Almost two months had gone by since the Normandy landings, and the Allies were closing in on Paris — but Nazi authorities in the French capital had other priorities. On July 31, 1944, the final transport of French Jews left the transit camp of Drancy in the northern suburbs of Paris carrying 325 children. It was bound for Auschwitz.
That event, the 78th transport to leave France for the death camps, is being commemorated through July 19 at Paris’s Gare du Nord train station.
The station is hosting a photo exhibition entitled “The Last Transport, Jewish Children Deportees,” which marks the final event commemorating the 60th anniversaries of the deportations of some 73,000 Jews from France between 1942 and 1944.
The exhibit, which shows hundreds of portraits of Jewish children, already has appeared in 18 railway stations across France and at the head office of the SNCF, the national railway company.
The pictures are part o! f a vast collection of photographs and Holocaust archival material brought together by the French Holocaust survivors’ organization, Sons and Daughters of French Jewish Deportees.
Set up in 1979 by Serge Klarsfeld and his German-born wife Beate — who have spent decades seeking and prosecuting Nazi war criminals and the French collaborators who assisted them — the group has organized more than 80 commemorations over the past two years to mark the departure of every transport to the camps.
Those events, mostly held at Drancy but also at far-flung provincial railway stations and internment camps across France, generally have been modest affairs attended by a handful of local officials and activists of Klarsfeld’s group.
The group’s obstinate commitment to mark the exact date of each transport has been important in personalizing the horror of the deportations, but Klarsfeld recognizes that the station exhibits have been most effective in bringing the subject to a! wider public.
For Klarsfeld, who approached the railway company t o host the exhibitions in 2001, the choice of train stations was both a logical and a highly symbolic decision.
“There are thousands of people passing through these stations every day, and most of those people would never see these exhibitions in museums,” Klarsfeld said.
More importantly, he pointed out, was the centrality of trains in the deaths of millions of Jews during the Shoah.
“More than anything, it is the train that evokes the route of the martyr,” he said.
Klarsfeld, who successfully pursued and brought to trial Nazi war criminals like Klaus Barbie and French officials such as Maurice Papon and Rene Bousquet, rejects claims that the railway company should be held responsible for providing the trains for the deportations.
“We don’t hold them guilty. They had no choice as a public-owned company forced to carry out work by the Vichy government,” Klarsfeld said. “Justice should be carried out for those who led the anti-Jewish round-ups.”
“We ha! ve never claimed anything against the SNCF. That would be like trying French gendarmes or German soldiers,” he said.
For some, though, trains still evoke a painful memory, even 60 years later.
“I can’t stand trains, smoke, stations, even some kinds of light,” Simon Drucker said.
Drucker was rounded-up at the Vel d’Hiver bicycle stadium in July 1942 — where thousands of Jews from the Paris region were held before being deported to Auschwitz — and he was one of a number of Holocaust survivors explaining the significance of the photos to interested passengers at Gare du Nord.
Drucker said he remembered the clinical efficiency of the transports.
“The trains left at exactly the right time,” he said. “There was never a derailment and they always arrived at Auschwitz at the right time.”
Charles Barron, another French Holocaust survivor who was liberated from Dachau in1945, said he was particularly struck by the contrast between his own deportation and th! e bustling nature of Gare du Nord at the start of France’s summer holi day period this year.
“I remember the noise of the steam trains, the whistles and the shunting of wagons,” he said. “Today, it’s all so different. You see huge buildings with millions of people passing through.”
Nevertheless, it remains “symbolically important” to hold the exhibitions at the stations, he said.
“Stations are a place for release on the way to and from work. People sometimes have an hour to spare while they wait around for a train,” Barron said. “I think it’s better doing it here than in museums, where people can feel trapped and they become indifferent. Here they’re more sensitive to it.”
As at other stations, the exhibit dominates the front entrance to Gare du Nord.
Given the station’s function as a principal destination for trans-European routes and the departure point for London-bound trains, the railway company decided to host an additional exhibit in English in the waiting area for Eurostar trains crossing the English Channel.
Davi! d Rebibo, an Orthodox rabbi from Phoenix, Ariz., said he was taken aback when he arrived by train from Copenhagen to see a banner proclaiming the exhibition.
“It was the first thing I saw when I got here, and I was surprised,” he said. “I know there’s such strong anti-Semitism in France, so I never expected to see such a thing here.”
Rebibo said he was very moved by the pictures, and by the fact they had been placed in such a public place.
“It’s so important to educate people about this and so easy for people to forget what happened,” he said.
Rebibo said he had contacted Klarsfeld to ask whether he could bring the exhibition to his community in Arizona.
Arielle Ferhadian from Paris was seeing off her children as they boarded a train to London, and stopped to look at the photos.
“You see this and you realize that railway stations can be associated with contradictions,” she said. “It’s about travel and leisure, but there also has been murder and distres! s at these places.”
For others, it was not only the pictures of th e victims that left a telling mark.
Axel Krause, a history teacher from Hamburg, stopped for a time in front of a picture of German soldiers.
“I know the pictures because I teach kids about this, but for me it’s also a very living memory because my grandfather and father were soldiers,” he said.
After it closes in Paris, the exhibition will appear probably for the last time in public in Jerusalem next Jan. 27, marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
But as Klarsfeld has noted, this form of remembrance is unlikely to be repeated.
In a booklet prepared in 2002 to introduce the 60th anniversary commemorations, Klarsfeld wrote that this period was exceptional “because there are still among us hundreds who survived Auschwitz, there are thousands of children who survived while their parents were deported, and tens of thousands who passed through the Shoah without being deported and who did not lose their parents.”
“In 10 years time, tha! t will no longer be the case,” he wrote.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.