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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Trains to Life - Trains to Death: a Disturbing Tribute

Trains to Life - Trains to Death: a Disturbing Tribute

The Trains to Life - Trains to Death Memorial (Züge in das Leben - Züge in den Tod) in front of Berlin's Friedrichstraße station commemorates the exile of Jewish children and mourns the victims of deportation under the National Socialist regime.

A Visit to the Trains to Life - Trains to Death Memorial is Optional.

When the Nazis came to power, they immediately passed a series of laws and decrees discriminating against the German Jewish community. The country experienced its first wave of emigration. These were mostly intellectuals, people who had understood the particularities of National Socialist anti-Semitism.

In 1935, a second wave began, with many young people who, in the wake of the Nuremberg racial laws, realized they had no future in Germany. Some emigrated to Palestine, the United States and even Singapore, but the majority remained in Europe and settled in neighboring countries. However, the movement remained small because, faced with exile, many asked themselves the question: to leave and go where? So, despite persecution, they stayed in the country where they were born and loved.

The Pogroms of November 1938 sent shockwaves through the Jewish community, who did everything in their power to leave Germany. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism was also rife in Western countries, making emigration almost impossible. On the initiative of the British Jewish community, convoys of children were organized to leave the country. This was not emigration, as the children were supposed to return to Germany after working on farms or with foster families. Moreover, the exiled Jews advanced the authorities of third countries the cost of the return ticket. On December 1, 1938, the first convoy left Berlin's Friedrichstraße station, carrying almost 200 children and teenagers. A memorial now commemorates the event.

Two groups with opposing fates: Trains to Life - Trains to Death in Berlin.

A Manichean Vision

In a small, busy alley between Friedrichstraße station and the entrance to a subway station, a monument on a pedestal depicts two groups of children setting off in opposite directions. Below them is a railway track.

The first are resplendent. They are the children of good fortune. What we presume to be a brother and sister are striding forward, smiling and carrying a suitcase. The others are hesitant, frightened. They are dressed in rags and their broken suitcase contains a dismembered doll. Some will go on to life; others to death. These divergent fates are also reflected in the color of the metal: dark or light. This Manicheanism is disturbing, as the lucky children also knew anguish, fear and, perhaps for some, the feeling of having been abandoned by their parents.

Information is not visible at first glance. It can be found in the recesses of the station wall. Chronological inserts provide information on children's convoys and deportation. Unfortunately, they are located above steps on which people sit, destitute or idle, sometimes inebriated. The layout is not conducive to study, or commemoration for that matter. In the passageway, train and metro passengers continue on their usual journeys, and very few stop.

The admiring sister and her ambitious brother.

The Trap of Dualism

Mahnmal Trains to Life - Trains to Death suffers from an overly overt dualism. The lucky children exist only in opposition to the deported children, and vice versa. In short, the happiness of some cannot be true without the misfortune of others. Good and Evil are sublimated in a sometimes disturbing mise-en-scène: on one side, the boy's dynamic gait under the admiring gaze of the little girl; on the other, protective teenage girls with a motherly figure.

The memorial is the work of artist Frank Meisler, who was saved by the 1939 children's convoys and whose parents were murdered during the Holocaust. His first work on this theme is located in London station. Only one group of children is represented: those who have just arrived. Their faces are fearful in the face of the unknown, but also relieved. To today's passers-by, these statues are those of ordinary travelers, and this is probably how Londoners viewed them at the time: the anonymity of a railway station.

Unfortunately, the Berlin monument introduces the children of death trains and calls for empathy. As a result, it engages Berlin passers-by morally: will they look away, as non-Jewish Germans of yesteryear did in the face of anti-Semitism? The question can be asked in a closed set, but not gratuitously in the public space. Focusing exclusively on the children of the "Trains to Life" would have been far more judicious. The memorial would have fully addressed the themes of exile and renewal, inviting Germany to look at its past from a different angle.


  • A rarely evoked event

  • Striking aesthetics

  • A memorial at the place of origin


  • Manichean dualism

  • An outdated moral dimension

  • A disappointing presentation

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