MORE ON THE END OF THE ARMISTICE COACH.
An article in 'Berliner Zeitung' of 11.11.2018, by Andreas Förster, gives some interesting details. (Translation Rabbi Walter Rothschild)
On the walls of the little Local History Museum in Crawinkel model tracks are glued, linking together large display cabinets which retell a century of history. They do not run in straight lines but are bent as if to show that history does not run in straight lines, that it takes detours and diversions and in so doing drags with it people and places into areas where they actually don't belong. This is the case also with Crawinkel, a village at the foot of the Thüringer Wald forest.
''These handles were on the door to our beehives'' says Doris Gehrhardt. The 79-year old is standing in the museum and carefully takes two handles out of a glass case. They are of copper and have been so strangely formed as though they had been made by a cratftsman artist. ''My father did this,'' says the lively old lady. ''He made them from copper sheet, with which the roof of the carriage in the wood was covered. He dismantled the sheet himself and took it back to his workshop at home, where he made all sorts of things for the villagers here. Pans, pots, door plates, after all, there was nothing after the war.''
The carriage in the forest of which Doris speaks is the most famous railway carriage in world history, The former Restaurant and Saloon Car of the French company CIWL - it was once the largest operator of sleeping cars and luxury trains like the Orient Express - has entered history as the ''Carriage of Compiègne''. Its fate, that is linked to a little clearing in the forest near a small village in Thüringen, is documented in the museum.
End Station Crawinkel.
One hundred years ago, on 11. November 1918, the end of the First World War was sealed in this carriage..... When Hitler's Germany attacked and invaded France in 1940 the Nazis then - also as a special form of humiliation - insisted that the capitulation be signed in the ''Carriage of Compiègne''. After this Hitler commanded that the carriage be brought to the Reich's capital where it was put on display as war booty. In 1944 - by this time Berlin was the target of increasingly frequent bombing raids - the carriage went on its last journey, to Thüringen. At first it was stabled at Ruhla before, at the end of March 1945, it was moved to Crawinkel some 50km further on, where it burned out a few weeks later.
''Eye witnesses have told me that the carriage was first seen at Crawinkel on 1st. April'' says Klaus-Peter Schambach. ''At that time they were just kids playing and they discovered the carriage with a conspicuous French inscription hidden on a siding behind the goods shed. When they went closer to take a better look they were shooed away by SS men who were guarding it.''
The Carriage of Secrets.
Klaus-Peter Schambach, a 46-year-old IT expert and employee of a computer firm, is the chairman of the Alte Mühle society which concerns itself with the local history and traditions of Crawinkel. The hobby historian is however a specialist on the 'Carriage of Compiègne' which catapulted his small sleepy village into the centre of world history. He can talk for hours about the strange influences which link capitals like Berlin and Paris with his home and he has even produced together with a colleague a book over the incident - ''Secret Journey - the legendary Armistice Carriage; Captured by Hitler, destroyed in Thüringen'' which has just reappeared in a new edition to mark the centenary of the end of the World War.
Schambach came to this topic via his grandfather. ''He had his farm next to the station and told me often of the secretive carriage, the most famous carriage of the world, that he had seen here,'' he says. ''And following the 'Wende' of 1989, when one could at last talk more openly in Crawinkel about this theme, I began to research and to talk with eye witnesses about this fascinating story.''
Just because the Carriage was Destroyed, does not mean that there is Nothing left of it!
Schambach was also the driving force behind the establishment of the exhibition in the small museum in the Alte Mühle.The room is barely 20 square metres large and filled with display cases, files and photos. He can explain especially the items which come from the historic saloon coach that was burned out at war's end and now lie in the glass display cases. ''Just because it was destroyed does not mean there is nothing left!'' he grins. ''There are many houses in Crawinkel which still have individal pieces of the carriage.'' And this is not just the pans or door handles that Doris's father fashioned from the copper sheet of the roof. One can see many other items that originate from the historic carriage and which have over the years been donated by Crawinkel folk to the little museum.
Inventive Carriage Plunderers.
