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HEROES OF THE RESISTANCE

The attack on the 20th convoy

One of the most audacious resistance operations of the Second World War was an attack on a train transporting people to Auschwitz. A total of 233 people were freed from the train, and incredibly the attack was carried out by just three people.

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On the afternoon of 19 April 1943, a train had left the Belgian city of Mechelen, transporting 1,361 Jews, communists and resistance fighters from the Mechelen ‘Transit Camp’ to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the 20th such convoy to leave Belgium for the death camps in Poland.

On the stretch between the towns of Boortmeerbeek and Haacht, the driver had spotted a red ‘STOP’ light ahead.

At least he thought he saw a red STOP light. It was actually a paper lantern, brought to the trackside by three young men - Dr Youra Livchitz, Jean Franklemon and Robert Maistriau – all members of the Belgian resistance.

With the train stopped, the trio broke into the nearest wagon. With just one pistol and a set of pliers between them – and despite a 16-man Nazi police guard – they freed 17 captives before the train began moving again. 

Robert Maistriau, one of the resistance members, recalled that terrifying moment later in his memoirs.

“The brakes made a hellish noise and at first I was petrified. But then I gave myself a jolt on the basis that if you have started something you should go through with it. I held my torch in my left hand and with my right, I had to busy myself with the pliers. I was very excited and it took far too long until I had cut through the wire that secured the bolts of the sliding door. I shone my torch into the carriage and pale and frightened faces stared back at me. I shouted Sortez Sortez! And then Schnell Schnell flehen Sie! Quick, Quick, get out of here!”

After a brief shooting battle between the German train guards and the three resistance members, the train started again.

“You saved my life.”

Emboldened by the attack and aided by the Belgian train driver Albert Dumon, who would slow down as much as possible at turns to help with their jumps, a further 216 people escaped from the train as it moved through Belgium.

Of the 233 people who managed to flee the train, 118 succeeded in escaping, 26 died either from gunshot or in falling, and 89 were recaptured. All but 153 of those who were transported to Auschwitz perished, while a further ten were held in Belgium until liberation in September 1944.

At a reunion event later, one of them came up to Robert Maistriau, kissed him, and stated the simple fact: “You saved my life.”

The attack on Convoy 20 proved to be the only mass breakout from a train bound for the Nazi death camps during the war, and the fact that it was carried out by just three people with such limited resources is even more incredible.

The attack on Convoy 20 proved to be the only mass breakout from a train bound for the Nazi death camps during the war, and the fact that it was carried out by just three people with such limited resources is even more incredible.

The Ongoing Fight for the Resistance Fighters

Youra Livchitz, Jean Franklemon, and Robert Maistriau continued their resistance to the Nazis after this attack, particularly harassing the Holocaust machinery whenever they could, as much as they could. Livchitz was arrested by the Gestapo a month after the attack. Despite later escaping from Gestapo HQ in Brussels, he was recaptured and executed on 17th February 1944.

Franklemon was arrested in August 1943 but survived the rest of the war as a resistance prisoner. He died in East Germany, aged 60. 

Maistriau managed to join up with the Belgian partisans fighting in the Ardennes forest. Caught by the Nazis in March 1944, he too was thrown into the concentration camps but lived to see liberation at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

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