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Austrian Railways comes to terms with Nazi past

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Austrian Railways comes to terms with Nazi past
Prisoners disembark from a train at Auschwitz. Photo: Auschwitz Album, Yad Vashem
13:10 CET+01:00
Austria’s national railway company ÖBB has held an exhibition at the European Parliament which looks at a dark chapter in its past - the firm’s complicity in the Holocaust.

The exhibition opened last week and was attended by hundreds of people, including members of the European Parliament, European Jewish Congress staff and Austrian Federal Railways executives.

“Some from our marketing team feared this exhibition would hurt the brand,” the ÖBB's CEO Christian Kern said. “But we need our brand to be clean. And showing what happened in the Holocaust is necessary for that.”

“We wanted to actively do something, so that we bear the burden of all the individual memories and that they are communicated to future generations. This is part of our social responsibility,” he added.

The exhibition, titled The Suppressed Years, features a confined space the size of a cattle wagon of the sort that was used in transporting tens of thousands of Austrian Jews and other groups persecuted by the Nazi regime in Austria to concentration and death camps across Europe.

It also tells the story of foreigners who were forced to work for the railway and the story of the railway’s rapid absorption, within a few days, into the German railway system after Nazi Germany merged with Austria in 1938. Without the railway the mass transports to the death camps would not have been possible.

For decades after World War II, Austrian politicians argued that Austria was an occupied nation and Germany's 'victim'. But in 1991, then-chancellor Franz Vranitzky apologized for Austria’s role in the murder of 90 percent of the country’s pre-Holocaust population of over 200,000 Jews.

Ulrike Lunacek, Vice President of the European Parliament, said as she opened the exhibition: “One of the posters in this exhibition shows the slogan 'Die Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg’ which translates into 'The wheels must roll for the victory'. The wheels of thousands of locomotives and wagons rolled for the Nazi regime, however, they rolled for the biggest failure of humanity on this continent, for violence, cruelty, extinction and death.”

Milli Segal, an Austrian Jew who curated the exhibition told The Local that it "encompasses the whole story of what happened around and inside the ÖBB during the Holocaust - how the railway’s workers were obliged to become Nazis, and how dissidents were rooted out and sentenced to death.”  

The exhibition has already toured Austria’s largest cities and will come to Wiener Neustadt next year. It is also hoped that one day it will travel to the US and Israel.

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