Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz

Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz


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ISBN-13: 9780802141859
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/12/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 308
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

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The Twentieth Train

The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz
By Marion Schreiber

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Marion Schreiber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-1766-X

Chapter One

'Anyone who saves one human life, saves an entire people.'

If I survived the Holocaust, it was only thanks to those Belgian citizens who were brave enough to take in a little Jewish boy and hide him from the Nazis. My mother, too, escaped being deported because during the German occupation she lived with a Brussels family who not only sheltered her but repeatedly helped her to escape the persecution of the SS.

Belgium is Germany's unknown neighbour. And that is particularly true as regards the chapter of resistance and civil disobedience against the Nazi regime in Belgium. Four thousand children like myself survived the Holocaust living under false identities with families, in boarding schools, monasteries and children's homes. Sixty per cent of the sixty thousand Jews living in Belgium at the time were not deported because they were able to escape the clutches of the German racial fanatics with the help of neighbours, friends and strangers. These Belgians risked imprisonment or even transportation to a concentration camp because they were infringing the laws passed by the German military administration, according to which any help for the persecuted Jews was to be considered a serious crime.

I was two years old when my father, Hugo Spiegel, set of for Belgium to find a safe haven for his family. During the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1938, as a respected cattle-dealer in Warendorf, he had been beaten up by the Nazis. His licence, and thus our basic standard of living, were taken away. For my parents that was the signal to leave Germany, with a view to moving back to the region around Münster once the Nazi horrors had passed. In 1939 my father found lodgings for the four of us in St Gilles, in the home of the butcher Blomme. Shortly after the German invasion of Belgium, my father was arrested in the street and brought to the French internment camp of Gurs, from which he was later deported to Buchenwald, then to Auschwitz and finally to Dachau. He miraculously survived the concentration camps. My mother, whose first name was Ruth, was 'Madame Régine' to her Belgian neighbours. She earned her livelihood by cleaning for Jewish families who at first had been spared deportation because of their Belgian nationality.

My sister Rosa was nine years older than me, and very independent. Our mother had drummed it into her that if she was addressed by a uniformed man she was under no circumstances to say that she was a Jew. One day she went with a friend of my mother's to a place where food cards were distributed. A man in civilian clothes asked the thirteen-year-old girl if she was a Jew. My sister guilelessly replied that she was. Rosa was arrested, and we never heard anything from her again. According to the deportation lists of Mechelen transit camp, she was, along with 130 other children on 24 October 1942, on the fourteenth transport to Auschwitz.

Now my mother looked for a hiding place for me. After a brief stay in a house in Uccle, where about ten children were living in wretched and unhygienic conditions, an organization gave my mother the address of a farmer in Chapelle-lez-Herlaimont, who was prepared to take in a Jewish child. So at the age of five I went to stay with this elderly couple with an adult son, who pretended I was their nephew from Germany. Only the priest in the village, whose services I regularly attended with my Catholic family, knew my true identity. To give me even greater protection against the Nazis, my host parents suggested that I be baptized. But the priest refused. He was not one of those who would use the opportunity to evangelize Jewish children.

I spent three and a half years with those kind farmers. I still clearly remember the American soldiers marching into our little provincial town. My mother had prepared me for that great moment by teaching me the English phrase, 'I am a German Jew'. Now, when I stood at the edge of the street amongst the flag-waving, cheering villagers, a huge tank suddenly stopped, and a black soldier looked down at me. I shouted out my English sentence to him, he bent down to me and lifted me up, kissed me and gave me sweets. I can still remember how terrified I was, and how glad I was when he put me back down on the street.

'He who saves one human life, saves an entire people.' Many Belgian citizens acted according to this saying from the Talmud during the German occupation. I most devoutly hope that their courage and helpfulness will now be made known through Marion Schreiber's book, even beyond Belgium's borders.

