History of health, medicine and naval history
They do not immediately look like the faces of victims but rather of a cross section of society with different experiences, outlooks on life and ambitions. A disparate group of individuals from all over Europe and of all ages, they had all been herded together at the Dossin barracks in Mechelen (Malines), Belgium, for humiliation and deportation. Their only crime – to be Jewish.
The prosperous banker, the prostitute, the teacher, the cardsharp, the tailor,the businessman, the clerk and the student were all brought together indiscriminately and reduced to an equality of squalor and fear as they awaited the train that would take them to Auschwitz and an end to the lives and hopes they had known and to the people they had been.
Among them was the widow and businessman son of the eminent German scientist August von Wassermann, who had developed the Wassermann Reaction test for the identification of syphilis and had been Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Experimental Therapy and an Imperial Privy Counsellor. A distinguished and noble name offered no more protection than that enjoyed by the humblest. Indeed Robert von Wassermann, who, unlike his mother, escaped and survived, was to find problems in reclaiming his appropriated art and tapestries, among other possessions, after the war because he was classed in Belgian eyes as a German citizen despite having been made stateless and robbed by the Nazis because he was Jewish.
Yet, not all of these men, women and children were to go to their fate passively.
Indeed some of the prisoners in the Mechelen transit camp were themselves involved in resistance activities. Joseph Blumsack, a 35 year-old Frankfurt-born lawyer, was involved with the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), an anti-Nazi espionage movement in Berlin, Belgium, France and Switzerland. Married to a Belgian Jewess Renee Clais, Blumsack’s in-laws were all members of the Rote Kapelle gathering military and industrial intelligence on troop deployments, industrial production, aircraft production, morale and German tank designs for the Soviet Union. Blumsack, a member of the Foreign Workers’ section of the Belgian Communist party since the year of his marriage in 1929, acted as a courier between Brussels and Paris After this spy ring was uncovered in June 1942, the Blumsacks went into hiding at the home of a fellow courier Yvonne Poelmans at Ixelles only for their whereabouts to be betrayed to the Germans byRenee’s brother-in-law Franz Schneider . Blumsack, arrested on 7 January 1943, was to perish in Auschwitz, despite reports of an escape from Birkenau, and his wife in Mauthausen.
The Mechelen transit camp had been set up in the eighteenth-century Dossin Barracks, originally built during Austrian Habsburg rule, as a place where Jews from Belgium could be interned and gathered until there were enough for a transport to the concentration camps. Between 1942 and 1944, 28 transports deported 25,257 Jews and 351 Roma (gypsies).
The twentieth convoy was a little different from the ones that had gone before. Instead of third class railway carriages, the detainees were crowded into freight wagons with barbed wire over their windows. This was because prisoners had escaped from previous transports in ordinary carriages. As the transport included 8 men and one woman who had been involved in the resistance movement or had been jumpers from previous convoys, a special truck or Sonderwagen, was reserved for them. These ‘special list’ prisoners were marked with a red cross painted on the back of their clothing to mark them out for immediate elimination when they arrived at Auschwitz. Three prisoners were to escape from this truck and one was shot while trying to escape.
The Twentieth Train left the transit camp on 19 April 1943 with 699 women, 463 men, 115 boys and 127 girls aboard, guarded by one officer and fifteen men from the Sicherheitspolize. The train was stopped on the railway line from Mechelen to Leuven between Boortmeerbeek and Haacht by a red danger signal manufactured from a lantern and red paper by three members of the resistance movement, who were armed with one pistol between them. The rescuers were Youra Livchitz, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon. Livchitz, a doctor, was himself Jewish and was to be executed by the Germans in 1944, aged 27, for his Resistance activities.
Maistriau was able to break into one of the trucks and free 17 people from it. Some of the deportees had already been warned that there would be an attempt to break free and had prepared themselves with implements such as breadknives that would help them escape from their trucks. Others, seeing what happened, also took the opportunity to escape. A total of 231 prisoners escaped but 26 of them died in the attempt and 90 of them were soon recaptured to be put on later transports. However, 115 escaped and survived the war in hiding in occupied Belgium.
The train arrived at Auschwitz on 22 April 1943. Only 521 of its passengers were selected for labour and assigned camp identity numbers. The other 1,031 Jews went straight to the gas chambers. When Auschwitz was liberated in 1945 only 150 of the 1404 deportees aboard the train were still alive to face rebuilding their fractured and dislocated lives.
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