As the S-Bahn swings south at Charlottenburg and heads for Potsdam, the cityscape shifts from six-storey buildings and balconies upon which satellite dishes are precariously balanced to one of detached houses with the occasional, modest apartment block here and there, and the wide expanse of the forest, through which it is possible to glimpse the odd dwelling, tucked away between the trunks and beneath the branches like a fairy-tale cabin.
The S-Bahn drops us on the platform of the Grunewald Station, and we take the steps down to a long brick tunnel that runs beneath the tracks. We emerge into the daylight. At a kiosk cyclists sit lyric clad and lightly sweating, drinking bottles of water and licking ice creams. In front of the station entrance is a cobble-stoned turning circle, a drop off point for the trains into town. You can picture the early days of the railway, when the city still felt separate from this community, as the merchants and bankers caught the Berlin train for another day amassing the wealth upon which these tree-shaded villas were built. But more than that you can picture a very different train, and a memory of this suburban station that is altogether darker.
Platform 17. It was the departure point for 50,000 Jews during the Second World War, the final glimpse of their city before being deported to the horrors of the camps. For years the railway companies on both sides of the Berlin Wall showed no inclination to remember the role of the tracks and rolling stock in the holocaust. It was only after they merged to form the post-Wall Deutsche Bahn that plans were formed to memorialise what happened here.
As with so much of the neighbourhood and the nearby forest it is a peaceful place. A single track flanked by platforms upon which a series of cast steel objects have been laid to document each and every transportation in chronological order. The destinations are already imprinted on our consciousness – Auschwitz, Theresienstadt – but the power comes not in the scale of the crime but in the details. On this train 17 Jewish Berliners were transported. On this train 10. It is, for the Deutsche Bahn, a place of remembrance and a warning to future generations, and perhaps of remorse as well.
On the streets of Berlin and in countless other towns, cities and villages in Germany and beyond there are little shiny cobblestones laid outside the doors of houses. These Stolpersteine – and there are over 30,000 of them – give the names of individuals and families from a particular address that were later murdered by the Nazis. Although some people do not like them, I have always found the power in the giving of names to the victims of such a massive crime, when numbers such as six million are just too overwhelming to get a handle on. But you can picture ten people being marched onto a train, or then family who lived in your building – perhaps in your flat – and were taken away, never to return.
Outside a building where I used to live there was one of those Stolpersteine. “Here lived Ephraim Worrmann, Born 1878, Deported 1943. Murdered at Auschwitz.” Walking past it on a daily basis I stopped looking down but the name always stuck, and as I stand on Platform 17 I wonder about which train Ephraim was on. Then my daughter breaks into my thoughts with a question. What is here? As in, why are we standing around looking at an empty train track. I look at Katrin and we say to each other with our eyes…not yet. All parents, especially in cities like Berlin where brutal history is documented seemingly around every corner, must have moments like this. I am not sure yet how to answer the question when it comes again, as it will.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig