Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

Resistance to Nazi Tyranny: The Twentieth Transport from Mechelen, 1943

Malines5

Lives cut short: photographs of deportees on the Twentieth Convoy, from confiscated identity cards and personal documents, raise questions and suggest clues to the personalities, pre-war lives, ambitions and aspirations of people destined for the savagery of Auschwitz.

Malines4

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.

laser reinmann

Polish-born fur tailor Laser Reinmann died at Auschwitz aged 29 with his wife Frida and baby Felicien, losing everything and everyone

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.

robert wassermann

Wealthy businessman Robert Siegfried von Wassermann, escaped but struggled to recover his possessions after the war

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.

Chaim Hollander

Chaim Abraham Holender, 29 year old glover, died at Auschwitz. His wife Perla and three year old daughter Regine had previously been sent to their deaths with Transport 8 on 8 September 1942

Yet, not all of these men, women and children were to go to their fate passively.

blumsack
Joseph Blumsack, jurist and Communist courier for Rote Kapelle

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.

MalinesThe 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).

karl mayer 1

Austrian shoe factory owner Karl Mayer, born 1909, single

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.

Louis Mittelman

Louis Mitelman, construction engineer, born June 1915 in Lodz,survived Auschwitz III –Monowitz(Buna) and was employed in the construction of the synthetic rubber factory, but his divorced wife Esther Resnick, born in Bethnal Green, died after being deported on an earlier convoy

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 resistanYoura_Livchitz_(1917-1944) Wikipediace 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.

Youra_Livchitz_(1917-1944) Wikipedia

karl mayer2

Resistant Karl Mayer, aged 33, shot while jumping from the train

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.

None of the photographs of these people so indiscriminately brought together merely on grounds of spurious common racial and religious origin give any indication of the horrors ahead of them or of their eventual fate. Only in memorials and monuments are they still remembered. Ironically, had it not been that their documents, family photographs and other possessions had not been confiscated from them, it would not have been possible to once more give them a face and show them as the individuals they were and not as the passive faceless victims they have been seen

None of the photographs of these people so indiscriminately brought together merely on grounds of spurious common racial and religious origin give any indication of the horrors ahead of them or of their eventual fate. Only in memorials and monuments are they still remembered. Ironically, had it not been that their documents, family photographs and other possessions had not been confiscated from them, it would not have been possible to once more give them a face and show them as the individuals they were and not as the passive faceless victims they have been seen

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5 comments on “Resistance to Nazi Tyranny: The Twentieth Transport from Mechelen, 1943

  1. SHAFRAN
    July 13, 2014

    Hi, I am Dominique Shafran (Neuilly sur Seine, France). Joseph Blumsack was half brother of my grand-father. If you want I can send a picture of Joseph to you.
    Regards

    • Kevin Brown Historian
      July 13, 2014

      Yes, please, Dominique. I’ll add it. Honoured to hear from you.

      Best wishes

      Kevin

      • Kevin Brown Historian
        March 20, 2018

        A photograph of Joseph Blumsack has been added to the post in tribute to his anti-Nazi activities.

        An additional photograph of Karl Mayer, another of the deportees involved with the Resistance and who was shot while escaping, has been put up to commemorate the heroism and tragedy.

  2. elliot berger
    November 16, 2014

    Hi my great great grandmother was on the 20th transport. Her name was Hudes/Helena Gutwein (nee Reinhold). Do you know if her picture is among those you posted above? Or anywhere else? She was prisoner 450.
    Thanks.

    • Kevin Brown Historian
      November 16, 2014

      Hi Elliot,

      The place to contact is:
      Documentation Centre Kazerne Dossin
      Old barracks building, 3rd floor
      Goswin de Stassartstraat 153
      B- 2800 Mechelen
      Belgium
      Telephone 0032 (0) 15 29 06 60
      Email: info@kazernedossin.eu or ward.adriaens@kazernedossin.eu
      Web: https://www.kazernedossin.eu/EN/Museum-Memoriaal/Memoriaal/Gezichten

      The following book might also have a photo of your great great grandmother in it:

      Steinberg, Maxime; Adriaens, Ward; Schram, Laurence; Ramet, Patricia; Hautermann, Eric; Marquenie, Ilse, Mecheln – Auschwitz 1942-1944: The Destruction of the Jews and Gypsies from Belgium
      ,9789054875376,ISBN 10: 9054875372, ISBN 13: 9789054875376, VUB University Press,2009

      I hope that you are able to find a photograph.

      Best wishes

      Kevin Brown

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