The light of a single candle can brighten even the darkest night.
Thanks to the blockbuster 1993 film, many people are aware of the story of “Schindler’s List.” But that is just one of the countless tales of quiet heroism that emerged from one of the darkest periods of human history. During World War II, Jewish people from all over Europe were being rounded up and sent to Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis used trains to transport these prisoners, herding them on like cattle to be lead to the slaughter.
One man refused to stand by and watch his countrymen be murdered, so he devised a daring plan that is long overdue for its own Hollywood retelling. His name was Youra Livchitz.
Youra was a Russian-born Jewish doctor who joined the resistance early on in the fight. Like most people at the time, Youra didn’t know what was actually happening in the Nazi prison camps, but he knew that few who entered ever returned home to their families.
When Youra discovered the departure date of the twentieth train heading to Auschwitz, he devised a daring plan to stop it and free the prisoners. He approached two of his non-Jewish friends from school, Jean Franklemon and Robert Maistriau, and the three men spent a weekend plotting one of the most daring rescues in wartime history.
On April 19, 1943, a train carrying 1,631 Jews departed Mechelen transit camp in Belgium en route to the death camp at Auschwitz. The train carried people from all walks of life, from age 90 to just five weeks old. A few of the prisoners had been alerted to the resistance’s plans to stop the train, so they began secretly sawing through the bars on the train’s windows so they’d be ready to jump out when it stopped.
In 2008, Robert Maistriau was one of the only surviving members of this three-man group of heroes. He recalls the terrifying moonlit night when they used only three pairs of pliers, a hurricane lamp covered in red paper, and a single pistol to ambush the train.
They placed the red-covered lantern on the tracks so that the engineer would think it was a stoplight. “I can still remember the noise of the brakes,” Robert said.
When the train had shuddered to a halt, Youra fired his pistol to draw the guards away from the boxcars while his friends scrambled to pry open the doors of the train. When they were open, the men frantically urged the frightened people inside to jump out and run away.
The German guards quickly caught on and started firing, but not before 17 prisoners escaped. Further down the track, an additional 200 prisoners jumped out of the open doors and ran to freedom. Sadly, 23 Jews were killed in the attempt, and 1,400 souls remained on the train headed to the death camp.
Few lived to tell their stories.
Youra’s story does not end well either. He escaped on the night of the ambush and continued his efforts to save his fellow Jews, but sadly he was betrayed and executed.
Even in the face of death, Youra’s strength of character was on full display: he refused to wear a blindfold as he faced the firing squad.
As for his friends, Jean Franklemon was sent to a concentration camp, but he survived. Robert Maistriau also survived the Holocaust and lived to tell his story in Marion Schreiber’s riveting book about the incident, “The Twentieth Train: The True Story of the Ambush of the Death Train to Auschwitz.”
A sign in the Dallas Holocaust Museum displays a quotation by Albert Einstein: “The world is too dangerous to live in-not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.”
These three brave men are proof that in the face of unspeakable evil, resistance is the only option. Youra and his friends refused to sit by and let their people be senselessly executed. They are just another example of the sort of everyday heroes who walk amongst us.