to the northeast, while the crew continued to look for any open rail passage to the south. As a result, the train and its wretched cargo meandered for two weeks.
Since an epidemic of Typhus was already rampant in Bergen-Belsen, many of the prisoners carried the deadly disease onto the trains, and many more of them were infected. Conditions on board were beyond description. With sickness raging, and little in the way of food, water or sanitation. Many died along the way. The only relief came from the frequent stops to allow the prisoners to get off and bury their dead.
On April 23rd, the train finally reached the outskirts of a little town called Tröbitz. Here the engineer found he could go no farther, and fled for his life. A band of German partisans had blocked him from the rear, while a Soviet Army division had him blocked from the front.
It was primarily the Russian soldiers along with the few remaining townspeople who helped liberate the prisoners, and try to save as many of the dead and dying as they could. Although the village originally had around 700 inhabitants, most had fled the Russians. Those who remained were overwhelmed by 2,000 sick and dying prisoners.
Paul was liberated with the others, but he was beyond help. After lingering for two weeks, he died from Typhus on May 5. Two days later, the German High Command surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. But it was too late for Käthe as well. She succumbed one week after Paul, on May 12. Together, they were buried in a mass grave adjacent to the old army barracks infirmary at Nordfeld, just outside the town of Tröbitz.
For more information, I suggest you read “Four Perfect Pebbles” by Marion Blumenthal Lazan, a woman who, along with her mother and brother, followed the same tragic trail as my uncle and his wife, but lived to tell about it. Marion has since dedicated her life to describing how she survived the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, “The Lost Transport”, and Tröbitz. Speaking throughout the U.S. and many foreign countries, she continues to reach students, so they can hear the real story from a Holocaust survivor.