April 19, 2015. A new edition of our documentary “Transport XX to Auschwitz” is now publicly available online. This new – 2nd – edition with the YouTube title Transport XX to Auschwitz – current version has the latest statistics on the escapes and other updates available.
Full information on this documentary is posted here on this site.
Either watch this film on YouTube via this link (click image) :
Croatian subtitles (ministry-of-subtitles.com) and English subtitles (michelvanderburg•com).
EN : Transport XX to Auschwitz – Thursday, 22.5.2014, 17:45 – Cinema Tuškanac
During the Shoah, the Nazis, in their quest for the final solution of the Jewish question, utilized thousands of trains from Germany and the occupied countries to transport 3,000,000 Jews to the concentration and death camps. This is the little known, true story of a most remarkable and heroic rescue attempt which occurred on April 19, 1943, the first night of the Passover, at the same time that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began, some 720 miles away. On that night, Transport XX departed Mechelen, Belgium at 10 p. m. with 1631 Jewish men, women and children for Auschwitz- Birkenau. Half an hour later, it was stopped by three young Belgians armed with only 1 pistol, pliers and a hurricane lamp. This was the only documented rescue attempt/attack on a death train during the Shoah.
HR : Transport XX za Auschwitz – Četvrtak, 22.5.2014, 17:45 – Kino Tuškanac
Za vrijeme holokausta nacisti su težeći „konačnom rješenju židovskog pitanja“ upotrijebili tisuće vlakova iz Njemačke i okupiranih zemalja kako bi transportirali tri milijuna Židova u koncentracijske logore ili logore smrti. Ovo je malo poznata istinita priča o znakovitom i herojskom pokušaju spašavanja koji se dogodio 19. travnja 1943., na prvi dan Pashe, u isto vrijeme kada je započeo Ustanak u varšavskom getu, 1200 kilometara dalje. Te je noći u 22 sata Transport XX krenuo iz Mechelena u Belgiji sa 1631 židovskih muškaraca, žena i djece prema Auschwitz- Birkenau. Pola sata kasnije zaustavila su ga tri mlada Belgijanca naoružana samo jednim pištoljem, kliještima i petrolejkom. Ovo je jedini dokumentirani pokušaj spašavanja zatočenika, odnosno napad na vlak smrti za vrijeme holokausta.
May 28, 2014. Zagreb. Festival of Tolerance. The audience at the Festival of Tolerance valued the film “Transport XX to Auschwitz” with a very good average grade of 4.3 (out of 5).
Isabella Weinreb Castegnier was three-months pregnant that night on April 1943 in Belgium, when she jumped from the fast moving 20th Train heading for Auschwitz. Isabella escaped with a broken wrist and bruises all over her body, but otherwise without major injuries. Her daughter Viviane – meaning “full of life”, and named so for her will to live and hold tight in her mother’s womb – was born six months later on October 30, 1943.
Last month, Viviane first learned about our documentary “Transport XX to Auschwitz” and e-mailed me…”I couldn’t believe while searching online that I would find an actual movie made, telling the story of this famous, unique escape from a death-train!” After watching the documentary, she wrote to me “it was so well-made…I even wished it were longer”…Viviane also shared with me that at one point in the film, she got tears in her eyes, as her mother’s face appeared in a flash on the screen, while Lilly (Wolkenfeld Schwartz) – her mother’s friend was telling the story…”and Bella jumped” … this was so unexpected, she said “it took me by surprise!”
One year ago – on Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 7, 2013 – her mother passed away at the age of 93.
Today, 71 years after that unique escape, on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014, and her mother’s yahrzeit, Viviane shares her story below.
Escape from Transport XX – to be born 6 months later
My mother – Isabella Weinreb Castegnier, became the No. 1153 on this day in 1943 when she was herded on a truck with Jews, Gypsies, and other criminals or “unwanted” according to Nazis’ doctrine. The truck was heading to the Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen – the transit camp the Germans used for direct transports from Belgium to Auschwitz. Upon arrival, prisoners were deprived of their identiy and all personal belongings. They were assigned tags with numbers to wear on their neck. For the Nazis they were not humans… just a crowd of cattle to be slaughtered.
