The "Special Trains" | Facing History & Ourselves

The "Special Trains"

Consider the role of bureaucrats in the Nazi regime with this interview with a man who managed the trains to Auschwitz and Treblinka. 


  • History


English — US


In summer 1942, the Germans increased their efforts to identify and round up Jews in all the countries and territories across Europe that were now under their control, shoving them into cattle cars and eventually transporting them to newly opened killing centers in occupied Poland. This process involved thousands of civilians—policemen, accountants, clerical workers, and managers. For his documentary film Shoah (1985), director Claude Lanzmann interviewed Walter Stier, the man responsible for the so-called “special trains.” 

What’s the difference between a special and a regular train?

A regular train may be used by anyone who purchases a ticket. Say from Krakow to Warsaw. Or from Krakow to Lemberg. A special train has to be ordered. The train is specially put together and people pay group fares. . . .

But why were there more special trains during the war than before the war or after?

I see what you’re getting at. You’re referring to the so-called resettlement trains. . . . That’s what they were called. Those trains were ordered by the Ministry of Transport of the Reich. . . .

But mostly, at that time, who was being “resettled”?

No! We didn’t know that. Only when we were fleeing from Warsaw ourselves, did we learn that they could have been Jews, or criminals, or similar people.

Jews, criminals?

Criminals. All kinds.

Special trains for criminals?

No, that was just an expression. You couldn’t talk about that. Unless you were tired of life, it was best not to mention that.

But you knew that the trains to Treblinka or Auschwitz were—

Of course we knew. I was the last district; without me these trains couldn’t reach their destination. . . . So I had to . . .

Did you know that Treblinka meant extermination?

Of course not!

You didn’t know?

Good God, no! How could we know? I never went to Treblinka. I stayed in Krakow, in Warsaw, glued to my desk.

You were a . . .

I was strictly a bureaucrat! 1

Stier told Lanzmann how the “special trains” were financed:

. . . Jews were going to be shipped to Treblinka, were going to be shipped to Auschwitz, Sobibor or any other destination so long as the railroads were paid by the track kilometer, so many pfennigs per mile. The rate was the same throughout the war. With children under ten going at half-fare and children under four going free. Payment had to be made for only one way. The guards, of course, had to have return fare paid for them because they were going back to their place of origin. 

Excuse me, the children under four who were shipped to the extermination camps, the children under four . . .

. . . went free. 

They had the privilege to be gassed freely? 

Yes, transport was free. In addition to that, because the person who had to pay, the agency that had to pay, was the agency that ordered the train—and that happened to have been the Gestapo, Eichmann’s office—because of the financial problem which that office had in making payment, the Reichsbahn [the National Railway] agreed on group fares. The Jews were being shipped in much the same way that any excursion group would be granted a special fare if there were enough people traveling. The minimum was four hundred, a kind of charter fare. Four hundred minimum. So even if there were fewer than four hundred, it would pay to say there were four hundred and in that way get the half-fare for adults as well. And that was the basic principle. Now of course if there were exceptional filth in the cars, which might be the case, if there was damage to the equipment, which might be the case because the transports took so long and because five to ten percent of the prisoners died en route. Then there might be an additional bill for that damage. But in principle, so long as payment was being made, transports were being shipped. . . . Mittel Europäisch Reisebüro (The Middle Europe Travel Agency) would handle some of these transactions—the billing procedure, the ticketing procedure—or if a smaller transport was involved, the SS would . . .

It was the same bureau that was dealing with any kind of normal passenger? 

Absolutely. Just the official travel bureau. Mittel Europäisch Reisebüro would ship people to the gas chambers or they will ship vacationers to their favorite resort, and that was basically the same office and the same operation, the same procedure, the same billing. 

No difference? 

No difference whatsoever. As a matter of course, everybody would do that job as if it were the most normal thing to do . . . This was a self-financing principle. The SS or the military would confiscate Jewish property and with the proceeds, especially from bank deposits, would pay for transports. 

You mean that the Jews themselves had to pay for their death? 

You have to remember one basic principle. There was no budget for destruction. So that is the reason confiscated property had to be used in order to make the payments. 2

Connection Questions

  1. According to the interview in this reading, how did Walter Stier define his role and responsibilities? What do Stier’s responses reveal about what was most important to him? 
  2. In your opinion, was Stier a perpetrator or a bystander?
  3. How does this reading increase your understanding of what was required to carry out the mass killing of Jews? What role did someone like Stier play in the Holocaust? 
  4. According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, mass murder on the enormous scale of the Holocaust depended on a bureaucracy. In other words, it required a large number of people to perform specific, individual jobs that, when everyone’s work was effectively organized and coordinated, together could achieve a larger goal. Bauman writes that the Nazis’ plans for mass murder relied on “those skills and habits, in short, which best grow and thrive in an atmosphere of the office.”  What point is Bauman making? What does Stier mean when he says, “I was strictly a bureaucrat”? How does Stier’s account of his role as a “bureaucrat” support Bauman’s argument? 
  5. In some fields, like medicine and law, professionals take oaths to follow certain ethical principles. Do you think workers in all kinds of jobs have an obligation to consider the ethical consequences of their work and its impact on others? What factors make it possible for people to consider the ethical implications of their jobs? What factors might make it difficult to do so?
  • 1Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), 123–26. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.
  • 2Claude Lanzmann, Shoah: The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995) 134. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. and Librairie Arthème Fayard.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “The "Special Trains"”, last updated August 2, 2016.

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