Toy Electric Trains and the Holocaust


Toy Train on Rug


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City of Toys, City of the Reich

By Irene Reti © 2008

When I was a child I played with electric trains. They were housed in dusty yellow boxes with plastic windows and writing in German. The trains roared on their fragile black tracks through the living room on the shag carpet, past the couch with scratchy fabric, under the orange easy chair only my father was allowed to sit in. Faster and faster they circled, until they sped off the tracks entirely, sparks flying into the carpet and my mother came running into the room where her children loomed like two giants over the derailed toys.

"Be careful," she'd warn. "Those were my father's trains." I knew they were my grandfather's trains, but I did not understand the truths that railroad carried in its tiny cars. Our parents never told my brother and me they were both Holocaust refugees, or even that they were Jewish.

Trains. I think of the train my mother boarded with her sister when they left their parents on Kindertransport, a train carrying weeping children to safety in England, leaving silent, stoical German Jewish parents watching from the platform. I think of the cattle car train that transported my great-grandmother Marie to the ghetto of Lodz, where she was murdered, leaving my grandmother Erna with lifelong guilt for having left her mother in Germany when the rest of the family fled. Behind the benign face of industrious toy production lurks the architecture of industrialized killing.

It has been almost seventy years since the Holocaust pushed my family out of Nuremberg, Germany—a grandmother's age—but this is history I have walked through, wept over, played with as an unsuspecting child. Now I live in California, at the edge of another continent far from that city where the Nazi party gathered for rallies starting in 1927, the year of my mother's birth. They called it the City of the Reich. I have stood on the street in Nuremberg where my mother lived, two blocks from the stadium at Luitpoldhain Park where Hitler held his rallies, where she used to lie awake in the dark, paralyzed, listening to Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil. Yearning for some ritual gesture, I buried her picture in the park near the lake in hopes of healing her spirit.

But there is another Nuremberg, known as the City of Toys, a town that thrived on its toy industry for over five hundred years. I visited Nuremberg's museum, wandered through exhibits of clowns, rocking horses, musical teddy bears, elaborately furnished doll houses. These mass-produced tin soldiers, miniature trains, tiny coal-fired cooking ranges for girls, race cars for boys and fully functioning model steam engines helped socialize boys and girls into a burgeoning industrial society.

My family was an integral part of that toy city. In 1911, my grandfather, Max Bein, joined Doll Co., a model steam engine and toy factory in Nuremberg. Founded in 1898 as a partnership between Peter Doll and Max's uncle Isaak Sondhelm, Doll Co., like many of the toy factories of Nuremberg, was owned by a Jewish family. And during the Nazi era, when the City of Toys morphed into the City of the Reich, history ruptured, sent my grandfather Max, my grandmother Erna, and their two daughters, Elspeth and Inge, to the United States. Inge was my mother and she died this year. Now I am a daughter mourning my mother, watching history circle along the tracks in my living room in the form of these family artifacts.

My aunt is four years older than my mother, and she told me much of this story. My grandfather Max was a gentle and studious man who wanted to be a college professor, not the manager of a factory. But his father died young, and he needed to support his mother and his two younger sisters. The factory became his life. "He rarely missed a day of work," my aunt told me. "Even with a fever he would put on his suit and go off to the toy factory with his little sandwich wrapped in wax paper. He saved that wax paper and re-used it day after day."

So on the day after the Kristallnacht pogrom, the streets strewn with broken glass, Max insisted on going to work. Unlike many Jewish men, he was not arrested that night. What saved him? Perhaps it was the Iron Cross medal awarded for administering a field hospital during World War I, though these kinds of medals did not save other Jewish lives. There were acts of unexpected kindness from non-Jews, such as the day after Kristallnacht, when workers at Doll Co. brought food to my grandparents at their house in the suburbs, and cleaned up the furniture and dishes shattered by the Nazis when they burst into the house.

Soon after that, under the Nuremberg "Aryanization laws," Max sold his business to the Fleischmann Company, another toy factory located in Nuremberg. In some kind of an arrangement whose details are not clear to me, the name Doll Co. was preserved under the Fleischmann Company's name, and my grandfather Max retained an interest in the company until after the war, when he was bought out for a small sum.

In August 1939 war broke out. Max and Erna left a moving van packed with all their possessions in their driveway, boarded a train, and walked over the border into Holland. My grandparents lost their house, business, language, and sense of safety. But they survived. They moved to Boston, where they worried about being able to afford a rented apartment. The German government finally paid them reparations in September 1960, six months before Max died of a heart attack.

My mother and her sister had left Germany in May 1939, before their parents. They boarded a Kindertransport train, part of a program that saved ten thousand German and Austrian Jewish children by bringing them to England. Max's sister, Charlotte, had written to an old boyfriend in England and asked if he would be willing to take care of her nieces if they came on Kindertransport. It was Charlotte who provided a financial guarantee and secured immigration papers for my grandparents.

My mother and aunt were reunited with their parents eighteen months later after a terrifying trip across the Atlantic. They sailed past the debris of torpedoed ships to safety. Thirty years passed. In 1969, my aunt returned to Nuremberg with her husband. When the Fleischmanns took her on a tour of the factory, an elderly woman worker exclaimed, "Oh, my God! It's Max Bein's little girl!" The Fleischman Company prospered and became one of the largest model railroad companies in the world. But they did not forget us. They sent my grandparents gingerbread in Boston. All of this is recorded in my mother's letters, the letters she saved and passed on to me in her will.

    December 15, 1955

    Liebe Mama and Papa,

    Fleischmann certainly must be doing all right. Did he send you some more Lebkuchen this year?

    love, Inge

They sent toy trains.

    August 27, 1956

    Dear Mama and Papa:

    It was very nice of Fleischmann to send you another train. Is it any different from the previous ones?

    Love, Inge

And they invited us back to the factory. In the year 2000 I stood in front of the Fleischmann factory looking at two doorbells. One was labeled Fleischmann, the other Doll Co. I was tempted to press the bell marked Doll Co. Perhaps this bell was a portal, a time machine that would take me back to before 1938 to meet Max, the grandfather who died a month before I was born. But why the second doorbell? Is it because Doll Co's legacy enhances the reputation of the Fleischman Company, or is it because they want to honor my grandfather's company?

I had written and asked if I might have a tour of the factory. One of the Fleischmann granddaughters ushered me through the plant. She was exactly my age. Were it not for the war, I might have grown up to manage this factory, live her life. She is the first woman in the Fleischmann dynasty to hold this job.

In the reception area glass cases displayed model steam engines from my grandfather's era. I thought of Indian baskets trapped behind glass rather than embedded in the richness of tribal life. The granddaughter sounded perky.

"What did your grandfather do after the war?" she inquired. "Did he start another factory?"

For continuation, go to Page Two


from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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