A four-year study by a German historian revealed an estimated 764 Jews managed to escape from trains en route to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Tanja von Fransecky sifted through European and Israeli archives and interviewed survivors and witnesses for her volume, “Jewish Escapes from Deportation Trains,” published March 21. She began investigating this little-known group of survivors after hearing a story in 2006 about the train escapees, she told German newspaper Spiegel Online.
“I was amazed that this happened at all,” Fransecky told British newspaper The Independent. “I had always assumed that the wagons were stuffed full prior to departure and simply opened on arrival and that not much could happen in between.”
As Fransecky learned through her research, lots happened on those journeys: Hundreds attempted to flee from the fast-moving, overcrowded train cars, using anything they had on hand, including smuggled tools and even urine-soaked blankets (to bend bars).
Simon Gronowski, an 11-year-old Jewish boy in 1943, was one of the few who managed to escape a train headed for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. His story is detailed in Fransecky’s study and was also featured by BBC News in April 2013. On April 19, 1943, three young members of the Belgian Resistance were able to slow down Gronowski’s train long enough for some deportees to break open wagon doors and escape. (This is said to be the only known successful halt of a Nazi train during World War II.) Grenowski's mother lowered him down from the train car to the foot rail, and he waited until the train slowed just enough to jump. His mother did not follow.
"I wanted to go back to my mother but the Germans were coming down the track towards me. I didn't decide what to do, it was a reflex. I tumbled down a small slope and just started running for the trees," Gonowski told the BBC of his harrowing escape.
Gronowski, now 82 years old, is a lawyer living in Brussels, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Many of the escapees examined in Fransecky's study experienced years of guilt for leaving other passengers and loved ones behind. Fransecky says their painful remorse is one of the reasons many of them kept a lid on these stories for so long.
"Fleeing left many with a deep moral dilemma when they left relatives behind. That is likely one reason why many survivors remained silent for years after the war,” Fransecky told Spiegel Online.