On April 19, 1943, the twentieth convoy to transport Belgian Jews to Germany began its journey east. 1,631 Jewish men, women, and children were crowded together on the cars, which for the first time were freight cars with barbed wire over the small windows rather than the third-class wagons normally used.
As the train chugged along between the Boortmeerbeek and Haacht municipalities, three students, armed with nothing but a lantern, a bit of red paper, wire cutters, and one pistol, prepared to rescue the people on board. They were Youra Livchitz and his two non-Jewish friends Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, and they were part of the Belgian Resistance. They slid the paper in front of the lantern, creating a makeshift “danger” signal, and the train slowly ground to a halt.
Maistriau crept toward the train in the dark despite the sixteen alerted guards. With the wirecutters he was able to open one of the cars and urged the prisoners to flee. Seventeen people ran into the night as the guards opened fire. More than 200 other Jewish prisoners escaped from their cars during the trip thanks to the speed of the train, which was kept at a crawl by the sympathetic conductor, and later by breaking into the open cars that had been affected by the resistance trio. All totaled, 231 prisoners escaped that night; of these, ninety were recaptured, twenty-six were killed, and 115 were able to escape.
One woman asked an escapee from the train why she would run—didn’t she know she would be shot at? The woman replied, “Yes, but we know we don’t stand a chance at our final destination, so here at least we have a chance.” Sadly, she was right. Of the more than 1600 passengers on the twentieth convoy, only 521 were selected and assigned a number at their destination—Auschwitz—and of those, only 150 survived the war.
As for the brave trio who took on the twentieth convoy, they jumped on their bicycles when the guards started firing. All three escaped back to Brussels that night, although Youra Livchitz was shot and killed by Nazis the following year. Franklemon lived until 1977, and Maistriau died just under six years ago, in October 2008. Their efforts ended up being the biggest action to rescue Jews from the Auschwitz transports during WWII.
Read more about the twentieth convoy and the escape here and here. You can also read accounts from some of the people directly involved with this experience here. Also be sure to search Fold3 for more on the Belgian Resistance movement and other resistance groups.