Settela, the girl in the train

Published: 10 February

Region: Europe

by Janna Eliot

Settela SteinbachEach January I wait for her. And she always comes, the beautiful girl in the cattle wagon, featured on every documentary about the Holocaust.


You’ve probably seen her. She peers through the slit of a closing door, her face  – half hidden in dark shadows – framed by a white scarf. There on the platform are the Jewish prisoners, being pushed onto the train.  And the child stares out at us, a silent, haunting image.


I always wait for the film narrators to say “this girl is a Sinti child, a Dutch Gypsy.” But they never do. The girl glides away, along with the other tragicpassengers, away to Poland, to Auschwitz, to Death.

It was a Dutch journalist, Aad Wagenaar, who discovered the child’s identity. Wagenaar spent many months in the 1990s searching for the facts behind the famous image we see each year. He discovered that the unidentified photo, often illustrating the suffering of Jewish victims in the Holocaust, was in fact, a clip from the “Westerbork film.” His quest led him to the homes of Jewish Auschwitz survivors, to war archives in Amsterdam, and finally, to a caravan site in Spijkenisse. It was there, in a trailer, he met Crasa Wagner, a Gypsy survivor who remembered the child and confirmed who she was.


The girl was a Romani called Settela Steinbach.


It is important that Settela’s story is told. It is important to remember that Romanies were persecuted and murdered during the Nazi regime. Transported in cattle wagons, tortured and abused, gassed to death. Settela died with her mother and most of her siblings on ‘Zigeunerrnacht’ – July 31st 1944. The killings continued until dawn.


She was nine years old.


SETTELA, by Aad Wagenaar, was published in Dutch in 1995, and in English in 2005. So information about her has been available for twenty years. Isn’t it about time that Settela’s ethnicity is mentioned when her image is shown?



1. Kamp Westerbork, in Holland, was a holding centre for Dutch Jews and Gypsies, from which prisoners were sent to concentration camps by train. A Jewish prisoner, Rudolf Breslauer, was forced to make a record of life in the camp, including the transports. This became known as the “Westerbork film”.

2. In 1939 there were about 500 Romanies living in Holland, of which some 300 were sent to Auschwitz. Very few survived. ( source – We are the Romani People – Ian Hancock.)

3. More information on other groups persecuted in the Holocaust is available from Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

4. There are many distinct Romani groups – some, particularly in Northern Europe, identify themselves as Sinti.

5. It is estimated that almost two million Romanies were killed because of their ethnicity. Many of the deaths were unrecorded, taking place in forests, on river banks, and in hidden clearings, so this number could be even higher.