Paul Spiegel President, Central Council of the Jews in Germany

1 20 January 1943

There was an unusually euphoric atmosphere on Avenue Louise. As if obeying some secret command, people streamed down the wide street to number 453. That cold winter day, they came from all parts of Brussels to witness the unexpected humiliation of the occupying German forces, which was etched in the pale sandstone façade of the apartment building near the city forest. The front of the building was riddled with more than a dozen bullet-holes.

The incredible had happened. On that January morning in 1943, an RAF pilot had dared to fly into Belgian air space. Keeping low in the sky, he thundered across the wide boulevards of Brussels to the Belgian branch of the Reich Security Office or Sicherheitsamt, sprayed the building with shells and gunfire, banked rapidly away and vanished.

His aim was good. None of the neighbouring civilian houses was touched. Only the cream-coloured frontage of this notorious apartment block had been devastated. Windows were shattered, metal frames twisted and the balcony railings had been torn apart. Empty black window frames gaped on the upper storeys.

The crowd drifted slowly past the building. None of them dared to stop, and none of them dared to express their delight. Only the people driving past in the over-crowded tram waved triumphantly to the hordes of strollers. They thought they were safe from attack from the grim, grey-uniformed German policemen who stood in a semi-circle, cordoning of the building. Their whistles and shouted commands, as they tried to make the curious onlookers disperse, were all that disturbed the calm atmosphere.

Youra Livchitz couldn't take his eyes of the ruined façade. He hadn't felt such a feeling of victory for a long time now. The young Jewish physician knew the building's terrible secrets. Friends of his, Resistance fighters, had been tortured and interrogated in that building before they disappeared into prison or labour camps. In the cellar, Jewish men, women and children - arrested in the raids carried out by Hitler's SS lackeys in the Security Police and the Security Service - waited to be transferred to the transit camp at Mechelen. The higher up the building you went, the crueller were the methods employed for the capture and destruction of human beings. It was on the two top floors that the Secret Police - the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo - had their offices.

That afternoon Livchitz had left work earlier than usual. In the offices and laboratories of Pharmacobel - where he worked as a laboratory manager, since the occupying Germans had forbidden him to practise the medical profession for which he was qualified - the air-raid was the sole topic of conversation. Was this a sign that Nazi rule was coming to an end? For the first time the Germans had shown themselves to be vulnerable. Was it not possible that the concerted power of the Allies might soon achieve what this daring pilot had managed to do all on his own? Even the evening newspaper, Le Soir, forced ideologically into line by the Nazis, could no longer conceal the desperate state of the German army in the snow and freezing cold on the Eastern Front. The Wehrmacht units, the newspaper reported, were 'isolated' at Stalingrad, and the target of 'ruthless attacks from the Russians'.

But Youra also heard pessimistic voices. They feared that the humiliated Nazis would react even more violently and intensify their searches and raids to regain their authority of terror. But one thing was certain: the Germans would do anything within their power to ensure that nothing would be written about the pilot's attack on their headquarters.

The young doctor wanted to see first-hand evidence of the defeat of the hated occupying forces; he wanted to hear what the people in the street were saying, even if he had to take risks to do so, since the Germans were sure to tighten up their checks on individuals. If he proved not to be wearing a yellow star, the remainder of his journey was predetermined: he himself would end up in the cellar of this building, the Nazi headquarters, and from there he would be transported to Mechelen transit camp, where the trains set off for Poland. But as always, Youra relied on the fact that he bore not the slightest resemblance to the hook-nosed Nazi caricature of a Jew displayed in the posters for the anti-Bolshevik Exhibition, Voici les Soviets, at the Cinquantenaire. Livchitz was tall, athletic and blue-eyed - a type that was very popular with the ladies.

