It’s incredible how small the world can sometimes be. Even when you’re in an unfamiliar place on the other side of the world, you can still end up crossing paths with someone you know. Or, at least, someone who knows you.
That’s what Klara Prowisor found during a vacation to Israel. She was visiting the country from South America when a stranger called her name, and they had unexpected words for her. She’d been sent by Klara’s dying father to pass on a message that would change her life forever.
A fresh start
Life was hard for Klara pretty much from day one. Born in Germany during the early ‘20s, her parents wanted much more from life than what they were getting. They decided to cross the border over into Belgium for a fresh start, but that decision was met with a lot of hardships.
Her father had neither a work nor residency permit for the country, which meant finding a job wasn’t an easy task. The difficulties sent him into a spiral of depression and drinking issues.
Klara, who started going by the name of Claire in her new home country, became the breadwinner in her family by the time she was 15. Her father’s behavior landed him in trouble with the law, and he was repeatedly deported to Germany before making his way back again.
This made life for Claire and her three siblings incredibly difficult, so the fifteen-year-old took it upon herself to make a difference. On top of earning an income, she penned a letter to someone special asking for help.
The calm before the storm
That someone special was the Queen Mother, and amazingly enough, the woman actually offered her some help. She provided Claire’s father with a work permit, allowing him to earn a salary and help keep his family afloat. From there, things looked like they were about to change for the better.
However, their happiness didn’t last long. Soon enough, Germany invaded Poland, and Europe was plunged into another world war. Within a matter of months, Belgium was no longer a safe space for Jews, like Claire’s family, to live.
Fighting the oppression
Life in Belgium quickly changed for the worst. Jewish people were increasingly ostracized from society, with rules put in place to seclude them from the rest of the population. The German army was gradually dehumanizing Claire’s people, and there was no sign of things getting better.
Desperate to make a change, she attended underground meetings to fight back against the oppression, and that’s where she locked eyes on Philippe Szyper. The spark between the two of them was instant, and it didn’t take long for them to fall in love.
Under the radar
In 1942, Claire and Philippe married in what would be one of the few happy moments of the next few years. Life in Belgium was growing steadily worse for the Jewish people, but the couple refused to give up hope.
They managed to avoid being identified as Jews through the use of illegal documentation, making it easy for them to carry on with their lives without being spotted. They handed out leaflets opposing the German rule and did what they could to help out their people, but it wasn’t enough.
Losing her family
Anyone familiar with World War II will know what eventually happened to many Jewish families as Germany’s power grew. It was in 1942 that they started being sent off to camps where a lot of them would be worked to death, or worse.
One of Claire’s sisters was taken as was her father, with the latter ending up in Mechelen in ‘43. If it weren’t for her husband by her side, Claire would have felt incredibly alone as the net slowly closed in around her and her people.
Thanks to the trickery that Claire and Philippe had pulled off, people didn’t expect that they were Jews. However, the Germans trusted no-one and were hiding in plain sight everywhere. One came to the couple one day claiming to be a Belgian communist looking for shelter.
Believing the man to be genuine, they complied, not realizing that they’d essentially signed their death sentence. In the middle of the night, the Gestapo were at their door, weapons out, ready to bring Claire and Philippe’s lives crashing down.
Sent to the camps
Pretty soon, the couple was discovered to be Jews working against the Germans. They were sent off to Mechelen with many others, and that was where Claire was reunited with her father. Every day the man would look out for her in the crowds of people being dropped off at the camp, and one day her face was among the masses.
His heart dropped. While he longed to see his daughter again, the last place he wanted her to be was there in Mechelen.
A difficult time
Life for the three of them grew worse by the day. Living conditions were diabolical, and the lack of food left them starving all of the time. They all had to wear a piece of cardboard around their neck with a number and set of letters stamped on it.
Claire had no idea what these meant, not that she really wanted to know. Every day in that camp was difficult, but she had a worrying feeling that things were only going to get worse. She was right.
No longer a person
As time in the camps progressed, there was a lot of talk about what was going on in the East. People didn’t want to believe it was true, but when the German commanders announced that they’d be sent off to an unknown fate in the East, they knew their fates were sealed.
