Present in the vicinity of a train station are very distinct and familiar sounds: the racket of heavy locomotives chugging down the rail and the screech of high-friction braking. A breeze sweeps through two columns of trees, creating a low keening sound which escapes into the open space beyond. To stop and listen, the sounds could easily be human: faint shouts and cries. Are they tricks of the mind, or are the dead speaking? The spectre of cruelty, despair, and suffering clings to the abandoned track; seven decades in the past don’t seem very far.
On a cool grey late-autumn afternoon, I’m on an S-Bahn train heading towards Potsdam. Beyond the limits of the “Stadtbahn” and one stop beyond the “Ring” at Westkreuz, the train pulls into the former goods and freight station at Grunewald. Dropping into the underground passage, signage points to the memorial at track 17. I leave the station by the southeast exit, and turn left to ascend the ramp along the side street.
In the Berlin borough of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Grunewald station lies on the S7 S-Bahn line serving central Berlin city, the city of Potsdam to the southwest, and Ahrensfelde to the northeast in the Berlin borough of Marzahn-Hellersdorf. Grunewald station began operation in 1879 under its original name Hundekehle named after a nature reserve nearby. The station changed its name to “Grunewald” in 1884 when the old Grunewald station began its new life as “Halensee” station. Grunewald station and its tracks were incorporated into Berlin’s S-Bahn train network in 1928.
Many companies including the Deutsche Reichsbahn (German Imperial Rail) were actively complicit in the machinery of mass murder during Nazi rule. After reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, the two separate railways also merged to form Deutsche Bahn in 1994, and calls arose for the new company to acknowledge its dark past. To mark the Reichbahn’s collaboration in deporting people to camps and their deaths, present-day Deutsche Bahn AG established a memorial at track 17. Inaugurated in 1998 the memorial was designed and built by architects Hirsch, Lorch, and Wandel who were very mindful of the 1991 Karol Broniatowski memorial near the station’s entrance.
Along track 17, metal plates have been inserted, one for every transport train which took Berlin’s Jews to their deaths. Each plate includes the transport date, the number of people deported, and the transport’s destination. The first train of record departed Grunewald on 1941 October 18 when 1251 Jews were deported to Łódź. Another plate marks the last train of record (so far) leaving Grunewald on 1945 March 27 when 18 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt; blank plates leave room for additional commemorations with new uncovered information. More than 50-thousand Jews from Berlin were deported from this station alone. The first set of trains went to concentration-camps in eastern Europe, but by the end of 1942, trains were directed to Auschwitz and Theriesenstadt.
The vegetation that’s been left to grow around the track over the years is a visible symbol and an unspoken promise to all: that no train will leave track 17 ever again.
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