The most recent item which the museum has received is a ca. 15cm high bronze letter 'A'. The letter comes from the name of the French company to which the carriage had belonged. It was formerly screwed to the outside of the carriage. A family from the village - who wish to remain anonymous - have placed it on loan to Schambach, together with a photo which shows where the 'A' hung before - on the family's toilet door. ''In former days the toilets on many farms were outside the main house, in a hut near the slurry pit,'' Schambach explains. '''Hence the word ''Abort''. And here the grandfather had simply marked the Abort with the letter 'A' that he had unscrewed from the carriage.''
Other plunderers also displayed inventiveness. A woman sewed a child's jacket and other items of clothing from the colourful curtains in the Saloon Car. A dentist from Ruhla took out a metal window frame and installed it in his practice.....
How is it however that so many items of furnishings have survived, if the carriage was burned out at the war's end? Schambach has an explanation for this: According to his research the carriage had only stood in the village station for a couple of days and was then propelled a few kilometres further into a siding in the forest between Crawinkel and Ohrdruf. ''That was lucky, as on 6th. and 7th. April the village, in which the retreating Wehrmacht had established defensive positions, was attacked by Allied bombers and significantly destroyed. Three days later the Americans then came and occupied Crawinkel.''
An eye witness has told him that on 11th. April 1945 he came across the Armistice carriage standing in the wood. ''He climbed into it and looked around. Everything was still inside: The large conference table with glass plate cover at which the Military had sat in 1918 and 1940, documents in French and German.'' But there were also indications that former forced labourers, who had been put to work in the area, were now using the carriage in the forest as accommodation. By the next day, on 12th. April 1945, the carriage was partially burned out - although whether the fire started by accident or was laid deliberately remains unknown to this day. ''At any rate several people from Crawinkel set off and took from the carriage everything they could that one could in some way find a use for,'' says Schambach.
Especially Good Suspension.
Some time later a loco came and took the carriage, by now severely damaged by fire and the plundering, to Gotha. The Americans had establshed at the main station here a collection point for locomotives and rolling stock that the Germans had stolen from the occupied countries and which were now to be returned there. The 'Carriage of Compiègne' however was shunted away separately because of its damaged condition - presumably the Americans had no idea of its historic significance especially for their French allies.
''Since however the frame and running gear of the carriage was still intact, the DDR Reichsbahn ued it from the 1950's for the basis for a departmental works wagon. Following several rebuildings it then remained in service until 1986. Then one of its longitudinal carrying beams broke through being overloaded and in the end the wagon was scrapped.''
Did nobody know what an historic vehicle was in use here on DR metals? Schambach shrugs his shoulders. ''It could well be that some people from the Reichsbahn were aware of it, especially those who used the wagon, who constantly praised its suspension and good riding quality. The wagon was nicknamed 'Kanapee'' by the railwaymen, because it ran so smoothly and because the form of the underframe was reminiscent of a sofa with soft upholstery. But it seems nobody in France was aware of it - otherwise Paris would surely have made efforts to get the remains of the original back.''
''We want to share the History''.
In Crawinkel itself the plundering of the carriage was for many decades a taboo theme. ''Everyone knew about it, but nobody spoke about it'' says Schambach. ''In the DDR one could never be certain whether some form of negative consequence might come.'' Only after the political changes and the reunification did people begin to speak. One incentive for this was a History Competition for Schools organised by the then-Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker. A teacher from Ohrdruf began researching for traces together with his pupils, they spoke with local inhabitants and let them explain what they knew of the history of the 'Carriage of Compiègne'. The schoolchildren were even able to collect some original parts and handed them over to the Museum in Compiègne where a replica of the carriage now stands. Klaus-Peter Schambach continues now with this research. With some success, for in the past years he has acquired together with his fellow members a number of original parts which were still lying in various houses in Crawinkel and could hand them over to the museum in Northern France; these include handrails of brass and further letters which had been dismantled from the carriage side. ''We don't want to keep everything for our museum but to share the history,'' he says. And then he adds how happy he is that the 'Carriage of Compiègne' no longer exists. ''It was a symbol of hatred between France and Germany. It is good, that it has gone.''