75 years ago, on April 23, 1945, nearly 2,500 mostly Dutch Jews were liberated from the “lost train” by the Russian army.
On May 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen, located 60 kilometers northeast of Hanover in Germany was liberated by the British army.
The British army’s 11th Armoured Division was approaching the camp without a shot being fired. The head of SS, Heinrich Himmler had agreed, because of the spread of typhus within the camp, it would be handed over to the British without a fight.
When the British entered the gates of Bergen-Belsen, they found about 10,000 unburied bodies and nearly 60,000 ill and starving prisoners, including 500 children under 14 years of age. Between 50 and 60,000 prisoners had been murdered in Bergen-Belsen, through starvation and from typhus.
Knowing the British were approaching, Nazi command decided to move all Jews out of Star camp, to as far to the East as possible. The most easterly concentration camp still under Nazi control was Theresianstadt, located in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).
My father, mother, brother (9), and myself (5) were no longer in Bergen-Belsen, but our ordeal was far from over. We had been held prisoner in Star camp section from February 1, 1944 to April 9, 1945. My mother was forced to clean toilets and work in the kitchen. My father’s job was to take a horse and wooden cart around the camp and pick up the dead bodies lying on the ground, as well the bodies waiting to be picked up from their barracks.
Between April 6 – 10, 1945, three trains, pulling cattle wagons, left Bergen-Belsen for Theresienstadt.
Train 1 with about 2,500 prisoners on board, including 400 from Star camp left on May 6th or 7th, and was liberated by the American army near Magdeburg in East Germany.
Train 2 left on April 7th or 8th, with 1,200 mostly Hungarian Jewish prisoners on board. This train was never heard from again. It is assumed that this train did reach Theresienstadt.
Train number 3 with 2,400 mostly Dutch Jews, including my family, left Bergen-Belsen in the evening of April 9. This train became known as the “Lost Train.”
We were pushed by screaming Germans, with guns and barking dogs, into a cattle wagon with just about enough room for the four of us to sit on the floor, in a corner. No one had any idea where we were going but many thought this was our last ride, with no return. Many did not care anymore.
My parents never gave up hope, even during our 434 days in Bergen-Belsen, my parents fought for the four of us to survive. They stole food from where ever they could, my mother from the kitchen, my father from food meant for the horses. The Germans fed horses better than the Jews.
Our train was meant to go from west to east, but had to divert and stop many times to avoid damaged tracks as well as Allied airplanes. The train zigzagged through Germany with 2,400 desperate people on board, with no food and water, many died from hunger and typhus. The only way to get food was to jump of the train, when it stopped. My mother was the only one able to do this, as my father and I were sick, and my 9-year-old brother stayed to look after us and make sure we did not loose our spot in our cattle wagon. Mostly, my mother would come back with potatoes and turnips stolen from local farms.
On April 19, our train pulled into Berlin main railway station, British and American forces were advancing from the west and the Russians were coming from the east; both were aiming to meet at the River Elbe, which runs from Hamburg, in the North-then South, close to Leipzig towards Czechoslovakia.
German command was in disarray, and had no idea what to do with our train; it was never meant to stop in Berlin. After three days, orders must have been given to get the train moving again, and on April 22, we set off, southwest to cross the River Elbe towards the Czech border and beyond.
What we did not know was that seven days earlier, British forces had liberated Bergen-Belsen finally — the remaining prisoners were liberated, but we, on the train, were still held captive by our SS guards.
Our fortune changed three days later, on April 23, 1945. Our train, traveling through a thick forest, suddenly came to a halt. Most of the SS Guard had already fled. My 9-year-old brother was one of the first to jump of the train and what he saw made him jump up and down screaming for my father to jump off the train. There was a soldier, not in Nazi or German uniform, sitting on a horse drawn cart, followed by more soldiers on horseback and on foot, encircling our train. More and more prisoners jumped off the train. Everyone wanted to embrace our liberators, who were from a Cossack Brigade, belonging to the Russian army.
We were FREE!
The Russians took the mostly sick and starving Jews to the nearby village of Trobitz. It had a population of 1,000 and is located 100 kilometers from the German-Polish border, 50 kilometers to the west was Leipzig, a major German city. Many of its citizens had fled from the advancing Russians. Of the 2,400, forced onto our Lost Train at Bergen-Belsen, 400 did not make it, succumbing to typhus and starvation.
The Russians relocated the surviving 2,000 Jews into vacated homes and empty schools. My family and I ended up in a school, on the outskirts of the village.
I was 5 years old, had never slept in a real bed or eaten proper food, there was no bed or real food, but I was Free. We slept on straw that my father and brother had stolen, blankets were also stolen, and so was our food.
My parents did not care; they had not come this far with their two young sons to worry about what was right or wrong. There was no right or wrong because no one even knew what right or wrong stood for. My father and brother had stolen a bike and rode daily to the outlying farms to steal food.
The Russians looked after these lost Jews. My mother always spoke very highly
of the Russian soldiers. If there was a dispute with the local population, the Russians took the side of the Jews. Typhus became rampant and, besides the local population, Russian soldiers were also dying of the disease. The Russians decided to move the sick southwest to a small town called Risa, where their army had better facilities. Because I was on the verge of getting typhus, all four of us were moved by army truck to Risa.
We were now into May 1945. The war was over but no one came looking for us.
Early June, my father decide that we had to find our own way back to Holland.
One morning, he managed to convince a Russian soldier to take us to a bridge at the River Elb, where the Russians were on the east and the British and American were on the west of the River Elbe. The Russian dropped us off about one kilometer from the bridge, and we walked the rest of the way. At the bridge, my father told the Russians soldiers on the east side that we wanted to go to the west. Somehow a swap was arranged with the Americans — four Gypsies (Romani) who wanted to move to the east were swapped for us four going to the west.
We were now on the outskirts of Leipzig, where we again were put up in a school, I was pretty sick, both my mother and father were not well, but my brother was okay. He went into Leipzig to beg for money and food. One day, he came across a British soldier, Captain Douglas. My brother, still only 9, somehow managed to convince Captain Douglas to go with him to where we were. The captain immediately arranged for all of four us to be taken to a British army hospital.
By now, I had typhus and my mother was in the early days of the disease. British doctors gave us the right medication and saved our lives.
On June 13, 1945, we arrived back in Holland, after 624 days of hell.