elisabeth interview

Transcript of the BBC/FRONTLINE Interview by David Marks with "Elisabeth"

Why don't we go back to your best memory of when this first came to your attention. When you think back, what was the first thing you remember that started the whole thing? And just start from there.

The first thing I remember was that there was a lot of talk about railroads and coal coming from Germany through Switzerland, through the GotthardTunnel and this was discussed in our family. There was a lot of talk that there was material, mainly coal, shipped from Switzerland through the Gotthard to the Axis and it was like an open secret -- everybody knew this.

And then one day my mother came home and she mentioned that as far as these railroad cars were concerned, there was a request of shipping people through the Gotthard and we talked about it within the family and my mother said that she was approached to be part of this committee and she explained that there were people, we didn't know at that time what kind of people or who this was, and she was asked to participate in order to... actually, that wasn't the way it was. She knew what it was. She was asked to participate because the trains would stop in Zurich and, for humanitarian reasons, they then would distribute blankets and coffee and soup.

And in the beginning we didn't believe this. This was at the time maybe only a rumour, we didn't believe this, but then there was, as time went on, a couple of weeks, there was more talk about this. And then finally my mother at one point came home and said to my father: "Well, that's it and I have volunteered and I'm going to do it." And my father was sort of against it. He said, why do you want to get involved? But she said, no I feel I have to do this. And as time went on we heard that this was the deal: since the Brenner Pass was closed because of the snow and they couldn't ship anybody through the Brenner, the Italians had Jews and gypsies, this is the way we got it, gypsies too, which they had or wanted to ship through Germany and the Germans had suggested to use these empty coal cars to ship them back with people and the Swiss Red Cross at that point had intervened and they had negotiated a deal whereby these railroad cars would stop at night in Zurich and we were allowed to give them some comfort in terms of hot beverage, soups, and especially blankets.

So as the day approached, actually we didn't believe it, my mother went around trying to get coffee because coffee was very much rationed and also she asked everybody if she could get their rations of beans. Beans was not rationed but, still, you couldn't get it that freely. And these beans were used then to make soup and carrots I guess and potatoes.

So we went around doing this and then, another night, my mother said that we are going to have some schooling. So we went to a meeting. I don't remember where the meeting took place - it wasn't in our home. Somewhere else. It was somewhere in, I believe a school building, in a gymnasium, and we got instructions. And there was a Red Cross official, the lady, who told us that the trains would come in at night, that we were supposed to bring flashlights, that we would be in teams of four, and we would be stationed at certain spots which what they would tell us, we would have to bring all the goods - the blankets and the coffee and the beans one day before to the spot where they would collect it, and we were also supposed to bring our gas masks which I didn't understand at that time at all why we would have to bring our gas masks. Now everybody had a gas mask at that time because they were given out for nothing. Every building had gotten so many gas masks.

So my mother did all that - gave all the coffee and whatever. And then the day came. We of course had no car and at that time there was blackouts, that I remember we took the street car with the gas masks, and we had also been told that we would have to make a chain. We would get big buckets of soup and big pots of coffee and the soup we would ladle out in smaller containers and we would have to hand it down from one person to the other and in our team there would have to be one person who would be stationed right next to the railroad cars.

So we arrived. It was about, I think, nine o'clock at night and we were four in our team - my aunt, my mother, the housekeeper and myself. And my mother was the one who stood next to the railroad car. And I think there were maybe 10 teams and they were placed in intervals on the platform, and we waited. And when everything was done and where everybody was waiting, they brought these hot soups because they were made somewhere -- I don't know. -- Yes, I do know. I think even some of it was made in the Jewish community house. I am not sure of that but I think my aunt told me that the soup was made there. And then they brought big containers of coffee. And my job was the soup. I had to ladle the soup into smaller containers - not in plates, it was sort of gamella (?) they called it. Metal.

And so we waited and then sure enough, very slowly, these cars came and stopped. And somebody from the outside opened the door - it was like a wooden bar and that was opened and then some keys and then the door swung open and we all were waiting there. And a man came out on our station and he stood there. And that was my sign to start ladling the soup. I remember it was very difficult because the flashlight was sort of on the floor and it was hot, the soup was pretty hot. I had to ladle it and then I gave it to housekeeper and the housekeeper gave it to my aunt and the aunt gave it to my mother and she handed it to this man and the man swung around and, there must be people in the car who took it from him.