My mother was hopeless, she was pregnant and aware that in her condition there was not much chance for her survival, she knew she was doomed…unless she could escape from the death train! And indeed, she would do that on this fateful night of April 19, 1943 when she jumped off the cattle-train heading to Auschwitz. She survived…and I was born six months later!
Fleeing from Germany…
My mother was born in Frankfurt-am-Main on November 2, 1919. Her parents were Jews from Poland. They immigrated to Germany during WWI. Some of their family members would later move to Belgium and Holland. My mother and her parents left Frankfurt at the start of 1937 as it became unsafe for Jews to stay in Germany.
My mother, her parents and her sister moved to Antwerp where their relatives resided. My mother was then 16 year old. She joined the ‘Betar’ – a Jewish Zionist Youth organization, in the hopes that one day she would immigrate with her group to Palestine…a dream which would not materialize.
Arrests and deportation…
My mother and her family stayed in Antwerp until the German’s invasion of Belgium in May 1940. By the end of that year they were transferred with other Jewish families to rural areas in the province of Limburg. In the middle of 1941, the Jews who had been expelled earlier to Limburg were now forced to relocate again to cities designated by the Germans. My mother and her father settled in Brussels, while her mother and sister went to the city of Liege, where they had found employment in a convent under the protection of the Catholic Church. My mother became a sales representative for pharmaceutical-dental products. Subsequently she would meet my father who was a dentist, also in Brussels.
In January 1943 – my grandfather, Leo (Leib) Yehuda Weinreb, was arrested in Brussels and deported to Auschwitz on a transport from Mechelen. Around that time, at the beginning of 1943, my parents decided to get married. My mother never thought of going into hiding, she believed that she would be safe with my father – a Belgian citizen, not Jewish, with Catholic roots.
My parents were arrested on their wedding day, and with them, the entire wedding party was booked for inquiry, including the officials who had performed the ceremony. Most likely an informer had denounced them to the German police. My parents were not aware of the German laws regarding “mixed/Jewish marriages.”…They imprisoned my father in the notorious Gestapo headquarters at Avenue Louise in Brussels and punished him for marrying a Jew. While he was beaten in their cells, my mother was transferred to the Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen, in order to be deported later. Luckily for my father, he would be released from jail after a short time, thanks to a family friend who had affiliations with the German administration.
Kazerne Dossin – collecting camp of Mechelen…
Isabella became a number…no.1153, bound to be deported on the 20th Transport to the death camp of Auschwitz. But she was determined not to get there, she knew she had to escape, it was her only chance. Shortly after her arrival in Dossin, my father’s family had submitted a request for her release, on the grounds that she was pregnant and married to a Belgian citizen from a Catholic family. They knew a few people of influence in the German government who could intervene, but unfortunately, their petition failed. My mother was summoned to the camp’s commander who stated gleefully: “Your husband was a fool to think that I would ever release a pregnant Jewess, and be assured that you and your offspring, you both will be exterminated!”
As she was reminded once again of her dreadful upcoming fate, my mother decided it was time to join other detainees who had also plans of jumping off the train. With her friend Lilly she started to organize jumping drills. She and Lilly were training women who were afraid, by teaching them to jump from the highest bunk beds, so that they could be prepared when they would have to escape from a moving train. There were also children who took part in those exercises. One of them was Simon Gronowski, a brave 11-year old boy, whom they called “le petit Simon” (little Simon) and who was practicing jumps with other kids.
