Thousands of Berlin residents waited hours on Sunday to view an exhibition aboard a train that commemorates Jewish children and youths sent by the Nazis to death camps.
The 'Train of Commemoration' has been winding its way across the nation since November, with its steam engine pulling several cars that carry the exhibit tracing the fates of individual children deported during World War II.
A grass-roots group of German citizens said it organized the exhibit because national railway operator Deutsche Bahn had not done enough to address the issue despite its role in the Reichsbahn (German Reich Railway), which the Nazis used to carry out the deportations.
Some 160,000 people across Germany had already viewed the exhibit before its arrival Sunday in Berlin's Ostbahnhoff, the central train station of former East Berlin. "We see this as proof that there are people who are interested in confronting history," said Hans Minnow, a spokesman for the organizers.
The train began its journey near the western border with France, and is scheduled to reach the former concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland on the eighth of May.
At the Berlin station on Sunday, a line of hundreds of people snaked along the platform alongside the train's carriages draped with tulips, carnations and roses. Some said they had waited up to four hours to view the exhibit.
"I'm struck by the patience shown by people standing here in line," said Janice Ross, a professor from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was among those waiting to get in. Another couple, exiting the exhibition, said they felt the wait had been worth their time and that organizers had done a good job selecting individual stories of the children. "It was really heart-wrenching," one man said after stepping off the train.
'A responsibility to make a statement'
But the exhibition has not been without controversy, as organizers have been embroiled in a dispute with Deutsche Bahn over its charging for the exhibit's use of Germany's rail network. The organizers asked to use the stations without charge, but the state-owned company refused, saying that while it supports the cause, it must treat the organization as it would any other group or company. The spat reached the government level last week, with Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee urging Deutsche Bahn to drop its demands that the train pay over $100,000 in fees.
"I expect Deutsche Bahn to consider all the fees for use of stations and the railway network a donation to the Train of Commemoration," Tiefensee said.
The organizers' spokesman, Minnow, said he had taken a year off his regular job as a journalist to accompany the train. "We are not guilty, but as the sons and daughters of the perpetrators, we felt we had our own responsibility to make a statement," he said.