And this went on for about a good half an hour. And it was very tense. We were also instructed not to talk, not to whistle, not to do anything, it was a very tense situation. And I also remember I thought, what would happen if all of a sudden all these people came tumbling out of these railroad cars. And I was thinking, what would be in these railroad cars. Would they have beds? Or chairs? Was there a stove in these railroad cars? It was very cold, very raw weather. And I was thinking, well, if they are coming out, what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to push them back in? Or would we keep them and maybe we would bring them home and I would share my room with them? Because my mother had brought some of the Jewish refugees who were in camps at the time in Switzerland, they came very often during weekends. Because that s when they were allowed to go out and I always had to share my room with them so that's what I thought at the time, maybe I have to share my room again.

But no, nothing happened, and when everything was done, soup was finished and coffee was done. And the blankets, the blankets were also distributed, then we went home and we went back home with the streetcar. I remember we had to keep a certain time with the streetcar because they stopped running. And that was it.

Do you remember the doors being shut? Do you remember the train pulling out? Yes. The train didn't pull out when everything was finished. They did close the door, they did close the door. But the trains were left there.

If we could have that in order... When we finished giving them everything, and I also remember we were... somehow we were finished sooner than everybody else. So we stood sort of around. So when everybody was finished, somebody came running towards us and said, all right, you can now go home. And as we went home, they closed the doors. But we were the very first one from the... on the platform. That I remember. We were the first one and all the others were sort of spread out further into the platform. So... I remember that they closed the doors further down and we left, but they had not closed our door yet. That much I could see. Somebody came running past the railroad cars and sort of closed these doors. And then we went home.

And then the next morning or maybe a day after, there was an article in the newspaper - Zurich local newspaper I believe - that the citizens who had houses next to the platform number one, they complained because apparently the people in the railroad cars they had made noise, they banged and they had apparently said "Leave [let] me out" and people could not sleep who were living around the railroad cars. And it was suggested that maybe these.... the next transports should be left on the side of the Landes museum because nobody slept there and would be quieter. And I remember the article. The article was very ambigious. Our own feeling at that time were very ambigious. I don't think we wanted really to deal with this. What would happen... we knew they were going to Germany, we knew they were Jews, we knew about the concentration camps. But we also had a feeling that we had helped them, that we had done good and that the fact that they were now hollering at night, they shouldn't have done that because we had helped them. It was a very strange and ambiguous feeling and the article in a way said that, look we have helped you and now you're making a big racket and now our good citizens can't sleep. And, of course, you know, this was wartime and we were all a little bit warped in our thinking, in our feelings.

That... this type of thing always troubled me. And even today when I have to review it [voice breaks - sounds close to tears] it is very troublesome. And I always wondered, why couldn't we help more? Because if the Swiss wouldn't have left... if the Swiss would have said, all right, we're going back on our word and we are not leaving this people... we are not letting these people go further to Germany then I guess the other transports wouldn't have followed. As it was, I think they had about eight to 12 transports. And I went once more with my mother and, sure enough, the cars were on the far side of the station, on the Landis Museum part, and pretty much the same thing happened on that platform, and that was the last time I went because then my mother felt since I still went to school, that it was too late and well maybe she also thought it wasn't a good thing to bring a young person to see this. And she said, you don't have to go any more.

Who were the other people in the teams? Do you remember? No. Because it was... number one we were not supposed to talk to each other. That was verbotten . And it wasn't very bright. It was pretty dark. One of the recollections I had is that, although it was very dark, when this car opened, the man who... the face who peeked out was very white. The whole thing was very shadowy because there wasn't much light. We had these flashllights and there was some light on the ceiling. But everything was dim because there was blackout.

In the meeting, the orientation meeting, were all the teams there? Yes. They were mostly Jewish people. I knew some. I knew some because there were some young people. Older than I was. A young man with whom I went skiing. The adults I didn't really know. My aunt knew them but I don't have clear remembrance of that. I know one person, he was a lawyer, -- I remember that. Said hello. And it was, when we gathered at that platform, at the beginning of the platform our whole group, we didn't make much eye contact. I think it was a rather grim... it was an ambigious thing.

Why do you think the Red Cross came to this particular group of people? I suppose because they were Jewish. And I think the whole thing was rather undercover, maybe other than Jewish people not many people knew about these transports. And of course the Red Cross felt that they had done a wonderful job in.... distributing blankets, coffee and soup. I don't know if they ever thought of liberating.. or stopping these trains. I have no idea about that.

Do you ever remember specifically being told at any point either at the orientation or by your aunt or your mother, specifically who these people were? What's your best recollection of when you were told and what you were told? We were told that they were Jewish people, gypsies and other people who were transported to Germany and beyond. And that was all what actually what we were told. And I remember one of the reasons we were also told that they had to, at that meeting, that they had to go through Switzerland because the Brenner Pass was closed.

