It was April 19, 1943. Three young men peddled their bikes the 24 miles from Brussels to Boortneerbeek, near the Nazi detention center in Mechelen, Flanders. Convoy 20 was just beginning its journey to Auschwitz with 1,631 men, women, and children crammed into its cattle cars. The young men were armed with great daring, but little else – one pistol, a lantern covered with red tissue paper, and two pairs of pliers. As darkness fell, they waited on the tracks, and when the train approached, they swung the lantern, the red light signaling danger ahead. The train stopped, and Youra Livschitz, a brilliant young doctor and resistance leader, fired his pistol to draw the attention of the guards. His long-time school friends, Jean Franklemon and Robert Maistrian, raced to the cars.
Years later, Robert, then 22 years old, described what happened next: "The brakes made a hellish noise and at first I was petrified… I had to busy myself with the pliers. I was very excited and it took far too long until I had cut through the wire that secured the bolts of the sliding door. I shone my torch into the carriage and pale and frightened faces stared back at me. I shouted Sortez Sortez!… Quick, Quick, get out of here!"
A quick exchange of gunfire, and the train was back en route, but Youra, Jean, and Robert had done something entirely unique – they had staged a daring rescue from a convoy to Auschwitz – the only such attempt during the entire Holocaust. Two-hundred, thirty-one people escaped that night; 23 were shot as they fled. Youra was captured months later and executed on February 17, 1944. Jean and Robert were captured and sent respectively to Sachsenhausen and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Both survived to liberation in 1945.
"The finest of all human struggles is against what we are and for what we should become." Youra Livschitz