What was “The Lost Transport”?

[Story updated from its original July 17, 2013 posting. ]

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.

Kaethe and Paul Rehfisch arm in arm dressed in hat and coat.
My uncle Paul Rehfisch and his wife, Kaethe.

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.

Portion of printed email communication to peter vanlaw about the tragic fate of pete's uncle and aunt.

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:

Yellow manuscript cover titled never forget -- the story of the lost transport.

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.

Crematorium ovens line cement walls of deep chamber at terezin, czech republic.
Terezín Crematorium in what is today Czech Republic.

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.

Map of small farming town of tröbitz, germany near czech border, 60 miles from dreseden.

Since an epidemic of Typhus had been rampant in Bergen-Belsen, many of the prisoners carried the deadly disease onto the trains, where the infection quickly spread. 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.

By the end of the second week the train had rolled through a little village called Tröbitz in the direction of Falkenberg. But the bridge near the Falkenberg Station had just been destroyed in a bombing attack. Yet to go back the other way was also impossible because the bridge over the Schwarze-Elster River had recently been blown up by the Nazi Wehrmacht. Meanwhile in between, the Russians were coming from Tröbitz.

That forced the train, with its sixty cars, to stop in between towns. And that’s where it stayed for nearly three days. At least this allowed the prisoners to bury the dead, and try to find food.

But now the train was headed in the wrong direction, with no locomotive to do the moving. Fortunately, the manager of the local coal works brought in one of his company’s yard engines – which was a small locomotive. Plus a local engineer to drive the train back to Tröbitz. However, the smaller yard engine could only move 30 train-cars at a time!

It did the job, however.

But now came the tragically difficult part. It was primarily left to the Russian soldiers along with the few remaining townspeople to help liberate the prisoners, and to try to save as many of the dying ones as they could. Although the village originally had around 700 inhabitants, most had fled the Russians. Those who remained couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by 2,000 sick and dying prisoners.

Two images: Troebitz village and nordfield barracks.
The village of Tröbitz                                                                     Nordfeld Barracks

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.

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5 thoughts on “What was “The Lost Transport”?”

  1. I had no idea of this story and the poor prisoners who experienced the hellish ride. Thank you for exposing these little known events. May the world never know horrors such as these ever again.

    Reply
  2. My heart still aches for the loss of so many. My family in Lithuania chose not to talk about the horrors – to speak out, even now, is a taboo, so best I omit any comments or feelings I have – only that I send to you belated condolences. Much love and many hugs……<3.

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