On May 20, 1941, the Nazis parachuted into Crete in Operation Mercury. After 10 days of fighting, despite incurring heavy losses, they overcame the British, New Zealand, Australian and Greek soldiers who were defending the island.
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That summer, the 300-strong Jewish community was subjected to increasingly restrictive measures. At first, kosher animal slaughter was outlawed, then the names of all the Jews on the island had to be entered in a special register, and by the end of August all Jewish-owned shops had to be clearly marked as such. But it would still be three more years before the Nazis set about implementing the Final Solution in Crete too. In May 1944, the German police chief in Athens announced that “all the Jews of Corfu and Crete are to be immediately deported” and called for “naval transportation” and sufficient manpower to escort them.
The chronicle of Crete’s Jews from that moment until their tragic deaths at sea less than a month later is recorded in the online database “Transports to Extinction,” a new project by Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research.
The site has information on all the transports during the Holocaust, including a reconstruction of the route of each transport, names and other information about the individuals and organizations that were involved in carrying out the transports, information on the deportees, including their verbal or written testimonies and pictures.
“This is where you’ll find the Holocaust, in the lists that are a thousand-names long, that say when the transport leaves the station, where its stops on the way and when it continues on after waiting,” says Dr. Joel Zisenwine, director of the research project.
The term “transport” usually calls to mind a train station with German policemen or locals cramming Jews into the crowded cars. But there were also transports that were done on foot, by horse carriage and by urban electric trolley. On Crete, which was surrounded by sea and had no railroad system, the Nazis had to resort to other modes of transportation.
On May 21, 1944, at 5 A.M., the Nazi police went door to door in the Jewish district of the city of Chania and rounded up 260 Jews. First they were marched down the streets of the neighborhood clutching small bundles of their belongings. When they reached the edge of the district, German military vehicles were waiting to take them to a nearby army base, where they were held for a week. On June 4 they were loaded onto military trucks, transported to the city of Heraklion and imprisoned in the ancient fortress there, where they were joined by 15 more Jews from Heraklion who had also been arrested.
On June 8, the Jews of Crete were deported from the island. At the Heraklion port they were made to board the cargo vessel Tannais, which set sail at 8:30 A.M. for Piraeus, Greece. From there they were supposed to continue their journey overland to the concentration camps in occupied Poland. But the next day, at around 3 A.M., when the ship was between the islands of Santorini and Milos, a torpedo was fired at the ship from a British submarine. The ship sank and all aboard perished.
This transport was just one of thousands by which the Nazis deported Jews from their homes to the concentration camps. The exact number is not known, but Zisenwine estimates that about 4,000 transports to the camps were carried out during the Nazi era from a wide variety of locations.
Trains to death
The collection of the material for the new database began in 2007 and is still ongoing. The work is being done by a group of 10 researchers, including speakers of Greek, Dutch, Bulgarian, French, German and other languages. “We synthesize and integrate the various sources, including Jewish and Nazi sources, in order to tell the story of the transports,” says Zisenwine.
The sources of information include survivor testimonies, memoirs and journals, as well as letters and notes that Jews tossed out the windows of the trains. The database also contains information gathered at the post-War trials of Nazi war criminals which shed light on the transports, along with testimony from railroad workers and other witnesses.
The database also contains some stories about deportees from well-known Jewish families. One of the saddest regards a transport that departed on September 23, 1942 from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia for the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland. This transport of 1,980 prisoners from the ghetto included many old, sick and disabled people, with an average age of 72. On the day of the transport, they were forced to march three kilometers from the ghetto to the train station. Anyone unable to walk was taken to the train in trucks along with the cargo. The database contains the testimony of one ghetto resident by the name of Max Berger who says that some of the elderly prisoners died on the way to the train, but they were loaded onto the cars anyway “to fill the necessary quota for deportees.”
