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THE TWENTIETH TRAIN by Marion Schreiber


The True Story of the Ambush on the Nazi Death Train to Auschwitz

by Marion Schreiber

Pub Date: March 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-8021-1766-X
Publisher: Grove

A vivid work of history, reconstructing a little-known act of resistance in the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Youra Livchitz, a Brussels-based physician, was forced from practice in 1942 following an order that Jews be barred from medicine. He soon became acquainted with German and Austrian refugees who “refused to comply with the ‘degrading order of the Nazis’ and wear the Jewish star,” an order that preceded mass deportations of Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe by only a few months. Once the deportations were underway, Livchitz organized a daring raid on a German train that freed nearly 240 Auschwitz-bound Jews, who found shelter among mostly Catholic Belgians and, without exception, stayed out of the hands of the pursuing Nazis. German-born journalist and former Der Spiegel editor Schreiber writes that Livchitz was not so lucky. Betrayed by a White Russian double agent, he was captured and executed; a German chaplain recalled that he refused a blindfold, wanting “to be shot with his face towards the rising sun, as a symbol of life.” Schreiber’s narrative is well rendered, and full of dramatic moments. It raises an interesting larger question that is surely worth scholarly investigation: How is it that 60 percent of the Jews of Belgium survived the Holocaust, whereas only 12 percent of the Jews of neighboring Holland and similar numbers elsewhere in Europe escaped death? Notes Schreiber, “Most Belgians rejected the brutal methods that the German occupying forces used against the Jews. Especially in Brussels and Wallonia, the population proved to be largely immune to the poison of National Socialist racial hatred.” Indeed, she adds, Belgian resistance organizations urged patriots to greet Jews in passing, offer them seats on the trolley, and otherwise protest against Nazi measures—“That’ll make the ‘Boches’ furious!”

A fine bit of historical-detective work, drawing on interviews with survivors and duly honoring those who perished.