As you or your friends celebrate Passover this April 19th, I hope you will remember another April 19th. This one was in 1943 and it was also the first night of Passover. On that night, a 13-year old boy and his parents were loaded onto a cattle car that headed for Auschwitz. This is the story of that night.
The boy was born in Vienna, Austria to middle-class Jewish parents; his mother was also born in Vienna and his father in Poland. They led an uneventful life until Hitler came to power. Following Krystallnacht in 1938, they fled to Antwerp, Belgium, and eventually settled in Brussels.. In February 1943, the family was denounced. The boy and his parents were arrested and sent to Malines, a deportation camp in Belgium where the Nazis would collect Jews until they had enough for a transport to Auschwitz. For three months they waited; they were barely fed and the boy’s father was severely beaten up by a German guard in front of the boy for a minor infraction.
On the night of April 19, 1943, the family was part of Convoy XX– 1,636 Jews being shipped by cattle car to Auschwitz. They were numbers 722, 723, and 724 on the Nazis’ inventory of this shipment. A Nazi officer gave the boy’s father a white flag and a whistle, and told him that he was in charge of the particular car in which they were being loaded. He was told that if anyone tried to escape he was to alert the Nazis; if he did not the family would be killed. The father decided that the family would have to jump from the train because he would not turn in his fellow Jews.
In events that are stranger than life, on the train were some Dutch acrobats, who with the use of an old man’s cane, managed to open the latched window of the train. As the train barreled toward the German border, the family prepared to jump. The man pushed his wife from the train, and the boy watched as his mother appeared to roll toward the train’s wheels.
The boy was next. He did not want to be pushed, so he jumped on his own and scrambled up the track’s embankment. As he stood up at the top of the embankment, he felt a needle-like pain in his upper chest. He saw blood and realized he has been shot. Putting a handkerchief on the wound, he went searching for his parents, amidst the dead bodies of others who had been shot jumping from the train.
The boy wandered around in the dark, hurt and scared and eventually found his mother, but he did not want to tell her he was shot. Later that night they found the father, who had been shot in the leg. The family sought refuge in a nearby barn, where the boy finally told his mother he had been shot by a bullet that glanced his chest.
In the morning, the boy, who could speak Flemish better than his parents, approached the farmhouse owner and sold his parent’s wedding rings for aid. The farmer gave the family money, helped clean them up, and drove them to the train station where the family intended to take the train back to Brussels.
The parents sensed danger and they decided to separate. They told the boy to get off the train at the next stop, hoping that by being alone, he would not be caught. Without knowing if he would ever see his parents again, and unable to say any farewells, the boy got off the train. By now his gunshot wound was extremely painful, so alone and not knowing what to do, the boy approached a Belgian policeman. He told him that he was a 13-year-old Jew who had been shot escaping from the train to Auschwitz. The police officer took pity on the boy, brought him to the police station, and called a doctor who treated the gunshot wound. The officer gave the boy some money, and directed him toward the safest way back to Brussels, where he was reunited with his parents.
The boy was my father, Robert Rogers. He and my grandparents, Bertha and Eddy Rottenberg, went into hiding until they were finally liberated in September 1944. In 1949, they emigrated to the United States, a country they embraced with gratitude. They have all since passed away, and only two things remain of that night. One is the shirt my father was wearing, which my grandmother kept until she died. I have it now, and you can still see the neatly sewn up bullet holes and the very faintest trace of blood. The other is the memory of what happened 65 years ago that has seared through two generations of my family.
Audrey Rogers Furfaro, 2G