Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Three Men Stopped the Train


ON the night of April 19, 1943, German forces entered the Warsaw ghetto to begin its liquidation, and came under fire. The Warsaw ghetto revolt had begun. This year sees April 19 fall into the Passover festival again as it did then, and no doubt at many a seder tonight people will remember the ghetto revolt as well as the exodus from Egypt which the festival is supposed to commemorate.

But on that same night, April 19, 1943 in another part of Europe, a smaller scale act of resistance took place which also deserves its place in history. On that night the twentieth train left Mechelin in Belgium carrying prisoners for the Nazi concentration camps. On board in sealed cattletrucks were 1631 Jewish men, women and children. They were guarded by an officer and fifteen German security police with sub-machine guns.

Waiting by the track between Boortmeerbeek and Haacht were three young men armed with one pistol, four pairs of pliars and a lantern covered with red paper to make it look like a railway danger lantern in the dark. Youra Livschitz, a Jewish doctor, had heard about some resisters and political workers escaping by jumping from previous trains. He had gone to the Resistance with a proposal that they organise such a break. But experienced partisan commanders did not think it would be practical, or they did not have enough men to carry out such a bold operation. So Youra turned to a couple of student pals, Robert Maistriau and Jean Frankelmann, who agreed to help in this crazy escapade.

Robert Maistriau remembers:

"At a certain moment, I received the order from Youra Livschitz to organise four pairs of pliars and a hurricane lamp. In a store, in the centre of Brussels, not far away from my working place with the company Fonofer, I found the necessary tools. I bought the pliars and also a lamp, from the German brand “Feuerhand”. In another shop, I bought glue and red silk paper. I glued the paper onto the glass of the lamp. From a distance, the hurricane lamp would look like a red signal.

"We used our bikes to travel to the place of the attack. My bag was filled with the hurricane lamp and those pliars. In fact, we were badly organised and prepared. I felt a mixture of a hunger for adventure and the will to inflict the Germans as much damage as possible. At that stage, nobody could have stopped me.

"Around 9h45 pm, we took our position besides the railway tracks in-between Haacht and Boortmeerbeek. We heard the whistle of the locomotive. Sounds were ringing in that quiet night … only after a few seconds, the train headed for the hurricane lamp. Because the lamp was on the railway tracks, at the end of a curve, the train driver saw the red signal only at the last moment. The driver slowed down the pace immediately, but the first wagons ran over the lamp. Finally, the train stopped.

"I completely froze. Then I headed for the first wagon I’d met. In my left-hand, I held a little torch and with my right-hand, I used the pliars.. I was very excited and I thought it took ages before I finally succeeded in cutting the wire that was used to secure the sliding door. Finally I could open the heavy door of the cattle wagon. I used my torch to illuminate the carriage. Pale and frightened faces stared at me. “Get out, get out”, I shouted and I urged them “schnell, schnell, fliehen sie!” (quick, quick, get out of here).Then, I tried to open the lock of the second wagon. I put the torch into my pants, so I could use both of my hands. That way, I could manipulate the tongs much better. But time was running out. Someone was shooting. I was an ideal target in the lunar light. I ran for the bushes, where a couple of refugees ware waiting for me. I shouted them that they had to hit the ground.

"After a while, all became quiet and the train continued his trip. When I saw the red tail lights disappear, I got up. I gave seven people a note of 50 francs. I urged them to disperse themselves. One woman embraced me with passion and she said she didn’t know how she could thank me. Somebody else asked me for my name and address, so they could send me a gift, after the war. I thought that was pretty naive. Names and addresses, that was the first lesson you learned as a young member of the resistance, were taboo."

Regine Krochmal, an 18 year old nurse and resistance member, was one of those who escaped from the train that night. She had been picked up by the Gestapo when they raided a flat where illegal leaflets were being stencilled. They took her to their HQ, and later to the Dossin barracks at Mechelen.where prisoners were held awaiting deportation.

"“Schweine Juden”, strokes with a stick, shouting, ... That’s how we were received in Mechelen. At our arrival, we were taken to a room, where there was a line of tables. Behind each table was a prisoner standing. One by one we had to give in all of our possessions: identity-papers, money, pictures, jewels, luggage, keys, ... Our identity was taken away from us. From that moment on, I was just n° 263.

"How we were afraid, on that April 19th, in 1943. Of course, we couldn’t sleep. The uncertainty of what was there to come, was too big. What was it going to be? Maybe work? Or worse than here? It was very much open to question.

"Early morning, the cattle-wagons were ready. Because I was a nurse, I was assigned to the infirmary-wagon, together with a young doctor. Before I could get in the train, Doctor Bach, a German Jew, responsible for the health of the prisoners, came right beside me and gave me stealthily a large knife. I just had the time to conceal it in my cloak, while he whispered in my ear: “Make sure you can escape. You and all those bunglers are destined to be gassed and burned.”

