The Jewish Eye
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - December 11, 2003
Concerning the Holocaust, it has often been asked, "Why didn't the Jews fight back or flee when confronted with Nazi deportation orders?" The answer to this question is long and controversial. The shortest of answers is that most people, even when presented with evidence of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, still could not believe that there were humans that could be so inhumane. They chalked the 'proof' up to propaganda or exaggeration. Others feared that if they fought back or fled when they received an order to join a transport 'East' that the Nazis would take revenge on their family members or on their friends. Therefore they cooperated, even when the thought that death might be their fate. Still others were simply too demoralized, or weaken by hunger and depravation to care anymore...
While many people cooperated with the Nazi deportation orders, others were forcibly rounded-up by the Nazis and given no opportunity to resist. Yet, while many Jews offered no, or only token resistance, there were also a sizeable number that did resist. For some, this resistance meant going into hiding or engaging in passive resistance. Others were more active in their resistance, joining underground paramilitary or resistance units, or engaging in acts of sabotage. Many of these instances of active resistance are overshadowed by the image of Jews passively walking in the killing showers of the concentration camps.
In Silent Rebels, Marion Schreiber chronicles an act of heroic resistance against the Nazis that has been overlooked by time, and by many historians. The event in question was the attack, carried out by Youra Livchitz, a young Jewish physician, and two of his Belgium schoolmates and long-time friends, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, on a train transporting Belgian Jews from the Mechelen (Malines) transit camp to Auschwitz. Their goal was to stop the train and free as many people as possible. To help carry out their plan they tried to gain the support of various resistance groups and like-minded people, but in the end they were obliged to carry out the attack themselves. In all, about 225 prisoners out of the 1,618 on the train, managed to escape from the transport. A handful escaped during the attack, the rest managed to slip away as the train made its way to Auschwitz. Many escapees, as well as their rescuers, were caught and died at the hands of the Nazis. The odds of an escapee surviving were not very high, but compared to the almost certain death that awaited them in Auschwitz, it was a risk well worth the taking! This attack, on train 801, the twentieth train to leave Belgium for Auschwitz, was not only inspirational, but also proof that Jews could, and would, defend themselves.
In writing this book, Schreiber has incorporated information garnered from historical documents - both public and private, as well as interviews with the surviving escapees. This book is organized chronologically, and begins by painting a picture of life for Belgium Jews in the days leading up to the German invasion, and how life changed for them after Belgium fell. The text is centered around the lives of the three men who carried out the attack, Youra Livchitz, Jean Frankelmon, and Robert Maistriau. In telling their story, Schreiber describes their family lives, their interests, and their loves, and most importantly, what caused them to attempt such a daring and dangerous rescue mission. In addition, the histories of many of the people who ended up on the train, as well as their various fates, are also offered. Once this background information is presented, Schreiber goes on to describe the actual attack, which took place on the 19th of April 1943, and its aftermath.
Silent Rebels is a riveting and compelling book. The writing is dynamic and fluid, and presents a vivid picture of what life was like for Belgium Jews during the Nazi occupation. It also offers an intimate portrait of those Belgians that tried to protect the Jews, plus the Jewish Defense Committee's success in hiding thousands of Jews with non-Jewish families. It is important to note, as Schreiber does in the book, that not one of the escapees was betrayed to the Nazis by a Belgian. In fact many Belgian's knowingly risked their own lives trying to help the escapees reach safety. Silent Rebels is a moving, and important addition to the body of Holocaust resistance literature, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the Jewish resistance movement in Belgium and the experience of Jews in Belgium during World War II.
Statistics: Accoriding to Yad Vashem, Belgium had a prewar Jewish population of about 65,700. Of these, about 28,900 Belgian Jews were murdered during the war. However other sources report that over 40,000 Belgium Jews were murdered. Silent Rebels concludes with a list of everyone deported to Auschwitz on train 801. When known, this list details their names, date and place of birth, and their occupation. The list is long and sobbering and was compiled by Nazi officials.
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