The people here in Avenue Louise, it seemed to the young doctor, were walking taller today than they usually did; they had a calmer, more optimistic look in their eyes. The stiffness of fear had left them. From the excited conversations going on around him, the young doctor learned that the attack must have been carried out by a Belgian pilot, clearly a patriot who knew the area. His precise target had been number 453. And as he flew over Brussels he had dropped the Belgian national flag - banned by the Nazis - over the house of a well-known aristocratic family. The hated German police had clearly suffered casualties. The people living in the neighbouring buildings reported that fire engines and ambulances had been driving back and forth all morning.

Only later was it known throughout Belgium that the raid had been carried out by the thirty-two-year-old Jean de Sélys Longchamp. The Belgian pilot had left his squadron on an RAF reconnaissance mission, to fire on the Gestapo building.

Suddenly Youra flinched. Someone had clapped him on the shoulder. It was Robert Maistriau, his old friend from school. The two young men hadn't seen each other for weeks. Robert had also made the pilgrimage here to witness the disgrace of the German occupiers. Robert, four years younger than his friend, and with wavy blond hair, was unlikely to attract suspicion to Youra as they wandered through the crowd. They were both excited and speculated that this visible defeat of the Germans might be followed by others. And attacks by underground fighters were on the increase. Wasn't the mood of the cold and hungry population becoming increasingly hostile to the occupying forces? Robert had impulsively decided to join one of the Resistance movements. He was bored with his desk job with the metals company Fonofer, where he had started working after abandoning his medical studies. He was dying to find some way of doing damage to the Germans. It wasn't just that everything the Belgians had saved by careful husbandry - food, fabrics or coal - was going to Germany. Now young people were going to be forced to work in German factories to keep the wheels of Hitler's arms industry in motion. Around this time, Robert often found himself thinking about his father. A military doctor, and originally an ardent admirer of German culture, with its poets, musicians and philosophers, he had lost all his respect for the German nation in the First World War, at the Front at Yser. He considered it particularly barbaric that during their invasion in 1914 the Germans had set fire to the precious university library in Leuven with all its irreplaceable books and manuscripts. 'In one way and another,' Maistriau recalls, 'we young people were opposed to the Germans even before the Second World War.'

Robert's great friend Youra, whom he had admired so much in grammar school, was ahead of him now as well. He was active in the Resistance, he told Maistriau, working as a courier. Because he knew his way around some of the hospitals, he had even, along with some young underground fighters, helped to smuggle a hospitalized victim of the Gestapo out of the clinic, while dressed in a doctor's white coat. But unlike his elder brother Alexandre, a convinced Communist who was a member of the armed partisans, Youra still hadn't joined up with any particular group. As an intellectual free spirit he abhorred all forms of compulsion, and didn't want to be tied down by any one organization or ideology.

All of a sudden German policemen forced their way into the crowd, some of them with Alsatians straining on their leashes. They had clearly received instructions to break up the gathering. They grabbed a few curious onlookers and marched them of. High time for Youra to get away. The two school-friends still lived in the same district, near their former grammar school in Uccle. So they took the twenty-minute walk back together.

From the third floor of number 453 Avenue Louise, Judenreferent Kurt Asche watched the crowd slowly dispersing. Over the course of the day the Nazi official had come to the window several times to peer out through the shattered panes and down upon the activity below. The sight of such cheerful people sent him into a fury. To avoid being seen, the little man with the pinched expression stayed back in the darkness of his office, which had, by some miracle, been unharmed.

Asche was Adolf Eichmann's representative in Belgium. And as a 'Referent' - an expert in Jewish matters - and an SS Obersturmführer he enjoyed the privilege of an office on this magnificent boulevard, with a view of the park of the Abbaye de la Cambre. That morning, when the plane came roaring down towards the building, several of his other colleagues had gone running to the window to find out where the deafening noise was coming from. Some of them had paid for their curiosity by being seriously injured or even killed.