The numbers and letters on their cardboard were an indicator of what carriage the prisoners would ride on, but there was a problem. Claire’s piece of cardboard didn’t say the same thing as her father’s.
Staying by his side
Considering what was happening, the last thing Claire wanted was to be separated from her father. He had fallen ill with a fever and was in a terrible state, so she couldn’t leave him alone. Determined to stay by his side until the end, she searched for someone to swap her cardboard with so that they’d be able to ride together.
Eventually, she found someone, but they asked for something significant in return – her wedding ring. It was the only possession she had left, but he didn’t care.
All in this together
Her family was worth more than any piece of jewelry. She did the swap and, when the time came, jumped into the cattle car alongside her husband and father. Space was minimal in the carriage, with the three of them forced to share it with fifty other people.
However, what mattered most was that they were together, and no matter what lay before them, they wouldn’t be alone. Unfortunately, at the rate that her father’s health was deteriorating, it didn’t look like he’d even make it to the final destination.
It was evident that wherever they were going, it was the end of the line for them. Determined to live another day, Philippe told his wife this was their last chance to escape – they had to jump off the train.
The commanders had warned that any attempt to escape would have dire consequences for the whole carriage, but that was a risk he was willing to take. None of them would survive if they didn’t try anything, so what was the harm in making a break for it?
Together until the end
Claire was in two minds over her husband’s suggestion. She didn’t want to risk it, nor did she want Philippe to escape by himself, but she couldn’t leave her father behind. He was far too sick to even move, let alone leap from a train.
After so many years of being there for him, she couldn’t abandon him now. Much to her husband’s dismay, she told him that she wouldn’t do it – she was staying. It wasn’t easy to say, but what other choice did she have?
Making a break for it
At some point during the journey, Claire fell asleep, and it was at that moment she had a realization. As she woke up, she knew that she had to go. If her father had been able to say so, he’d have told her to go. Better that one of them survive than neither.
The couple moved to the window, and Philippe helped his wife up to the open space. Claire took one final look back at her father, her heart breaking, and slipped through to the other side.
Safe and sound
Escaping from a train operated by Germans in the 1940s was not an easy task. The likelihood was that Claire and her husband would both be noticed and shot down, but that didn’t stop them. After making her way to a safe spot, Claire took her life into her hands and lept from the moving vehicle, safely landing in a field nearby.
As the train barreled off down the tracks, there was no sign that anyone had seen her jump to freedom – she’d done it. Where was Philippe though?
A helping hand
Thankfully, her husband appeared soon enough equally unharmed. The couple embraced, relieved that they’d actually pulled off their escape attempt. However, there was no time to waste. They needed to get out of there immediately and find some help if they wanted any chance of survival.
It was in a nearby village that they came across a priest who they entrusted with the details of what they’d just done. Thankfully, he took their side and provided them with 50 francs to help them with their new life.
Surviving the war
Shortly after leaving the priest, they arrive in Liége where they found friends who kept them safe from the Germans for a year and a half. The whole time, the couple was grateful that they had a second chance, but they couldn’t escape their survivor’s guilt.
Even after the war was over and they moved to South America, they were haunted by the trauma of everything that had happened. Claire couldn’t forget about the fact that she’d abandoned her father in his time of need.
Passing on his message
That was when she met the stranger in Israel. The woman knew Claire and Philippe because she’d been on that train with them all those years ago. She informed the couple that after their escape, her father had woken and asked where the two of them were.
When he’d discovered that they’d both escaped, he was overcome with relief. He told the carriage how happy he was that she could start again, and asked them to pass on that message if they ever saw her again. Fortunately, someone did.
Peace of mind
Hearing that took Claire’s breath away. All those years she’d felt guilty about abandoning her father when in reality she’d done what he wanted her to. She also found out that he passed away from his illness before the train arrived at its destination – Auschwitz.
The likelihood of Claire ever receiving his final message seemed incredibly slim, but through chance or fate, it had happened. She finally had the peace of mind she’d wanted for years, and now she was free to enjoy the rest of her life.