I’m not a train person in general. Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines. I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden. Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.
In general. But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance. I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.
The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects. And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food in it. Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.
His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.
Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred. The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.
Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred. Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.
I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’ Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced. And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.
And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’. In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.
But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark.
This photograph captures an extraordinary moment. The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified. They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this moment they understood that they were free.
And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom. They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish
(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)
- The Haunting Persistence of Memory: W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” (rosslangager.com)
- Disused train station to host Holocaust museum (praguepost.com)