I guess it could be said of me that I am like many men, in that I don’t normally show my inner emotions. Sure, I’ll go as bonkers as anyone when I’m at a sporting event and my team are doing well and yes I’m not slow in showing my displeasure if I feel that someone has done my family or I wrong! Other than that, no, don’t expect much else . . . normally.
Certainly the last place that I expected emotions to take hold of me would be in a railway museum.
It’s true that railways and locomotives have shaped much of my life, my late father was a mechanical engineer and much of my career involved actually running railways, you could say that it’s sort of in my blood and something that will never leave me! If I visit a museum like the fantastic Cité du Train in Mulhouse, I expect to be fascinated by the variety of exhibits, in awe of the craftsmanship that has made many of the locomotives and carriages and intrigued by the different operating equipment and practices. Only once have I been rendered numb by an exhibit and that occurred in Mulhouse.
The first hall of the museum is amazing. The different exhibits are each presented in atmospheric and dramatic pools of light, I loved it! The mood captures the drama of a night-time departure.
The efforts of the French Resistance movement in sabotaging the railways during World War Two. . . . and of course lunch on the Orient Express!
Each exhibit has an audio-visual display that explains the details, what to look for and often the human stories associated, all very well done indeed.
In one dark corner I noticed a relatively small freight car and wandered over to take a closer look. It was the sort of vehicle that was used for carrying general cargo or even livestock, basically a simple ventilated box on wheels. Looking closer I noticed the stencilled lettering on the side of the car.I froze, stunned, shocked, appalled. I realised that I was looking at one of the vehicles used for the deportation of people during the dark Holocaust of World War Two. The stencil indicated that 40 people could be carried in this goods van of only 18 square metres area. In contrast, 8 horses could be carried instead.
I sat on a convenient bench and watched the accompanying audio/visual screen. The commentary detailed how the deportation of people was carried out by the occupying Nazi forces; the story was very factual and professionally done and although bereft of emotion the horror of what occurred was clear to see. Families torn apart, old, young and infirm pushed by rifle butts into the cattle wagons, photographs of despair and fear. Examples of hastily scribbled letters that the deportees threw from trains were highlighted. Of course most of these poor people were on one way journeys, to the horrific extermination camps at places such as Auschwitz where an estimated 1.1 million were murdered.
The video screen flickered to blackness as the presentation came to and end. I sat numbly looking at the blank screen for a few seconds, then glanced up at the simple wooden bodied freight car.
In the darkness, I wept.