This Day in Jewish History

1943: Belgians Rescue Jews From Auschwitz-bound Train

With the help of three Belgian resistance fighters, 116 people ultimately escaped. Simon Gronowski, who was 11 at the time, was one of them.

Archival photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski

On April 19, 1943, members of the Belgian resistance attacked a transport train carrying Jewish deportees from the Mechelen transit camp to Auschwitz. It was the most significant rescue action taken during World War II of a train taking prisoners to the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland.

During the years 1942-1944, 28 transports left the Dossin Barracks in the town of Mechelin, in north-central Belgium, heading east, generally to Auschwitz. They carried more than 25,000 Jews and more than 350 Roma. (Another 5,000 people, approximately, were deported by way of Drancy transit camp in France.) The transport that departed the evening of April 19 (the same day that the month-long Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began) was Convoy XX, and it was the first to carry the prisoners in cattle cars -- whose small windows were blocked with barbed wire -- rather than via third-class passenger carriages. 

The attack on Convoy XX was carried out by three members of the Belgian resistance, who had received advance information of the train’s intended departure. Armed with a lone pistol and pliers, they wrapped a storm lantern with red paper and placed it on the track between Mechelen and Leuven, as if it were a warning signal. When the train came to a stop, the three resistance fighters – Robert Maistrau, Georges Livschitz and Jean Franklemon – were able to pry open the doors to one of the wagons.  Five people immediately escaped. (Another account says 17 escaped.)

After the train began moving again, the prisoners within began to use tools that they had hidden in the straw before their departure. With these they opened additional escape routes, and many more began to jump from the moving train.

In total, 231 deportees fled from the train that night. Twenty-six of them were killed during their flight, and another 116 were recaptured – a total of 116 were successful in their escape.

The youngest of those who got away was Simon Gronowski, who was 11 at the time. He was traveling with his mother, Channa (his father was in hiding, and his older sister, Ita, had for the time being been spared deportation), after two months of confinement at the Mechelen camp. He told reporter Sarah Ehrlich, in a story for the BBC, how he had used the time to prepare for an escape by practicing jumping from the top bunk of his bed. When the train slowed down, his mother helped him to make his jump from a running board. He wanted to wait for his mother, but the German guards were shooting, so he ran.

Gronowski entered a forest and walked through the night. When he arrived in the village of Berlingen, the following morning, he knocked on the door of a house. The family inside turned him over to a Belgian constable, who returned him to safe refuge in Brussels. There he was reunited briefly with his father, and was hidden for the rest of the war by several different families. He never saw his mother or sister again, and his father died in July, 1945.

Convoy XX arrived in Auschwitz on April 22. Of the 1,031 deportees who were still on it, only 521 received ID numbers, meaning that the remainder were presumably sent to their immediate deaths. Of those, 150 are known to have survived the war.

Gronowski, the lone survivor from his family, became a lawyer after the war. Today he is 81, and he lives in Brussels.

The documentary "Transport XX to Auschwitz," featuring Simon Gronowski, can be seen in its entirety here.

Archive: Michel van der Burg / Photo: Marc Van Roosbroeck