At around midday a telegram had been sent to Berlin. It informed the Reichssicherheitshauptamt - Reich Security Headquarters, or RSHA - of the attack by 'a low-flying English plane on the Chancellery building'. They reported five serious injuries and four fatalities. One of Asche's good friends had been hit. This was unfortunate for the Judenreferent, because he had got on very well with this colleague from division IVc. Every now and again they had, for a fee, struck affluent Jews of the list of deportees and sold them French passports. Who would fill that post now? the Obersturmführer wondered. He couldn't possibly afford his extravagant night-life, his trips to the brothels of Brussels and his alcoholic evenings in the low dives of the city on his salary alone. Asche's greed exceeded even his anti-Semitism.

He was left cold by the fact that the head of the Security Service, Alfred Thomas, had been fatally injured by a shell while sitting at his mahogany desk.


Excerpted from The Twentieth Train by Marion Schreiber Copyright © 2000 by Marion Schreiber. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of illustrationsviii
Silent Rebels1
Afterword to the English-language edition260
AppendixThe deportees269

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Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very good book about the occupation of Belgium by the Germans during WWII. The story of the Belgan resistance and their attacks on trains carrying prisoners to death camps is both thrilling and true. They saved many lives. I passed this book on to an elderly couple who lived through the occupation and they thought it was excellent.
WorldReader1111 More than 1 year ago
This is a truly powerful book, I believe. 'The Twentieth Train' has a lot going for it, in all respects, from the literary to the historical to its value as a human document. The text itself is functional and generally well-composed, with a good, intelligent format that weaves the various accounts into a coherent narrative of events. Also, the author writes with a strong, sober voice, yet avoids bias or emotional coloring, as to be both objective and clear-spoken; never once did I sense an agenda on the author's part, or anything less than facts relayed in good intention. Consequently, the book is easy to read (or it was for me, anyway), and projects a warmth that is lacking in many such pieces of documentary nonfiction. Finally, the book is sourced almost exlusively from firsthand interviews with actual participants, and other relatively substantial and trustworthy sources; reading it, I felt that, if not 100% indisputable, the essential facts were accurate (or, at least, as accurate as anything written after-the-fact can be). From this standpoint alone, 'Train' is, in my opinion, a success (and, quite a commendable one). In terms of content, the book is just as rich and noteworthy. First and foremost, 'Train' achieves its stated purpose: in recounting the WWII raid on an Auschwitz-bound transport, with sound, well-rounded descriptions of the key people involved, plus the necessary historical background and other contextual data. After completing the book, I felt to be generally informed on the subject, to a satsifactory degree. However, what I found most enjoyable about 'Train' was its many human stories, which are seen in the participants' brief biographies, Axis and Allies alike. Nor was my interest primarily for entertainment (though, certainly, there was an element of entertaining storytelling present); rather, I found much to learn from the lives and times of these individuals, from the practical to the philosophical (and, ultimately, to the existential and the spiritual, for good or ill). This is, in fact, what I see as the most important (and most redeeming) function of such books: that we may learn from the past and the experiences of our predecessors, such that, in this case, some benefit might come from the seemingly terrible, senseless violence described in 'Train.' In this sense, this book and those like it serve as bountiful food-for-thought, in a way that few, if any, other media can accomplish. For these reasons, I give 'The Twentieth Train' a rare five-star rating. My sincere thanks goes out to this book's author, subjects, and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work and service. * * * Some notable quotes from this book (from which we can learn much, I think): "People were still unwilling to believe that the Germans in Poland had moved on to the genocide of the Jews. Reports to that effect were dismissed as Communist scare stories. 'A cultured people like the Germans wouldn't do anything like that,' was the constant cry, and it may have inspired the editors of Le Flambeau to have put the daily persecutions of the Jews by the German Nazis under the heading 'Culture.'" -- p.170 "There was no point buying a newspaper, because the Belgian press had been brought into line with Nazi policy. They merely disseminated the victory reports and fairy-tales that they were fed each day by Goebbels's Ministry of Propaganda." -- p.211