Child Holocaust witness reveals lucky escape aboard The Lost Train

By Mal Siret
BBC News

Image source, Mirjam Lapid-Andriesse
Image caption,
Mirjam Lapid-Andriesse, seen here in September 1939, says she is one of the lucky ones

Mirjam Lapid-Andriesse was 10 years old when she was taken from her home in the Dutch city of Utrecht and placed in an Amsterdam "ghetto" with her family in April 1943.

As a child, she was unaware of the gravity of what was unfolding around her.

More than 100,000 Jews from cities and towns across the Netherlands were being gathered up to be deported during World War Two, mainly to death camps at Auschwitz and Sobibor.

The victims included thousands of children. Only 5,000 people survived.

"I was a little girl during the war, so my memories are child memories, not political," she tells the BBC.

"I was the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls. I remember we were taken from the ghetto by train to the Westerbork transit camp in June 1943."

Image source, Mirjam Lapid-Andriesse
Image caption,
Mirjam (centre front) and her family were among thousands of Dutch Jews to be transported

Mirjam, now 86, was speaking on the day that Dutch state-run rail company NS began accepting applications for its compensation programme over its historical role in helping the Nazi occupiers transport Jewish families.

A stolen childhood

Now living in Israel, Mirjam recalls her memories of life in Utrecht, the Amsterdam ghetto and the Westerbork camp.

"In the beginning it affected the adults more, but then it affected us," she says.

"We couldn't go to the swimming pool or the cinema, we had to hand over our bikes and we weren't allowed to go to public schools - so I actually lost three years of schooling."

Despite this, she considers her family to be very fortunate, compared with others.

"Out of the six of us, five of us survived. Only our father died - so we were lucky."

Image source, Mirjam Lapid-Andriesse
Image caption,
Mirjam, now 86, says she marks the day her family was liberated as a "second birthday"

Mirjam's father, Herman, died from severe undernourishment and exhaustion on 24 February 1945, just six weeks before her family was liberated.

The Lost Train

In the days before the war ended, the Nazis began destroying evidence of concentration camps - including sites and documentation - and transporting prisoners to other locations within Germany.

It was at this time, as Mirjam was travelling through Germany in 1945 on one of three trains that had departed from the camp at Bergen-Belsen, that she recalls the moment she was freed.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Women prepare food at the Bergen-Belsen camp in northern Germany, circa 1940

"Our train was known as The Lost Train," she says, after the vehicle intended to travel to Theresienstadt - in what is now the Czech Republic - was forced to reroute due to bombing, before stopping in the small German village of Tröbitz.

Many of the people on board died in transit due to malnutrition and illness.

"I celebrated my 12th birthday on the train, on 17 April 1945.

"Since then I celebrate my second birthday on 23 April - the day we were liberated by the Russian army in Tröbitz, where we were held for two months. We were then returned to the Netherlands.

"I am, to this day, in contact with a family there," she adds.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Women are transported in cattle trucks to Nazi concentration camps in the early 1940s

Is the compensation offered enough?

The involvement of Dutch rail company NS in assisting the Nazis in the 1940s had a direct impact on Mirjam and her family, but she does not blame them for what happened.

"Remember this was the Nazis," she says, "the Germans paid for the use of the Dutch railways - but the company had no choice.

"I don't think they could have said no - I can't blame them for that."

And what about the compensation now being made available to victims, will it make a difference? Is it enough?

"I never expected anything - €15,000 [£14,000; $17,000] is a lot of money. I'm planning to do something special with it.

"Next year it will be 75 years since I was liberated. I'm planning to take all of my family - the children and grandchildren - to Tröbitz to celebrate my personal victory."

Image source, Mirjam Lapid-Andriesse
Image caption,
Mirjam (in the red sweater) with her family, whom she plans to take to the German village of Tröbitz

Mirjam moved to Israel in 1953. Her entire family relocated there "because we didn't want anything like this to happen again".

"I got married, my husband is South African. We live in Kibbutz Tzora and have raised five children. I have 14 grandchildren."

She adds that, unfortunately, one of her children was killed in a helicopter accident while employed as a pilot in the Israeli army.

What was the railway's role in deportations?

A representative of the National Westerbork Memorial, Dirk Mulder, said in a TV interview last year that the NS had "complied with the German order to make trains available".

"The Germans paid for it and said the NS had to come up with a timetable. And the company went and did it without a word of objection," Mr Mulder said.

Westerbork became a transit camp in 1941 and the first deportees left on 15 July 1942. The final train left on 13 September 1944, with 279 Jews on board. Among those deported from the camp were 245 Sinti and Roma.

Media caption,
Holocaust survivors: The families who weren’t meant to live

In November, NS said its role in operating trains on behalf of Germany's Nazi occupiers during World War Two was "a past we cannot look away from".

NS, which formally apologised in 2005 and has described the deportations as a "black page in the history of the company", has promised each survivor €15,000, while up to €7,500 will go to children and widowed spouses of victims.

"It is estimated that several thousand people are eligible for the allowance, including an estimated 500 survivors. NS will set aside several tens of millions of euros for this in the coming years," NS said in a statement in June.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), which pursues claims over Jewish properties stolen by the Nazis in Europe, welcomed the move, but also urged NS to provide additional funds as a "collective expression of recognition of the suffering and fate" of the victims who did not survive.

These additional funds, the group said, could be used to "perpetuate the memory of those who perished" through a variety of educational programmes.