Dark trains

Jan 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Personal Columns

The bus moved westwards through the night.  At 4.45 on Saturday morning, the A12 autobahn was quiet.  People risen from their hotel beds, half-slept, dark-eyed, sat in silence or dozed through the journey.

In that state between sleep and wakefulness, there is a spectrum of awareness so blurred that it is sometimes hard to say for certain what is real and what is imagined.  One can wake talking to people who are not there; one can see actual things that one assumes to be no more than a product of the sub-conscious.

The autobahn runs along the Inn valley, following a route used by travellers for centuries, perhaps for millennia.  In the unlikely event that one should choose to drive on a motorway for pleasure, the A12 has much to commend it; though in the dark hours of the night, there was not much to be seen.

Sleep came in fitful snatches; every so often a bump of the head against the coach window disturbed the slumbers.  Staring through the glass into the gloom, there seemed to be a sight of the railway, the valley being the only option for rail travel as well as for motor journeys.  A few hundred metres away, barely discernible in the dimness, a train headed in the same direction; black waggons faintly silhouetted against the night rolled steadily out of vision.

It seemed a sinister moment, and three days later, I am not sure that it happened.  Waggons being pulled down the Inn valley would not have been remarkable and at night all waggons would appear dark.  It was almost certainly a routine goods train heading westwards; but, had I to testify that there was a train, I am not sure I could assert that it was definitely more than a product of a half woken imagination; images deep in the sub-conscious projected onto the stage of an Austrian valley.

Reading Bernard Schlink’s The Reader during the week away had conjured up pictures of the hell of the camps.  Hearing in my head the words of Seamus Heaney’s Polish Sleepers and strains of Steve Reich’s music Different Trains, the image of railway waggons, imagined or real, which would once have conjured up thoughts of the security and order of childhood days, became something altogether different.

Eager to dispel the image, to cleanse a much-loved route from association with any evil history, I searched the Internet to satisfy myself that Innsbruck had no association with any camps, only to discover there had been a sub-camp of Dachau outside the city.  Perhaps, then, the railway would never have been used for transports? Perhaps not, but it is a crossroads for major rail routes, a stop on the way from Italy, to the south, to Germany to the north; a meeting point of eastern Europe and western Europe.  What traffic might such a line have carried?

How many people heard those trains? How many saw waggons passing by in the dark of night? How many suppressed the thoughts and the images that arose?  Were it to happen again, how many of us would assume that such things could find existence only in nightmares?

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  1. I went to Dachau in 1995 a very moving experience. They were circumspect about whether there had been exterminations there but looking at the buildings that have been left (the US destroyed most of the huts and left a couple standing for posterity but the brick buildings remain)I suspect that it was an extermination camp of sorts. Those ovens weren’t used for baking bread! Terrible thing.

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