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CULTURE & HERITAGE - Culture & History

The twentieth convoy
by Gilberte Jacaret (source Wikipedia)

convoi 20
Memorial commemorating the successful Resistance attack on the Twentieth convoy to Auschwitz
Transport 20 (XXth convoy) was a Jewish prisoner transport in Belgium organized by Nazi Germany during World War II. Members of the Belgian Resistance freed Jewish and Gypsy 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

In 1940, nearly 70,000 Jews were living in Belgium. Of these, 46 percent were deported from the former Mechelen transit camp, while a further 5,034 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. On April 19, 1943, the twentieth transport left with 1631 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.

The rescue

Three young students and members of the Belgian resistance 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 this security measure, Maistriau was able to open one wagon and liberate 17 people. Many other escaped from the convoy without any connection with the attack. In all, 231 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 (fr), 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 breadknife and jumped from the train near Haacht. Both survived World War II.

Direction Auschwitz

On April 22, 1943, the train arrived at Auschwitz. During the selection, only 521 ID numbers are assigned. Of these 521, only 150 people survived the war. The remaining 1,031 people disappeared in the Holocaust.
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.
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.