Escape from Transport XX – the death train to Auschwitz…
On April 19, 1943, the first night of Passover, Transport XX departed from the barracks in Mechelen with people crammed in cattle-wagons. This time the Germans didn’t use the passengers’ wagons as in previous transports, but instead, they opted for wooden box-cars with tiny ventilations and doors reinforced with barbed wire, which would prevent all attempts to escape. The transport left Mechelen in the late evening for its destination, when at one point, it started stalling, then suddenly stopped. My mother would say that she could hear shouts in German and shots coming from the area of the locomotive. It sounded like the train had come under attack.
My mother (no.1153) and her friend Lilly (no.1152) were both huddled in the same wagon. They were planning to jump off the train as soon as possible, before it would reach over the border to Germany. Each wagon was equipped with a bucket and a broom, the Germans always caring for cleanliness. Possibly the broom had been used to open the door, or perhaps a sharp tool that some people had managed to hide and carry from the camp. My mother could not remember clearly how they had succeeded in making that door open, from inside or outside? She wasn’t sure. But she did tell another story about the broom…how they had dressed it up with a man’s coat and a hat, then held outside the door to use as a decoy for the soldiers who were guarding the train. They were expecting the German guards to shoot at that “broom”… but if the Germans were not responding, it would be the signal that it was safe for them to jump.
People in her wagon then began to jump…taking turns… my mother too was getting ready…but when came her turn, she froze, overcome by a sudden fear, it was dark and the train started to pick up speed. While she was trying to regain control of herself, she felt someone pushing her from behind…and finally she got the courage to jump. Bullets were flying around but didn’t hit her. She rolled down the ravine, then run to hide in the nearby bushes. She had a broken wrist, bruises over her face and legs, but no major injuries. It was amazing that she had not miscarried from that fall and remained pregnant…I was holding tight in my mother’s womb!
The next morning, when it was safe to move out of her hiding spot in the woods, my mother went to the nearest tram station to catch the trolley to Brussels and reunite with my father. Then came the Gestapo again!…they were searching the tram for escapees. She was terrified! She was hiding her swollen hand in the pocket of her coat, afraid they would ask her to take it out. Luckily the men passed her by and did not pay attention. She finally arrived to the tram station in Brussels, feeling so weak and hungry that the first thing she did was to find a bakery and eat her favorite pastries…(she always had a sweet tooth!) Then she allowed herself to call my father who could not believe she had escaped and returned home…he thought he was seeing a ghost!
Couple months later, about three weeks before I was born, the police came to my father’s house to look for “Isabella Weinreb who had escaped”…My mother had already a new identity, therefore my father pretended she was “not the same wife, but a new one, since the other one he thought had died”…a story the policeman did not believe, but since this man was not a German, just a Belgian cop who was in a good disposition toward my father, he decided to do no harm, just said “you are lucky that my colleague didn’t come with me today, because he is a Gestapo officer and he would have taken this woman away.”
Couple weeks after this frightful event, my mother gave birth safely at home…six months after her escape, on October 30, 1943…my father named me Viviane, meaning “full of life”!
After the war…
My parents stayed in Brussels after the war…my father lived in Belgium until his death in 1986. My mother moved to the South of France when she was in her 80’s, wishing to live near her daughter (my younger sister)…and there she would remain in a retirement home until she passed away.
As to myself, I spent my childhood in Belgium, where like my mother, I belonged to a Jewish Zionist Youth organization and fulfilled my mother’s dream to live in Israel. At age 20, I went to live on a kibbutz, joining my grandmother and aunt who had immigrated to Israel after the war.
With my family (husband and children) we moved to Los Angeles in 1980 where I’ve been living since. I am now retired, taking care of my grandchildren, telling them the story of my mother, their unique, brave great-grandmother…and my own story, as the youngest survivor of the Twentieth Train!
Viviane Yarom-Castegnier Los Angeles, California April 28, 2014 – Holocaust Remembrance Day
April 28, 2014. Ameet Kanon singing Ve’Ulai (“And Perhaps”) – a capella – to honor her great-grandmother’s memory …
…yesterday at the Israeli Scouts of America ceremony in Los Angeles for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“This song is dedicated to my great-grandmother, who has so many lost in the shoah. She was a holocaust survivor … and this is one of her favorite songs…
Ve’ulai lo hayu hadvarim me’olam
Me’olam lo heshkamti im shachar lagan,
La’avdo be’zeiat apai.
