75 years ago, the Nazis began deporting Jews to death camps. The infamous Track 17 at Berlin’s Grunewald station was the departure point. Contemporary witness, Horst Selbiger, shares his memories of the “shipments.”
Horst Selbiger had prepared his speech well for the invited guests at the commemoration of the first deportations on October 19. Selbiger, now 88 years old, knew personally many of the people who were sent to their deaths from Track 17. There were many of his relatives and also close friends. He and his parents were lucky. They were not deported and survived.
Selbiger recently traveled from Berlin to the final destination of the transports to the East: the Polish city of Lodz. “And then all these things surfaced,” explains Selbiger from his small, tidy kitchen in a high-rise apartment block. “It is unbelievable the brutality with which the Nazis housed and then gassed totally innocent people.”
In official Nazi documents the deportation is euphemistically referred to as a “resettlement” or “evacuation” or people being “deposited.” In reality, people were taken with the German state railway to their deaths in ghettos, labor camps or concentration camps. At first they were transported in decommissioned carriages; later they were taken in cattle cars.
The first deportation left Track 17 of Berlin’s Grunewald station on the 18th October 1941. 1089 children, women and men were taken by force to Lodz. By the end, some 50,000 Jews from Berlin were deported; victims of the Nazi “Reign of Terror.”
Today, these railway platforms are memorials situated on the edge of the capital. This is where Horst Selbiger will be holding his speech. “For me, Track 17 is the train station from where all the suffering began. Us kids were smarter than the grown ups. We knew by 1941 that the Jews were being exterminated like vermin.” The adults were led to believe otherwise, but Selbiger, who was 13 at the time, as well as his classmates, had already been observing for a long time that the Jews were being carted off.
‘We children knew what was going on long before the adults’
Horst Selbiger was born in Berlin in 1928. His mother was not Jewish, but due to the wishes of his Jewish father he was raised devoutly. He went to a Jewish school, until it was closed down. From 1942 he had to do forced labor. In February 1943 he was arrested, and he and his parents only narrowly escaped being deported to Auschwitz.
After this, followed the years in East Germany. Selbiger wanted to help rebuild the country, but after being professionally disqualified and refused membership in the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), he moved to the West. But here he also found it difficult, saw how “fascism in the West was indestructible.”
In his mid 40s, with the scars to his body and soul, he took early retirement. He was simply exhausted from all he had been through.
A contemporary witness on a mission
For years, Selbiger has offered himself as a contemporary witness of the Nazi era, giving lectures and even helping to found the self-help association, “Child Survivors Deutschland – Surviving children of the Holocaust.”
In explaining why he goes to such efforts to prevent history from being forgotten, he says: “61 people with the name Selbiger were deported and killed. One of them was my first great love. And all these people call out to me: tell our story!” And he intends to do this for as long as he can.
He will also be doing this when he holds his speech and remembers the horrors of Track 17 on the 75th anniversary of the first deportations from Berlin.
At the end of our interview he says, “If I could hold a class reunion, then it would be held on Track 17,” the station in Berlin Grunewald from where so many of his Jewish classmates were deported – taken by force by the Nazis to face certain death.