Belgium bids farewell to its Great Train Saviour
Belgian Robert Maistriau, who died Friday, is remembered for a brave and heroic deed he and two friends performed back in WWII.
2 October 2008
BRUSSELS -- Belgium paid its final respects Wednesday to the last survivor of a resistance team that pulled off a daring raid in 1943, rescuing over 200 Jews from a train to Auschwitz with no more than a pistol, three pairs of wire cutters, a lantern and a red rag.
Robert Maistriau, who died on Friday at 87, was 22 years old when he and two friends took the risk of hijacking a train deporting over 1,600 Jews from Belgium to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland.
On the night of April 19, 1943, the trio - Maistriau, Youra Livchitz (25) and Jean Franklemon (25) - bicycled from their Brussels homes some 40 kilometres to the town of Boortmeerbeek in Flanders.
There, they wrapped their lantern in a red rag and laid it on the eastbound railway track as an impromptu stop sign. Lying in the darkness, they watched in astonishment as the train ground to a halt.
"We were incredibly lucky," Maistriau told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in a 2001 interview: the guards in the front and rear wagons seemed unaware of what was going on.
After a moment of hesitation, Maistriau crept out of hiding and ran to the darkened train, forcing the door on the nearest carriage with his wire-cutters while Livchitz fired the pistol to delay the guards - a sound which those inside the carriage never forgot.
"The train stopped, and from my wagon, in complete darkness and among dozens of men, women and crying children, I heard shots and shouts in German from the Nazi escorts," Simon Gronowski, then an 11-year-old boy and now a Brussels lawyer, wrote to newspaper Le Soir.
Seventeen deportees jumped out of the first wagon and fled as the guards opened fire - but one prisoner in the wagon shouted at the others to stay where they were, Maistriau told dpa.
While Livchitz fired, Maistriau and Franklemon broke open a second wagon, urging the prisoners to run for their lives.
As the guards closed in, the trio took to their bicycles, racing back to Brussels under the cover of darkness. When the train finally set off, the men in Gronowski's wagon broke into the open cars and escaped as well.
In all, Maistriau's team freed an estimated 230 deportees that night, although exact figures vary. Of those freed over 100 survived the war. It was the only time in occupied Europe that resistance fighters liberated a deportation train.
"I did it more out of the wish to do something against the occupiers than to do anything special. We knew the name of Auschwitz, but we didn't know where it was - Livchitz just said it wouldn't end well for these people," Maistriau told dpa.
Livchitz was shot by the Nazis in 1943. Maistriau was arrested in March 1944 and deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, from which he was liberated in April 1945. Franklemon died in 1977.
To his dying day, Maistriau continued receiving letters of thanks from the children of those whom he rescued.
He was buried in the cemetery of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert in Brussels on Wednesday.
[dpa / Expatica]