Me’olam lo taharti bi’tchelet shoktah
Shel Kinneret sheli – Oy Kinneret sheli,
He’hayit, o chalamti chalom?…”
Lyrics by poetess Rachel [pseudonym of Hebrew poet Rachel Bluwstein]
“And Perhaps ” English translation “Ve’ulai”
And perhaps these things never were
I never rose at dawn to the garden,
To work it by sweat of my brow.
Never, not on long and blazing days,
Long and blazing days of harvest
On top of a cart full of sheaf,
I did not raise my voice in song.
Never did I wash in the peaceful azure
Oh my Kinneret…oh my Kinneret,
Did you exist, or did I dream a dream?
April 19, 2018. Full of Life … Escape from Transport XX
① memo 20180419 ~ Full of Life … Escape from Transport XX ~ Today 75 years ago , that night of April 19th, 1943 in Belgium , Elias Gnazik helped jump the pregnant Isabella Weinreb from the fast moving 20th train heading for Auschwitz. Viviane – meaning ‘full of life’ – was born 6 months later.
Discussion – moderated by Ingrid Vander Veken – of Simone Korkus’ dutch book “Het dienstmeisje van Degrelle” on 15 oktober 2017 in Kazerne Dossin , Mechelen , Belgium.
This new short film (with english captions / partly english spoken) highlights our discussion in that ‘Literary Cafe’ on Oct. 15, 2017 in Kazerne Dossin, of Elias’ rescue of Isabella and Viviane ; it continues with our visit later to the Kazerne Dossin portrait wall (portrait’s of deported people) with Simone Korkus and Jan Maes (the first to point Simone to Hannah’s story) ; and ends with me having a short improvised talk in english with a visitor’s couple . > Full report here :https://wp.me/p14gqN-niQ
May 1, 2014. Added ‘Notes’ section in post with the April 28, 2014 item on Ameet Kanon singing Ve’Ulai.
April 20-21, 2016. Redesigned video image Ameet Kanon singing Ve’Ulai , and edited audio. Also added minor (spelling) correction in english translation of lyrics.
April 19, 2018. Full of Life … Escape from Transport XX – New film – News item added
Below the English translation of Simon Gronowski’s letter by Michel van der Burg
Auschwitz and forgiveness
I lost my mother and sister in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – Birkenau and my father died in despair, in July 1945.
I myself was 11 years old when, on 17 March 1943, the Nazis took me, threw me into a dungeon, the basement of the Gestapo on the Avenue Louise in Brussels, then in a big prison, the Dossin barracks in Mechelen, the ‘Belgian Drancy‘. A month later, April 19, 1943, they put me in a cattle car of the 20th Convoy to Auschwitz. Miraculously, I jumped off the train and escaped death. And all this for what? Because my parents were born Jews.
It took me 60 years to tell the drama of my childhood (L’enfant du 20e convoi [tr. The child of the 20th convoy], ed. Luc Pire, 2002, reprinted Renaissance du Livre, 2013). It took sixty years for Koenraad Tinel to tell his own history of a son of a Flemish Nazi. He did this courageously by extraordinary drawings in a book titled Scheisseimer (Lannau, 2009); he is an artist, a sculptor, and he draws.
His father adored Hitler. He had his two elder sons in the Waffen SS, the oldest one to the eastern front, the other, at sixteen and a half years old too young to fight, in the Flämisch Wachzug (Flemish Guard), a subsidiary of the Gestapo, camp guards of Breendonk and Mechelen. Fortunately, Koenraad was only 6 years old when Hitler came into Belgium, otherwise he would have imitated his brothers. He has rejected completely the ideology of his father.
