Most of the almost three million Jews who were sent to extermination camps were deported by train. Journeys could range from a few hours in the case of transports from Poland to more than a week from Greece, but almost all were made in scarcely imaginable conditions. Helena Katz (later Helen Lewis) was deported from the Terezín Ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944, in a cattle wagon similar to that shown in the photograph.

If we had ever thought that two years in Terezín had left us sufficiently tough to bear any hardship, the first few minutes on the train taught us otherwise. We travelled in conditions designed to inflict the greatest possible suffering. Old and young, invalids and babies were all crammed together so tightly it was impossible to move. There was no air, no light, no water, and one bucket. When the train moved out of Terezín station, many panicked, others wept, a few prayed, and most sank into silent despair. At night the train arrived in Prague and stopped there for a while, a long line of sealed cattle wagons, each with a tiny window behind a grille. There must have been people on the station platform, people who saw and heard. What did they think, what did they know, and how much did they care?

Another day and another night and there were few left in the wagons who were still in full possession of their physical and mental capacities. The dead were everywhere. Could one really pity them?

Many thousands of people died on these transports. Hard though it may be to believe today, arrival in the camp was thus often greeted with relief. Helena survived Auschwitz because she was selected to work and was transferred to Stutthof concentration camp. She escaped during the evacuation of Stutthof in January 1945. Following her liberation, she returned to Czechoslovakia, married and then emigrated to Northern Ireland.

Photo: Czech Jews boarding a deportation train, 1942; Yad Vashem

Testimony: Helen Lewis, A Time to Speak (The Blackstaff Press, 1992)