"More than ever, I was determined to try to escape. An SS-soldier gave me a little flag. I was supposed to hang it outside the window, to indicate every decease or attempt to escape. Immediately after the closing of the doors, I talked to the young doctor, who was also assigned to take care of the ill. I told him I was a member of the resistance and that I wanted to continue my task. I urged him to flee from the train. He refused. “As a medical doctor, it is my duty to assist the ill, not to escape from them.” He was still reasoning like it was peacetime. I no longer insisted on him trying to escape and started to saw the bars in front of the window with the knife I had got. Luckily the bars were only made of pinewood.

"The train slowed down, I jumped ... and the train stopped. Rattling from hand machineguns ... Savage roaring by the Germans. Probably there are other attempts to escape. I tried to hide close to -or is it in- the ground and I was loosing all notion of time. Without moving I laid down, I barely dared to breathe. Minutes passed by like they were hours. All of a sudden, the train started moving again.

"Cautiously I got up ... the knife in my hand. The little house of a crossing-guard is nearby. In that little house was a young man. I sneaked towards him and told him that I was Jewish, that I had jumped out of the train and that I needed help.

"Without saying anything, he put his finger on his mouth to make me clear I had to shut up. He took me by the arm and brought me to a meadow, right behind the station, where there were a couple of haystacks. He pushed me into one of the haystacks and covered me with hay. In great haste, he returned to his little house.

" I heard the Germans approaching with their dogs. My guardian angel gave them something to drink and assured them he hadn’t seen anything suspicious. The Germans didn’t seem to be in a rush, they were strolling around, drinking, smoking, and talking. Finally, they took off.

"When the coast was clear, the guard got me out of my hideout. He gave me something to eat and told me that a little further, a 20-minute walk, there was a tram stop. The tram could take me from Haacht to Brussels. I headed towards the terminus of the tram and so I reached the Rogierplein in Brussels".

Altogether 231 people were liberated that night. Some were recaptured and put on another convoy, others were killed, but 115 who succeeded in escaping. The youngest, Simon Gronowski, was only 11 years old. He remembers his mother hesitating to jump, saying the train was moving too fast. That was the last he saw of her or his sister as they were taken to Auschwitz. He ran away across the fields and reached a house where he was taken in.

Some years ago, attending a conference in Brussels organised by the Union des Progressistes Juive de Belge (UPJB), which has its roots in the wartime resistance and refugee work and links today with the Jewish Socialists' Group, I was put up overnight with an elderly couple of UPJB members. Next morning over breakfast I happened to talk about the war, and mention that I had heard about a train that had been stopped. They exchanged glances and smiled, whether amused by my lack of knowledge or my interest.
"She was on that train," said the husband (who I learned had left before the war and returned to liberate Brussels with the Canadian army, and met his wife).

"Yes, but there's something I must tell you," said the wife. "It was the resisters who liberated me. But the reason I survived those years was that an ordinary Belgian family, just working people, were prepared to take me, a Jewish girl, into their home."

In fact, there was more than one form of resistance, besides the acts of sabotage and armed actions. There were the post workers who intercepted mail to the Gestapo, and warned anyone who was being denounced to give them time to escape before the mail got through. There were the people who printed illicit newspapers and those who obtained the other kind of papers for those who needed them to get around. There was the social worker who returned to the Charleroi coalfields where she had been assisting Italian immigrants to settle before the war, this time to find people willing to shelter Jewish children in their homes.

And there were all those Belgians, whether in cottages or convents, who took the risk of providing refuge for the persecuted, so that as many as 50 per cent of those the Nazis wanted to deport and kill actually survived.

First hand accounts, Robert Maistriau, Regine Krochmal Somon Grosnowski et al:

There's a book to read by Marion Schreiber on the 20th train incident and its background, it's called 'Silent Rebels' and was published in English by Atlantic Books in 2000.

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At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Dave Bruce said...

A moving and powerful story. Thanks.

Just to be picky, it's "pliers", not "pliars". (No, there's no need to post that . . . )


At 5:29 PM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

Thanks Dave. The passage I read on line, translated from Dutch, said "tongs", but I thought in English that is something you use to pick up coal, not for cutting wire, so I made it pliers (right spelling this time!).
If I had checked with Marion Schreiber's "Silent Rebels" I'd have seen that she says pliers, and spells it right too.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Jon Massaro said...

He who saves one life, saves the world entire...

This probably one of the most influential stories I've ever heard. It makes me tear up with admiration and and inspiration. One of those stories that makes you clutch your fist as tight as possible and thrust it into the air in triumph while shouting "F****** A"

Just makes you realize that when the chips are down, and you probably won't succeed, there's nothing left to do but say screw it all and do what needs to be done.

Truly the only people I can think of right now, whom I'd really have loved to be able to shake their hand...

I'd buy them all beer if they were still around... Well done men, well done.


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