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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Brussells, Belgium

Flag of Belgium.svg When the terror attacks struck Paris in November, many people (including me) posted the famous scene from Casablanca featuring the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.  Now that Brussels, Belgium has been similarly struck, the fact that I am unfamiliar with any classic movie featuring the Belgian national anthem, La Brabançonne, will not prevent me from posting something in support of the people of Brussels and Belgium.  In searching for something appropriate, I discovered an interesting story from World War II that is very worthy of retelling at this time. 

In the waning days of World War II, after the German commander in Paris surrendered, the Allies turned toward the liberation of Belgium.  In Brussels, the Germans had imprisoned 1500 political prisoners and some 50 Allied airmen in the main prison.  By September 1, 1945, the prisoners were celebrating their apparently imminent release.  The German commander of Belgium, General Jungclaus, however, had other ideas.  He ordered the prisoners shipped to Germany by train.  Thus begins the story of the "Phantom Train." 

The following excerpt is from WWII Netherlands Escape Lines, a site dedicated to the history of aid given to Allied airmen by the resistance in Belgium, France and The Netherlands. 
When the assistant stationmaster arrived for work early that morning he realized what was happening and ordered that the train’s departure must be delayed by every possible means.  The engine’s oil pump was torn out and two successive engineers were made unavailable to take out the train, one having deliberately injured himself.  While the packed train sat in the station, a railway worker, out of sight of the SS guards, tapped on the sides of the cattle cars, and whispered to the prisoners, “Don’t worry, you won’t cross the frontier.”
When the train finally did get underway, in the middle of the afternoon on Sep. 2, it was only because SS guards had guns at the head of the third engineer.  But railway workers ensured that signals were always red; another train blocked its way; railway signalmen forced it onto a siding; the fireman blew the whistle so much that steam power was lost; and so on.  It took eight hours to go to Malines, a town only twelve miles north of Brussels, where the German plans called for picking up a load of Jews.  But the engineer devised another delay.  Pretending that the engine needed more water, and knowing that the water tower at Malines was destroyed, he convinced the guards into letting him divert the train to another town, Muizen, where the train spent the night of Sep. 2-3.  By now the Nazi officials had no idea where the train was.
Meanwhile, diplomats from neutral nations had been pleading with Gen. Jungclaus to allow the return of the train.  He refused until the Resistance relayed a warning to him that unless it was returned, they would attack German hospital trains carrying wounded German soldiers.  He finally relented.
On Sep. 3 the “Phantom Train” returned to Brussels where International Red Cross workers freed the prisoners. Fifteen hundred people had been saved.  The British Army liberated Brussels on Sep. 4.  As the train passed through Brussels, prisoners saw Belgian flags draped from balconies in defiance of the Nazis.  The prisoners broke into song, singing La Brabançonne, the Belgian National Anthem.
This story seems an appropriate tribute to the resilience of the Belgian people, both then and now.

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