Holocaust survivor launches legal claim against German railway

A Holocaust survivor who successfully campaigned for the Dutch railway to pay compensation for transporting people to the Nazi concentration camps has tabled a legal claim against the German state over the wartime role of the Deutsche Reichsbahn.

Salo Muller, 84, whose parents were taken by rail from Amsterdam to the Dutch transit camp Westerbork, and on to their deaths at Auschwitz, is demanding an apology and financial recompense for about 500 Dutch survivors and about 5,500 next of kin.

The Deutsche Reichsbahn, the wartime German railway authority, was responsible for transporting about 107,000 Dutch Jewish people to their deaths. The victims were often forced to pay for the costs of their travel in squalid, murderous conditions, earning an estimated €16m (£14.5m) in today’s money for the German railways. Adults had paid 4 pfennigs per kilometre, children 2 pfennigs, while those under the age of 4 travelled free.

In a letter to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, Muller’s lawyer writes that the heirs of the wartime German railways have a moral and legal obligation to recognise their role in the suffering of the Jewish, Sinti and Roma people.

“I blame the railway company for knowingly transporting Jews to the concentration camps and for killing those Jews there in a terrible way,” Muller told the Dutch current affairs programme Nieuwsuur. “I can’t give up because this hurts me every day. Every day I have to think about this and it hurts me. And I want that pain to finally pass.”

In 2019, Muller, a former physiotherapist at Ajax football club, secured an apology and up to €50m in compensation from the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) for survivors of the transportations, their widows, widowers and children.

Muller wrote a book, published in 2017, called See You Tonight and Promise to Be a Good Boy, in memory of the last words his mother said to him as she dropped him off at kindergarten before she was picked up that day by the SS.

The Dutch railway had previously spoken of its regret over the role it played during the war, but the company rejected the idea of compensation until Muller threatened legal action, supported by the Dutch human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld.

The Deutsche Reichsbahn ran more than a hundred transports from the Netherlands to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.

“The Dutch Jews transported by the Deutsche Reichsbahn have simply been forgotten,” said the lawyer Axel Hagedorn, who is representing Muller. “The state is a 100% shareholder in the railways. Germany’s moral responsibility always remains.”

The scale of the Holocaust was only possible due to the efficiency and scale of the German railways. In January 1943, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, wrote to Albert Ganzenmüller, the secretary of state for transport and the deputy director of the Reichsbahn, pleading for more train stock. “If I have any hope of quickly dealing with matters, I must have more haulage trains. Help me to get more,” he said.

Ganzenmüller, an early member of the Nazi party, was the only member of the railway to go on trial. On his first day in court in 1973 he had a heart attack and was declared medically unfit. He died in 1996.

After the war, the German Democratic Republic in East Germany took over the name of the Deutsche Reichsbahn for its railway system. Today’s Deutsche Bahn was created in 1994 after German reunification and the East German railway’s merger with the West German Deutsche Bundesbahn.

“I want recognition from them and recognition always comes with an allowance”, Muller said.

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