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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Last Train to Seeshaupt : A Santa Monica man revisiting the scene of his 1945 liberation from the Nazis helps a German town confront its wartime past.

March 05, 1995|MATHIS CHAZANOV

For years, Louis Sneh had been going back to the little station at Seeshaupt, Germany, where he and 3,000 other slave laborers riding a freight train to oblivion were freed by the advancing soldiers of Patton's 3rd Army.

"It was like my second birthplace," said Sneh, 67, of Santa Monica.

But he had never told his story to anyone there until last April, when a casual question gave him a visible role in a debate over how Seeshaupt should deal with Germany's Nazi past.

An amateur photographer, Sneh had hoped to take a picture that an artist could use as source material for an oil painting of the scene at Seeshaupt, an isolated village in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, on April 30, 1945, a week before Germany surrendered.

The painting might show the train stopped dead at the station, corpses in striped camp jackets lying in an open car, German guards tossing away their guns and uniforms and running off, GIs in a big green tank throwing biscuits and chocolate to hordes of emaciated men, and American planes doing aerobatics overhead.

For the purposes of his photo, Sneh asked a ticket agent at the Seeshaupt station when the next freight train would be coming through.

There hasn't been a freight through here in 49 years, the agent said, but there was something about it in our local paper just the other day. It was a long, long train, he said, with 3,000 concentration camp inmates on it, some of them alive, some dead.

"I know," Sneh responded. "One of them is facing you."

As it happened, his April visit came at a time when the people of Seeshaupt were at odds over where--and whether--to build a monument to that day in 1945, when evidence of Nazi evil appeared on their doorsteps.

The prisoners, ill from the brutal conditions at forced labor camps near Dachau in southwest Germany, had been jammed into freight cars without food or water for five days.

"When they climbed off that train, they brought their misery, their anxiety, their humiliation into Seeshaupt, which until then had been protected from the full realization of the atrocities and the horrors of the war," said Peter Westebbe, an organizer of the campaign to build the monument.

"For many of the villagers, it was their first insight into what was done to human beings in the name of Germany. The impact . . . was so shocking that even 50 years later most witnesses can't talk about it without tears in their eyes."

Supporters of the memorial--a sculpture of plastic and rusty iron suggesting hands and feet reaching out of a boxcar-shaped frame--wanted it to be placed right at the train station. Uwe Hausmann, a doctor and a member of the village council, came up with the idea for the memorial.

But opponents gathered 700 signatures of protest, a considerable number in a town of 2,700. They said the work by Stuttgart artist Jorg Kicherer could scare off tourists and give the impression that Seeshaupt had been the site of a concentration camp. Better to place the memorial in the village graveyard, they said.

A local newspaper quoted one pensioner as complaining that the train memorial would be out in the open, unlike the village war memorial, which had been placed behind the church.

"No, this memorial should not be at the station under any circumstances," said Erich Pohl, a retiree. "Anybody who gets off the train would see it."

Another opponent brought up the controversy over the place of immigrants in modern-day Germany.

"I am only against the memorial because I believe that we cannot accomplish any reconciliation with a piece of metal," said Anna-Maria Kelley, a housewife. "One cannot simply say, 50 years later, 'We are sorry,' and in the same breath throw foreigners out. Aside from that, I find it a shame that the discussion is so divisive."

There was a well-attended town meeting covered by TV and newspaper reporters, and three debates in the village council.

In the end, after Sneh recounted his experiences in a letter to the mayor and in newspaper and television interviews, the council decided last summer to place the memorial on a park-like open space on a street between the train station and the town hall. It is to be dedicated on April 30, 50 years to the day after the train came to its final stop in Seeshaupt.

Organizers credited Sneh for helping them realize that survivors might still be available to tell their stories of what happened that day. Since then, more than a dozen have been located through ads in Israel and in Jewish newspapers in the United States.

"Now that we have come to agreement in our community . . . we would like to thank you for your touching letter and contribution," Hans Hirsch, Seeshaupt's mayor, wrote to Sneh, who donated $250 toward the memorial's estimated $14,000 cost.

"The depiction of your suffering and your liberation in Seeshaupt reminded us again, quite sharply, of our present-day responsibility in dealing with our past," Hirsch said.

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