By Train to Dachau is an innocent sounding title for a book – maybe a rail buff’s travelogue or a mystery novel. But … it’s anything but that; it is a horror story.
I have known Renate Yates, who translated and introduced this account, for around 40 years, and we often spoke about her father being caught up in the first Nazi sweep of the Jewish population in Vienna in 1938 and how it took him by surprise and unprepared.
He spent 11 months in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps before being released and fleeing to join his wife and daughter, who had already escaped to England.
Two days before the war broke out, the family arrived in Sydney to start a new and successful life in Australia.
But it was not for some time after Ernst Raubitschek died in 1972 that his daughter found he had written a detailed account of his arrest, the train journey to Dauchau and his experiences at the camp.
Over the last few years, Renate has translated from its original German the hand written pages, amounting to 30 in print, in three chapters titled The Arrest, Hell Journey and In Dachau there are only Healthy Men or Corpses.
Ernst, a third generation Viennese dentist, an avid skier and mountain climber and cultured urban professional, left home for his surgery on May 28, 1938 and never returned. Even when a tearful woman arrived at work to say that all Jews in the local area were being taken from their houses and shops, he regarded it as nonsense.
“Surely only those who have done wrong can be arrested,” he wrote. He went back to work, and when the Nazis arrived he met them in the entrance hall. “Danger must be confronted”.
And danger it was, as Ernst and other Viennese Jews were corralled by security guards into school classrooms to await their transport to Dachau. Words can hardly describe the horror of that train journey, where the captives wearing overcoats in an overheated carriage were forced to sit forward on their seats, hands on knees and warned not to move a muscle.
Guards entertained themselves by ordering the prisoners to sing and punishing them if they didn’t like the offering. One had his teeth knocked in by a rifle butt, others were kicked and punched. The captives could not move or relieve themselves. Outside in the corridor, a prisoner who had been shot was groaning and bleeding to death.
Ernst sums it up: “Last night 600 healthy people with straight limbs were put in these carriages. Sixteen hours later, a horde of physically and mentally shattered creatures emerged from the Dachau Express. Many can only alight with help from their comrades. Heads are covered in blood, teeth and eyes are bashed in, bones have been broken – overnight a huge number of people have been reduced to cripples.”
By the time they reached the concentration camp and had been processed, the men had spent 30 hours without food or water. The horror continued throughout the months in Dachau, where Ernst’s personal account ends. It is the detailed descriptions, written in the present tense, of the train journey from hell and the internment in Dachau which makes his account so compelling, disturbing and current.
Renate has filled in the details of her father’s transfer to Buchenwald, a continuing saga of torture, shattering day to day survival and eventual release. She believes he lived through the experience because of his physical fitness. He puts it down to luck.
The book sandwiches the personal memoir of his capture and internment between Renate’s memoir of Ernst’s idyllic life in Vienna before May 1938 and the family’s resettlement in Sydney, where they created a prosperous and happy life for themselves.
It is also a cautionary tale of a man who preferred to believe in the logic of civilised European society than read the warning signs that were all around him, and for that he paid far too high a price.
By Train to Dauchau by Ernst Raubitschek, translated and introduced by Renate Yates, published by the Sydney Jewish Museum, is on sale at Readers Companion in the Armidale Mall.
The first person to bring a copy of this article to the shop will receive a free copy.