We have the right to escape

Transport XX 'jumpers' and rescued deportees  - © michelvanderburg.com, photo mvdb20110422_transport-XX / CC-BY
Transport XX ‘jumpers’ and rescued deportees – © michelvanderburg.com – cc-by
photo mvdb20110422_transport-XX

“Rescue during the Holocaust” is the theme this year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day – Jan 27, 2013 – and an important theme in the work of historian Tanja von Fransecky.
Tanja von Fransecky has done research over the past years in France, Belgium, Holland, and Israel on the rescue, escape attempts, and escapes from the deportation trains during the Holocaust.

It is a relatively unknown chapter of the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, that many deportees from death trains fled, and often were rescued by others – neighbors – at the risk of their own life.

Tanja von Fransecky’s work is news this weekend in the latest edition (Jan 26) of the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” – the largest German national newspaper – in the report by Stephan Stracke, entitled: “Wir haben das Recht zu flüchten” – translated here as “We have the right to escape”.
Below my summary of this article on Tanja von Fransecky’s work (with some additions by myself)

According to Tanja von Fransecky it is no coincidence that the escapes and escape attempts from deportation trains during the Holocaust were not investigated for a long time. Escapes from deportation trains did not fit into the picture of defenseless Jewish victims.
The harsh conditions of the deportations may also have played a role. Journeys of many days and nights: hunger, thirst, madness, urine, feces, screaming, fighting and skirmishes for water and a place at the barricaded openings, and then the shootings and killings of fugitives. During the escape attempts, panic usually broke out among the other deportees in the car, who feared reprisals by the Nazis.

Fleeing implied: jumping off a moving train – considering whether it would be more wise to continue the journey – the dilemma that family and others left behind may be at risk – the risk of injury at the jump, or being shot and slain during flight.

Tanja von Fransecky’s research showed that about 750 Jews tried to escape from a deportation train in Western Europe. Many cases she also documented in her thesis (dissertation) to be published in the autumn of 2013.

There is the story from Holland of the eight year old girl who lived close to the railway line from Westerbork to Germany, where more than 100,000 Jews were deported. On September 3, 1943, she was witness to the flight in broad daylight from the fast moving train of 8 young Jewish prisoners: 6 men and 2 women. Both hands of Ciska, one of these women, were almost torn off under the wheels of the train. Much later, in the ’60s, she will die from an infection sustained then during the emergency surgery performed ‘underground’.

Central Europe (Galicia)
In Galicia (Central Europe)  –  due to rumors of mass destruction – the number of escape attempts increased so much, that people were locked in the cars without clothes and without shoes in the winter to prevent flight. Yet hundreds of deportees to Belzec tried to flee – even down to the village – in the fall and winter of 1942.
People who lived along the track like Franciszek Wloch and others who worked on the track to Belzec saw the “Jumpers”. “In the winter, the people in the cars were naked and looked like skeletons. Bodies, were found daily near the tracks. Most had died from the cold. I do not know a single case of rescue of these refugees by the local population of Poles and Ukrainians.

France and Belgium
Especially in France and Belgium many deportees tried to break out of the cars using various smuggled tools. Best known are the many escape attempts from the 20th deportation train in Belgium, known as “Transport XX”

Transport XX
On April 19th, 1943, the three young men Youra Livschitz, Jean Franklemon, and Robert Maistriau stopped this 20th convoy by putting a red hurricane lamp on the rails, and liberated 17 men and women. Another more than 200 prisoners escape from the train before the German border. Of these, 26 were killed. Eventually, half of them succeeded to escape.
Tanja von Fransecky documents several escape attempts and escapes of the deportees: Willy Berler, Régine Krochmal, Simon Gronowski and others.

When Willy Berler was about to jump off the train, he saw that the unfortunate man who had jumped before him, was stuck to the train with his head crushed like a melon. Willy did not jump. “If I had known …. about Auschwitz …. I would have jumped.

Tanja von Fransecky interviewed Régine Krochmal who was active at the time in the “Österreichische Freiheitsfront” and a nurse. This nurse had to escort together with a doctor the seriously ill in the last car. Just before she went into the car she was warned by the Jewish camp doctor of the Dossin barracks, who gave her a knife with the words: “Cut the bars, jump, because they will burn you“.
After the train had pulled away, Régine, had to fight off the accompanying doctor in her car who had tried to prevent her from sawing through the bars of the small vent in order to escape.

Simon Gronowski was only 11 years old when he was helped by his mother to jump from this 20th deportation train, and survived – unlike his mother who was gassed at Auschwitz. Simon was ‘lucky’. He was taken care of by a Belgian gendarme and his wife, and not betrayed. That salvation was no exception: almost all refugees from the deportation train survived with the help of the Belgian population.

Not one of the police escorts (Schupos) of these deportation trains was convicted later for participation in the Holocaust.
During her investigation, Tanja von Fransecky stumbled across an official message from the head of a police escort. According to this document, March 13th 1943 in France, a Jew escaped from a deportation train. One of the policemen – called ‘K.’ – pulled the emergency brake, shot at the fugitive, pursued after him on the bike of a passerby, and killed the Jew with a head shot.
During further investigations Tanja von Fransecky found ‘Walter K.’ in 2009 who had continued to work as a policeman, but already was 94 and unable to stand trial. He is now deceased.


The original article – in German – was published in:
FEUILLETON 26 Jan 2013 — NS-Geschichte — Süddeutsche Zeitung — Link: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/
The newspaper of that day is easy to purchase via the iPad app of the Süddeutsche Zeitung

Stephan Stracke (author of the original article “Wir haben das Recht zu flüchten”) is a historian affiliated with the Universität Wuppertal (Germany).

Régine Krochmal was today 70 years ago – on 27 January 1943 – put in prison in the Dossin barracks in Mechelen, Belgium, pending her deportation with transport XX.

The ‘Righteous’ – Some statistics on the number of people that were reported to Yad Vashem (world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust) to have helped rescue Jews are available via this link to the Yad Vashem site

Photo collage – Transport XX ‘jumpers’ and rescued deportees
Image  “transport XX ‘jumpers’ and rescued deportees” is a collage by Michel van der Burg. License – attribution: © michelvanderburg.com, image mvdb20110422_transport-XX / CC-BY
Description and credits: The image is a collage showing a box car used for deportations with the faces of Transport XX deportees – some of the rescued during the attack on the train, and some of the many other deportees that jumped out of the train before the German border.
The box car used for deportations was photographed by Michel van der Burg in the Kazerne Dossin museum April 22, 2011 – the same day when 68 years earlier transport XX arrived in Auschwitz.
The Transport XX deportees portraits are from Boortmeerbeek 2011 commemoration photo display panels photographed by Michel van der Burg.  Kazerne Dossin  digitized the original portraits of the prisoners (thank you Patricia Ramet) – photo’s that mostly are from the “National State Archives of Belgium. Ministry of Justice, Public Safety Office, Foreigner’s Police, individual files” (Note: this image was not published in the original article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung)

Documentary film “Transport XX to Auschwitz” – The stories of one of the attackers, Robert Maistriau, and the deportees Willy Berler, Régine Krochmal, Simon Gronowski and – in the original article – Claire Prowizur, are also presented in our documentary film “Transport XX to Auschwitz” – in which incidentally many other deportees have their say. Soon more details about this.


Updates Jan 28, 2013:
– some English text corrections – thanks to Richard Bloom
– information in the Notes section on rescuers reported to Yad Vashem (Righteous)

Updates Jan 29, 2013
– Image replaced
– Image information included in Notes section