BERLIN (AP) — Fans of German soccer club Schalke unveiled a memorial on Thursday to commemorate the deportation of more than 500 Jews from the local area to a ghetto in Riga, Latvia, 80 years ago to the day.
The group of around 20 fans — who’ve been working with the club, the city of Gelsenkirchen, local historians and the local Jewish community — want to bring attention to the atrocity, remember its victims and highlight the terror Germans wrought under National Socialism.
“It’s important for us to create an awareness of what happened in this place back then, with the task of ensuring that it never happens again,” Schalke fan Ines Kempken told The Associated Press in a phone call.
Early on January 27, 1942, Nazis packed more than 500 of their Jewish compatriots onto a five-carriage eastbound train at Gelsenkirchen station and brought them on a five-day journey in freezing conditions more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) to the ghetto in Riga, Latvia, which was occupied by Germany at the time.
“The murders began immediately upon arrival,” Schalke says on its website. The club says around 450 of those deported that day from Gelsenkirchen were killed before the end of World War II.
Schalke fan Jannik Rituper told AP that the Nazis had instructed the local Jewish society to round up their members for a “new life in the East.” Jewish people were told to wait outside their houses with their belongings before they were picked up and grouped together at the Wildenbruchplatz central square in Gelsenkirchen.
“It seemed voluntary for some people because they knew they had no future in Germany… it was their only chance, you can say,” said Rituper, who said the people were forced to wait several days before the train departed. He said it was “minus 27 degrees [minus 16.6 Fahrenheit]” when it left.
The victims’ belongings were taken away as they were put on the train.
“And then when they arrived in Riga, the Nazis started to kill the people that they knew could not work for them. So they already sought weak people or old people who did not arrive in the ghetto in Riga. They were killed right away,” Rituper said.
Those deemed fit enough to work were brought to the ghetto.
“From there, the Nazis looked for people who could work hard. So from the start they started to select people,” Rituper said. “It was something like the base for the Jews from Westphalia. They were all deported to Riga and then from there to other concentration camps.”
There were other trains, too — to the ghettos in Warsaw and Theresienstadt.
“After we discovered that there wasn’t just one train from Gelsenkirchen, but three, it was clear that we had to find out more about the people at this place, do more research, to understand what happened here,” Kempken said.
More than 350 of the Jews deported on January 27, 1942 were from Gelsenkirchen, and others came from places like Recklinghausen, Bocholt, Bottrop, Castrop-Rauxel, Datteln, Dorsten, Gladbeck, Haltern, Herten, Lembeck, Marl, Lüdinghausen, Münster and Selm — all part of the Ruhr area in western Germany.
Rolf Abrahamson was one of the last survivors, and he spoke with those involved in the project, sharing his experience of the mass deportation. Abrahamson died in December.
Schalke said the fans involved in the project felt compelled “to make the immeasurable suffering of Gelsenkirchen’s Jews more visible” after they had taken part in a club-organized visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
There had been a larger commemorative event planned for Thursday, but it was postponed to a later unscheduled date due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Thursday is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp on January 27, 1945.