I was first told by my mother but at the meeting it was confirmed because there was a question. Somebody raised his hand and said, why do they have to go through Switzerland? I mean, nobody was very happy about it. They thought it was... it wasn't a question that they were against it, but they didn't feel that Switzerland should lend its hand to letting these trains through. On the other hand, the feeling was, well, if we don't let the trains through, maybe they suffer even more by... I don't know what they thought really.

So the question was raised at this meeting, why were these trains coming through? Yes.  
And was the question also raised, who the people were? Yes, they were told they were.... we definitely knew there were people in there. And people asked, well, who are they, what is going to happen to them? And the answer was vague. They said... well, they are transportees to Germany... I think also somebody asked if they were political prisoners. In my family we just assumed they were only Jews. And I guess we were probably right. And in my family it was assumed they would be shipped to the concentration camp. Of course at that time you knew there were concentration camp but you.. there were different concentration camps. Some which were extermination camps - Bergen Belsen was one; Dachau was one. Teresianstat [sp?] was a good camp; Teresianstat was a camp where people could survive. So we were talking well we hope that the people will land in Teresianstat. But as.... [sighs] but what bothers me still is that we could have helped and nobody did anything. And it' s a very bothering thing because at that time I didn't feel responsible, but later on I think I felt responsible [close to tears]. But at that time it wasn't very emotional, somehow we felt we were doing good. The best we could maybe.

Can you tell us again a little bit about how old you were then and what you were doing and a little bit of background at the time. I was 14 going on 15 at the time and I was going to school in Switzerland. The feeling of the Swiss Jews was that they were protected in Switzerland as long as the Germans wouldn't invade. However there was a great deal of anti-semitism. I didn't feel it, but maybe because I don't look Jewish.

Did you have fears? Personally, no. I think grown-ups had a great deal of fear.

What was your impression of these transports? Did you understand what it was about? Oh, we understood what it was about. But we heard also... the newspapers in Switzerland at that time, they did talk about the concentration camps. They did. And I remember that when we read about it we thought it was terrible, but it was sort of, well, we were lucky, it's not us. You felt sort of very helpless. There was nothing you could really do. And on the other hand it was here but for the grace of God go I.

But it was something far away and you felt fortunate but then all of sudden... It came home. And that is why we think all of us who came face to face with the deportees... because after all the person who was standing there, I mean, that was it, it came home. Before it was sort of...

So that was a transformation for you? At what point - was it at the trains? What was the feeling? I remember that very well. We were waiting. And then these trains came rolling in. And again they had to open these cars. And we were the first ones, when you came on the platform, that was where we were standing. And the cars were opened up from the far side, so we were standing there quite some minutes before our car was opened. And I remember that I was thinking, what's going to happen? Who is in there? Well, nothing happened of course. But when this man came out it was a very strong... very strong. I had the feeling, what would happen if all these people all of a sudden pushed this man aside and came tumbling out of the car. What were we supposed to do? If we were supposed to do anything. And would there be people coming and pushing them back in. And I was worried. In a way I wished they would be free but in a way I didn't want them to come out because.... it was almost zoo like when you see a tiger in a cage and you feel sorry for the animal and yet you don't want to come too near. And this was of course the first time in my life when I came very close to the whole situation.

Was it a turning point in your life? Was it a coming of age? No, at that time it wasn't. But I did think, many times, why was I saved? Because I felt certainly I wasn't any better than the next teenager or grown up. And this was always... and I'm not very religious... I could never quite understand, why was I saved? Well, maybe I was saved to tell the story. You have to also undersand that even if you're not really in war, war bends one feelings and ones thought because every day you hear so many people killed and you get callouses on your soul. And I think all these people who stood on this platform, we all had callouses on our soul. Yes, I truly believe that. And we were so concerned of our own safety and I think that was a typical Swiss syndrome.

You did speak to your mother about this years later. What did she say? She didn't want to talk about many things during the War. My mother didn't talk about many things of what had happened to her and what had happened generally in the War. I think she made a conscious effort to forget about it. And that is one thing I see with many people... survivors, they don't want to talk about it. But my mother and I, we did have conversations sometimes. Rarely but sometimes. I said, what do you think happened to these people? She didn't want to talk about it. Much later, when she was about 87, shortly before she died, it came up again, this episode with the train. I mentioned to her, what would have happened to these people and why didn't we do something? And she said: "Oh Elisabeth, these were bizarre times."

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