The train that left Theresienstadt passed through Dresden, Poznan and Warsaw before arriving at is final destination – Treblinka. When they were taken off the train, most of the prisoners were immediately dispatched to their deaths. “As far as is known, not a single person of the 1,980 deportees who were on this transport survived,” reads the database’s accompanying text.
Among the prisoners on this transport were two of Sigmund Freud’s sisters: 78-year-old Pauline-Regine Winternitz and 81-year-old Marie “Mitzi” Freud. Treblinka survivor Shmuel Reisman described witnessing one of the sisters arriving at the camp. “One time I was standing on the train platform when they were taking people out of the cars. An old woman went up to Kurt Franz (one of the camp commanders), pulled out an identity card and said that she was the sister of Sigmund Freud,” Reisman recounted.
The woman hoped that mentioning the name of her famous brother, who fled the Nazis and died in exile in London in 1939, would gain her immunity. Reisman says she asked to be employed “in light office work” in the camp. The Nazi commandant looked at her papers, told her there had been a mistake and in a couple of hours she could board another train for Vienna. In the meantime, he sent her off to the showers. “She never returned from the showers,” Reisman said.
Final Solution’s geographic dimension
The database also relates the bitter fate of the passengers on a transport from the Netherlands to Auschwitz four months later. This transport, which departed from Apeldoorn, Holland on January 22, 1943, was particularly tough. On this train, the Nazis loaded all 921 occupants of a Jewish psychiatric hospital, patients and workers alike. The institution, the Apeldoornse Bosch, was run by Dr. Jaques Lobstein. Before the deportation, he had managed to smuggle out 175 workers and 80 patients. But at around 8 A.M. of January 21, the hospital was surrounded by German police and members of the Jewish police, who were ordered to evacuate the hospital.
“The operation was supposed to be carried out quickly, and many patients didn’t have time to get dressed, so they were removed in their pajamas or even without any clothes,” says the database.
The patients were loaded onto German trucks that brought them to the train.
“We were told that things weren’t moving fast enough and that we had to quickly load the patients onto the trucks, especially the physically disabled ones, and in the end they were sprawled atop one another like pigs. The German police and other people in uniform beat them and shouted things like ‘get the pigs out of here,’” one of the Jewish policemen recounted after the war.
The Apeldoorn stationmaster also testified after the war about what he saw that day: “At first the men and women were put into separate cargo cars, but afterwards everything got all mixed up. Later on in the night, the sickest patients were brought to the station. Some of them, dressed in robes, could barely make it into the cars, and they leaned helplessly against the sides of the cars.”
After all the patients were loaded on the train, all the workers at the psychiatric hospital were ordered to pack their belongings and report to the main building. Ferdinand Hugo aus der Fünten, head of the Nazis’ Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Amsterdam, told them that 50 volunteers were needed to care for the patients during the trip and promised that they would either get to return afterwards or be given jobs in another hospital. About 20 volunteers signed up of their own accord. He selected the other 30 himself.
On January 24, the train arrived in Auschwitz. “It was one of the worst transports from Holland that I saw. A lot of patients tried to break away and were shot. The rest were immediately gassed to death,” reported Yaakov Yitzhak von Halder, who worked in the Kanada Commando in Auschwitz – the prisoners’ unit tasked with sorting the new arrivals’ confiscated belongings. Other testimonies say that a teenage girl was the lone survivor of this transport.
“Our project lends another geographic dimension to the Final Solution. The extermination project does not take place solely at its ultimate destination, in camps like Auschwitz. It starts far away from there, as far as the Greek islands,” says Zisenwine.
“There’s no question that when you get an overall view of the transports that Nazi Germany planned and executed for the purpose of murdering the Jews, you better understand the essence of the Final Solution,” adds Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, director of the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research.
The project is supported by a number of organizations and private donors, as well as the Claims Conference and one of the railroad companies that was an active partner in the deportations documented by the project. More than 75,000 Jews were deported to the camps in Poland with the aid of France’s SNCS train company, about 11,000 of them children. The company considers its support for this historic project another attempt to atone for that dark chapter in its past.