August 20, 2019

What was ‘The Lost Transport’?

A little known event that was almost lost in the rubble of WWII and the Holocaust was the story of the 'Lost Transport.' While it happened very late in the war, it would take another 50 years to learn that I had a personal connection with it.

It began in April 1945, just as the British were about to liberate the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen. The Nazi SS, fearing reprisals, chose to get rid of as much evidence as possible in the short time they had left. They did it by loading seventy five hundred sick and dying Jewish inmates onto three transport trains, all bound for the concentration camp at Theresienstadt; Established early in the war Theresienstadt was the Nazi showplace created to prove to the world how well the Third Reich was treating its prisoners. The ruse lasted just long enough to shoot a movie about it while proving to the Red Cross how humane life actually was for the inmates. The deception worked and the world was none the wiser. In reality, most of the Jewish participants were eliminated within weeks, mainly at Auschwitz.

But in early 1945, the Nazis blew up the gas chambers at Auschwitz to hide the horrors of their massive killing machine from the outside world. 

However they still needed to eliminate their wretched prisoner population, albeit on a lesser scale. To handle it, the SS began building a gas chamber at Theresienstadt, But they began too late.

My connection came fifty year later, while I was researching the story of my Uncle, Paul Rehfisch. He was my mother’s older brother and had been living in Berlin in 1938 with his wife, Kaethe, when he fled to Amsterdam, right after Kristallnacht. 

The Nazis invaded Holland two years later. 

Living under constant fear of deportation, he and Kaethe survived until they were arrested by the SS in 1943. Like so many other Dutch Jews, they along with Anne Frank and her family, were transported to the notorious Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp in Celle, Germany by way of the Dutch Transit Camp at Westerbork. 

In 1944, my mother received a letter from the Red Cross with the sad news that Paul and Kaethe had died of typhus in Bergen Belsen. 

That was the end of the story until fifty years later when, during my research, I received an email message referring me to a web site honoring all the Dutch Jews who perished in the Shoa. That’s where I found Paul and Kaethe’s names, but, linked to the name, “Troebitz”.

But that name stumped me. I really had no clue what it meant until I received the answer. But it was a shock because it said that Paul and Kaethe didn’t die in Bergen Belsen after all, but in a little German farming village called Troebitz, located near Dresden, and the Czech border. 

Then short time later, I received a monograph written by a Holocaust historian, titled, “Niemals Vergessen (Never Forget) – The Story of the “”Lost Transport””. That’s when I learned the horrendous details of what really happened to my uncle and his wife.

Monograph of the Lost Transport

When the SS set the wheels in motion to destroy the wretched, human evidence at Bergen Belsen, they divided up 7,500 sick any dying inmates and put them on three trains, all bound for Theresienstadt and their soon to be finished gas chamber.

The first train left the camp on April 6. While it actually reached Theresienstadt, the camp was liberated by the Russians just a few days later.

The second train left the following day but only made it as far as Magdeburg before it was stopped and the prisoners freed by U.S. Army troops. 

Then, two days later, on April 9, the remaining twenty five hundred prisoners were loaded onto a third train. But when it left Bergen Belsen it essentially disappeared from the outside world, only to go down in history as the “Lost Transport”. 

In reality, with so many railroad tracks already destroyed by the allies, instead of heading southeast toward the Czech border, the engineer took a long and torturous route to the northeast, hoping to find any open rail passage to the south. That futile search resulted in the train and its pathetic cargo mending for two weeks.

Conditions on board were beyond description. With sickness raging from the typhus epidemic that was already rampant at Bergen Belsen, and with little in the way of food, water or sanitation, many died along the way.

But on April 23rd, the train was forced to stop. German partisans blocked the rear, while a Soviet Army division blocked the front. The engineer fled for his life.

The Russian soldiers along with a few remaining townspeople helped liberate the prisoners, and tried to save as many as they could. But most of the original 700 inhabitants, had already fled the Russians, and those who remained were overwhelmed by nearly 2,000 sick and dying prisoners.

But Paul was beyond help. Lingering for two weeks, he died from typhus on May 5. Sadly, it was only two days later when the German High Command surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.

But it was also too late for Kaethe. She succumbed one week after Paul, on May 12. Together, they were buried in a mass grave next to the old Nordfeld, army barracks & infirmary just outside the town of Troebitz.

The Nordfeld Barracks Infirmary near Troebitz


About the author: After a heart attack, Pete Vanlaw learned he had been living a lie when he finally discovered his real heritage hidden behind his father’s secrets–propelling him into discovering for the first time the gripping stories of close family members, and what impact Hitler and the Holocaust had on their lives…and his own. You can reach Pete at Forthelifeofme.012@gmail.com or visit his website www.ForTheLifeofMe-film.com