Friday, November 1, 2019

Miracle Escape from a Holocaust Transport: A WWII Story

by Cindy K. Stewart

In April of 1944, Nazi soldiers herded eleven-year-old Simon Gronowski and his mother onto a waiting train, along with more than sixteen hundred other Jewish prisoners who lived in Belgium. The train's destination - the notorious Auschwitz death camp in Poland, more than 700 miles away. The Gronowskis crowded into a wooden boxcar with one single, small, wired-over window with no food, water, or seats.

The Gronowskis' home was in Brussels, but they were transported from a transit camp in Mechelen.
Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The train started on its way, but less than ten miles later, around 9:30 PM, it slowed and then stopped. Three members of the Belgian Resistance - Robert Maistriau, Jean Franklemon, and Youra Livchitz - had placed a lantern covered with red paper on the railroad tracks in an effort bring the train to a stop to they could help as many prisoners to escape as possible. Their ploy worked as the train engineer stopped for the "danger" signal.

Armed with only a small-caliber handgun, "Livchitz began wildly firing his revolver in the direction of the Nazi guards at the rear of the train, trying to simulate an attack by a large force." Maistriau and Franklemon used wire cutters to open the boxcar doors and yelled at the prisoners to get out. Many jumped out and tried to run away, but German troops stationed on top of the train fired at them. After a few minutes, the train moved forward, but the engineer deliberately kept the train from going too fast to allow more prisoners to escape.

After opening up as many boxcars as possible, and the train began moving again, Maistriau, Franklemon, and Livchitz retrieved their bicycles from the bushes and quickly rode away. Although they "did not reach the boxcar where Simon and his mother were imprisoned, men in the car realized other prisoners were escaping and managed to pry open the boxcar door. By then the train was moving, but some inside jumped out anyway."

Items used during the attack, now in the collection of the Kazerne Dossin Museum in Belgium.
Courtesy of Author Jessica Dommicent and Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

Simon's mother gave him money, had him hide it in his sock, and then led him to the door. "She lowered him toward the ground" by the shoulders but was reluctant to let go because of the train's speed. It sped up and then slowed, so she finally released him, and Simon landed on the ground safely. He was the last to escape his car. The German guards shot other jumpers, and Simon spotted the guards heading his way, so he rolled down a small slope and ran for the trees. He didn't stop until he was deep in the woods. Because of his experience "camping in the Belgian forests as a scout," Simon was quite comfortable in his new surroundings.

Simon walked through the night and reached the edge of the woods at daybreak. He stopped at a small house and explained to the woman who answered that he had become lost in the woods while playing with friends and needed help getting home to Brussels. The woman took him to the home of a policeman who was also a secret member of the Belgian Resistance. He was aware of the train ambush and assumed Simon had escaped. The officer's wife washed and mended Simon's clothing, fed him breakfast, and gave him a bath. The officer took him "to a remote train depot, bought him a ticket to Brussels, and put him on a departing train." Simon made it safely to Brussels, and, miraculously, no one requested his identification papers along the way.

Simon made it to his former neighborhood where a close family friend, Madame Rouffart, took care of him and made plans to move him to a safer location. She arranged a reunion for Simon with his father, who was in hiding. Fearing they would be captured if they stayed together, Madame Rouffart sent Simon to another safe house where he survived until the Allies liberated Belgium. Sadly, Simon's father died of a heart attack shortly after liberation, and Simon's mother was sent to the gas chamber as soon as she arrived at Auschwitz. His older sister was later sent to the camp and succumbed to the same fate.

Prisoners Arriving at Auschwitz. Courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Simon's train to Auschwitz became "famous as the 'Twentieth Convoy' - the only Nazi train during the Holocaust to be ambushed by members of the Resistance while en route to a death camp." Two of the three Resistance members who freed the escapees survived the war. "More than 230 Jewish prisoners escaped from the Twentieth Convoy, and more than a hundred evaded recapture." Simon grew up in the home of his aunt and uncle, became an accomplished Belgian attorney, father, and grandfather, and is still alive today.

Memorial of Attack on the "20th Convoy" to Auschwitz
Courtesy of Creative Commons via Dutch Wikipedia

Gragg, Rod. My Brother's Keeper. Center Street, 2016.


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-eight years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.