Late in the evening of 19 April 1943, Transport XX left the Dossin barracks in Mechelen for Poland. The train held 1631 Jewish men, women and children in 40 railway cars and was destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau. This transport was the first using freight wagons -- cattle cars. Near Boortmeerbeek, 17 kms before Leuven, the train was stopped by three young men, Youra Livschitz, Jean Franklemon and Robert Maistriau using a fake red lantern. They were able to open a few cars and seventeen people escaped. In total, 236 people jumped off the train along the Belgian route. Of those 236, 121 people escaped deportation permanently.
This was the only successful attempt in Europe to free Jews from a deportation train during the entire duration of World War II.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of that historic raid. On 23 April 2023, Kazerne Dossin, together with the town of Boortmeerbeek, held a memorial service outside the town hall, a stone’s throw from the train tracks. The theme of this year’s commemoration was 'We Remember'.
On a clear and windy morning, we listened to speeches, music and singing while commemorating this extraordinary event. A key participant was Simon Gronowski, born in 1931. He was 11 years old when his mother pushed him off the train. He thus survived Transport XX. He gave a moving first-hand account, and also spoke of the dangers of the extreme right. He emphasized the critical importance of helping refugees, resisting intolerance, and concluded with a positive message of hope.
Viviane Castegnier-Yarom (see photo with Simon Gronowski) came from California to attend the ceremony. She recounted how her mother jumped from the convoy while three months pregnant with her. Karin Derua, Mayor of Boortmeerbeek, and Tomas Baum, Director of Kazerne Dossin also gave moving speeches. Michael Laub, the Secretary General of the Israelite Central Consistory of Belgium connected the event with developments in Ukraine by recounting the atrocities in Babyn Yar, and the continued denial of the Jewish identity of those victims by the authoritarian USSR for decades.
By Leslie & Jan Oversteyns