Twentieth convoy

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Attack on the Twentieth Convoy to Auschwitz
Statue 20th convoy 2.jpg
Memorial to the attack
Location Between Boortmeerbeek and Haacht, Belgium
Date April 19, 1943
Incident type Sabotage, mass prisoner escape
Perpetrators Belgian Resistance
Survivors 236 Jewish civilians
Memorials Yes

Transport 20 (XXth convoy) was a Holocaust train and prisoner transport in Belgium organized by Nazi Germany during World War II. Members of the Belgian Resistance freed Jewish and Roma civilians who were being transported by train from the Dossin Barracks located in Mechelen, Belgium to the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was the biggest action in Europe of a rescue of Jews on a train to Auschwitz.

Background[edit]

In 1940, nearly 70,000 Jews were living in Belgium. Of these, 46 percent were deported from the former Mechelen transit camp, while 5,034 more people were deported via the Drancy internment camp (close to Paris). The Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) in Berlin was responsible for organizing the transport and the chief of the Dossin Barracks (sammellager) prepared the paper convoy list in triplicate. One copy was for the police officer in charge of security during the transport, the second for the sammellager in Mechelen and the third for the BSD-department located in Brussels. Because all the copies for the Dossin Barracks were preserved, historians have been able to trace and map all the German transports of Belgian Jews to the concentration camps. From the summer of 1942 until 1944, twenty-eight transports left Belgium to bring 25,257 Jews and 351 Roma (gypsies) to eastern Europe. Their destination was often Auschwitz.

The rescue[edit]

German trucks leave the barracks at Dossin Barracks

On 19 April 1943, the twentieth transport left with 1,631 Jewish men, women and children, heading for Germany. For the first time, the third-class wagons were replaced by freight wagons with barbed wire covering the small windows. Also, a special wagon, Sonderwagen, was added with 19 Jews (18 men and one women) consisting of resistance members and "jumpers" from previous transports. These "special list" prisoners were marked in the back of their clothes with a cross painted in red, in order to kill them immediately on arrival at Auschwitz. Eventually, three prisoners escaped from the wagon; a fourth was shot.

Three young students and members of the Belgian resistance including a Jewish doctor, Youra Livchitz (fr) and his two non-Jewish friends Robert Maistriau (fr) and Jean Franklemon (fr), armed with one pistol, a lantern and red paper to create a makeshift red lantern (to use as a danger signal), were able to stop the train on the track Mechelen-Leuven, between the municipalities of Boortmeerbeek and Haacht. The twentieth convoy was guarded by one officer and fifteen men from the Sicherheitspolizei, who came from Germany. Despite these security measures, Maistriau was able to open one wagon and liberate 17 people.

Other prisoners escaped from the convoy without any connection with the attack. It must be said that the man who drove the train between Tienen and Tongeren, Albert Dumon, did all he could to keep the slowest pace, stop whenever it was possible and justifiable, and so allow that more people could jump without killing themselves. In all, 236 people escaped: 90 Jews who were recaptured and put on another convoy, 26 others who were killed, and 115 who succeeded in escaping. The youngest, Simon Gronowski, was only 11 years old. Regine Krochmal (fr), an eighteen-year-old nurse with the resistance, also escaped after she cut the wooden bars put in front of the train air inlet with a bread knife and jumped from the train near Haacht. Both survived World War II.

Direction Auschwitz[edit]

On April 22, 1943, the train arrived at Auschwitz. During the selection, only 521 ID numbers (276 men and 245 women) were assigned. Of these, 521 were selected to be slave laborers, and only 150 people ultimately survived the war. The remaining 874 non-selected people were immediately executed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Based on a telegram dated April 29, 1943 from Reichssicherheitshauptamt to Ernst Ehlers, SS-Obersturmbannführer and Chief of the Belgian Sicherheitspolizei (Sipo-SD), historians assume that at the time of the arrival of the twentieth convoy at Auschwitz, some problems existed. The rumours of the Final Solution created some revolt against the Germans.

Aftermath[edit]

The twentieth convoy was an exceptionally large convoy and was the first transport to use freight cars with doors fenced with barbed-wire. The previous transports used 3rd class wagons on which it was easy to escape through the windows. After the twentieth convoy, each convoy was reinforced with a German reserve company (based in Brussels) until it reached the German border.

The three resistance members who executed the raid met the following fates:

  • Youra Livchitz (1917-1944): a month after the raid on the convoy Livchitz was arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to overpower his guard, put on his uniform and escape from Gestapo headquarters in Brussels. On June 26, 1943 Youra Livchitz and his brother Alexander were stopped by the Feldgendarmerie. In their car weapons were found and they were arrested. On February 17, 1944 Youra Livchitz was executed by firing squad in Schaarbeek.
  • Jean Franklemon (1917-1977): after the raid on the convoy Franklemon was arrested on August 4, 1943 and imprisoned at Fort Breendonk. On March 14, 1944 a German courtmartial sentenced him to six years imprisonment. In April 1944 he was transported to Sonnenburg concentration camp as a Nacht und Nebel prisoner. In November 1944 he was moved to Sachsenhausen. After the liberation Franklemon remained in Germany where he died in 1977.
  • Robert Maistriau (1921-2008): after the raid on the convoy, Maistriau fled to the Ardennes forest, where he hid with the partisans for seven months. He took part in La Grand Coupure, a resistance action which on January 15, 1944 destroyed 20 electricity pylons. On March 20, 1944 Maistriau was arrested by the Sicherheitspolizei. He was held at Fort Breendonk before being transported to Buchenwald. After further periods in concentration camps near Harzungen (a subcamp of Mittelbau-Dora) and Elrich, he was moved to Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated on April 15, 1945. After the war he moved to the Belgian Congo in 1949. He died in 2008 in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert.

In remembrance of the action of the resistance, a statue was inaugurated in 1993 near the train station of Boortmeerbeek. It remembers the Holocaust and the transport of 25,257 Jews, (including 5,093 children) and 352 Roma over the railway track Mechelen-Leuven to the concentration camps. Only 1,205 persons returned home alive.

Reference[edit]

  • Marc Michiels & Mark Van den Wijngaert, Het XXste Transport naar Auschwitz, Manteau, 2012, 272 p, ISBN 978-90-223-2717-3.
  • Schreiber, Marion (2003). The Twentieth Train: the True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz (1st (US) ed.). New York: Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-1766-3. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°58′55″N 4°34′25″E / 50.9820°N 4.5737°E / 50.9820; 4.5737