We met by chance in February 2012. A 16 year old boy I did not know but who knew our two stories, brought us together. Koen said at that time: “When I read your story, I cried.” I replied: “Children of the Nazis are not responsible.” A great friendship is born between us. We were two children crushed by a war we did not understand at all, one on each side of the fence, I at the side of the victims, he the side of the executioners.
For sixty years, he has carried the burden of his father’s fault. Our grief is not comparable but I understand his. He has freed himself of it first by his book Scheisseimer, then by our friendship.
We made a book on this: Neither victim, nor guilty, FINALLY LIBERATED (Ni victime, ni coupable, ENFIN LIBÉRÉS; Renaissance du Livre, 2013): I wrote, Koenraad drew with ink. In January, Koenraad told me: “My brother knows your history, he wants to see you“, this brother, guardian at the Dossin barracks (Kazerne Dossin) when I was detained there, took me at gunpoint into the wagon of death.
So he regretted what he had done and asked me to forgive.
When I saw him, we hugged each other without saying a word, in tears. I forgave him only on my own behalf, not on behalf of other victims and I forgave him alone, not all Nazis. I did it especially for me, feeling I transcended it.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. On the contrary, it gives the memory greater prominence, a larger dimension. Our memory is essential: we must know the barbarism of the past to defend democracy today. Democracy is a struggle every day.
Amnesty is unacceptable : it is a blind collective measure that absolves all culprits without requiring them to repent.
Forgiveness is a religious virtue. For Buddhists, it is an act of liberating wisdom.
The bigger the crime, the greater forgiveness.
Some say they would not be able to forgive: – this statement does not make sense because they have never been asked as I have been and it is unlikely they will ever be, but if it happened to them, what would they do ? – 70 years later, they still suffer from their wounds and their resentment when they should love life and believe in happiness, out of respect for the deceased relatives.
When the culprit repents and asks for forgiveness, the victim not only can but must forgive, for refusing means maintaining hatred from both sides. Some criticize my friendship for Koenraad and my forgiveness for his brother.
They want to keep the children and descendants of victims and perpetrators separated forever into two enemy camps.
They are often victims of Nazism. This is normal, they have suffered terrible trauma in their body and in their soul. But they freeze in their victim posture, locked in their bitterness.
Aren’t they thinking too much of their own pain, and not enough of that of the other? Some, born after the war and who have not suffered the Holocaust, are not less hateful.
Such an attitude opens the way to new animosities, new wars, new suffering for our children.
It is not because children of victims and children of offenders for long, for generations, unconsciously, carry the stigma of absolute evil, that they must stay pitted against each other.
Men should not be divided but brought closer together, one must go toward the other to progress and grow together for a better world of peace and mutual respect. This is a message of hope and happiness.
I who lost my family by criminal hate, I do not hate. Despite the tragic events of yesterday and today, because even today in the world there are peoples who suffer, men who suffer, I keep my faith in the future because I believe in human goodness.
Long live peace and friendship between men !
Simon Gronowski (Lawyer)
Simon Gronowski – escaped from the 20th convoy – received the 2006 Grand Prix Condorcet-Aron for democracy – is a former president of the Union of Jews deported from Belgium (Union des Déportés Juifs de Belgique).
Notes – by Michel van der Burg
– English translation (with help from Richard Bloom) by Michel van der Burg
– I inserted some extra links
– “Auschwitz and forgiveness” – a letter by Simon Gronowski (lawyer) was published in French originally as “Auschwitz et le pardon” in Le Monde (France) on Sept. 20, 2013. (I left out the photo published with the Le Monde letter)
– The image in this post is a frame from video I captured during the visit of Simon Gronowski and Koenraad Tinel in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oświęcim, Poland on May 24, 2012. (image BUM10010V01 – michelvanderburg.com)
Update – Full letter – Sept. 27. Now the translation of the (final) 2nd part of the letter was added (after it became publicly available for all on the website of Le Monde today). This second part starts with: Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. On the contrary,……. Also the last sentence of the first part was altered.