In one of the darkest chapters of human history, trapped inside a cramped boxcar, a 21-year-old woman named Claire Prowisor had to make a devastating decision. The consequences of her choice were stark: she could either save her own life, or that of her father. It would haunt her for many years.
But one day, in a country far from home, on a foreign street, an unexpected coincidence happened. A stranger suddenly came up to her, somehow knowing her name — and carrying a very important message that would truly change everything. To learn more about this incredible story, read on.
A married couple was visiting Israel, on holiday from their residence in South America. They were casually walking down the street together chatting, when all of a sudden a person stopped them. It was an unfamiliar woman, and she called out a name: “Clairette!”
The tourist was utterly puzzled as to how this random face on the street, thousands of miles from home, could have accurately guessed her nickname. She turned around to face her. “I don’t know you,” she said. “But I do know you,” the mysterious woman replied. “I was there…”
Klara Prowisor’s incredible story begins in Germany. She was born just outside Hamburg in 1922 to Jewish parents. Her father, Chaskel, was originally from Poland, and her mother, Chana, was from a different region of Germany. Her father often would call her by the nickname Klärchen.
When Klara was still a child, her family moved west to Brussels, Belgium, in search of a better life. There, she began using the French version of her name: Claire. Her parents hoped that in Belgium they could have more opportunities. But reality was about to hit hard.
Claire Prowisor had a rough childhood in Brussels. Her family were very poor. Chaskel Prowisor had no work permit and no residency permit in Belgium, making his job opportunities scarce. Clara’s father became depressed, sometimes resorting to drinking. He often got in trouble with the law.
Time after time, Chaskel was expelled from Belgium back to Germany. It was no way for Claire and her three younger siblings to grow up. Even at a young age, Claire was determined to take a stand and try and make things better for her father.
At age 15, Claire Prowisor had to work. She was the chief breadwinner in the family, and she wanted to help her father Chaskel have a better chance at life in Belgium. She went straight to the top — and wrote a letter to the Queen Mother, imploring her for help.
Amazingly, Queen Élisabeth came to her aid. Chaskel would receive a work permit and a fixed salary equivalent to his daughter’s earnings. Claire’s devotion paid off — things were finally looking more stable. But their world was about to come crashing down around them.
World War II came to Belgium in May 1940, when the Nazis invaded and occupied the country. 18-year-old Claire Prowisor watched as her adoptive home suddenly became a hostile, frightening, dangerous place. Over the next two years, the mass persecution of Belgian Jews, like Claire, grew worse and worse.
Jews were forbidden from certain jobs. Businesses had to announce in their window if they had Jewish employees. Synagogues were burned. Jews were forced to wear a yellow star in public. Yet even as conditions deteriorated for Claire and her family, she found one huge spark of light.
Claire refused to accept the terrible circumstances of the Nazi occupation. She began attending meetings of the Communist underground, and it was there that she met a handsome young Jewish man named Philippe Szyper. She was smitten. In 1942, the two rebels were married.
Claire and Philippe bonded over their passion for politics. They gave each other the strength to defy the Nazis, and together they sought ways to overthrow the system oppressing their people. By day, young Claire Prowisor worked as a tailor. By night, it was a different story.
All Belgian Jews were forced to register with the police, but Claire and Philippe refused to comply. Philippe obtained a forged green passport showing he was Belgian, and avoided any documentation showing he was Jewish. And though Claire was an immigrant, she would not be deterred.
The ever-resourceful Claire Prowisor somehow obtained a yellow ID card for foreigners, without the mandatory stamp for Jews. The two went underground with the Resistance, bravely passing out anti-Nazi leaflets. If they were caught, the punishment could be death. But their lives in Belgium were about to become even more dangerous.
For two years under the Nazis, Belgian Jews had lived under fear, discrimination, and threat of attack. But in the summer of 1942, the Germans began to enact their plan for the community’s complete destruction. They started rounding up Jews by the thousands.
The situation was terrifying. Claire’s sister Edith received a summons to report to the Germans. Claire begged her not to go, but she showed up — and was never heard from again. And while Claire and Philippe were hiding out, Claire was constantly worried about her father’s safety.
Jews in Brussels, and all across the country, were being captured and sent to a detention camp in a place called Mechelen. Claire had begged her father to be as careful as he could and to avoid being seen. But he didn’t heed her warning.
Chaskel insisted on going for his daily walk, to get some fresh air for his asthma. The German secret police, the Gestapo, were waiting. He was arrested, and sent to Mechelen in early January 1943. It wouldn’t take long for his family to be reunited — in the worst way.
To be Jewish in Belgium, even existing was dangerous. Philippe and Claire, the young married couple, were in hiding, still doing as much as they could for the Resistance. One day, a man approached them, presenting himself as a Belgian Communist and fellow partisan. They decided to give him shelter.
It was a trap. Their guest was in fact a collaborator, paid by the Nazis. He reported to the Gestapo, and ratted out Claire and Philippe’s whereabouts. In the middle of the night, three Nazi officers clad in black raced over — and closed in on them.
Around three in the morning, Philippe and Claire awoke to a pounding on the door. Philippe opened it — and the Gestapo burst in, pistols drawn. In no time, they found the couple’s anti-Nazi leaflets. They hit Philippe in the face, bruising his nose.
Claire ran to help her husband, and they struck her too. The Gestapo dragged their prisoners away for questioning. They interrogated Philippe and beat him. Despite his fake papers, they found out he was a Jew. They shoved them into a truck, and drove away. What would happen to them?
Claire and Philippe, like Jews from all over Belgium, were sent to the camp at Mechelen. Stripped of any citizenship, the clerks registered them as stateless, and made them hand over their jewelry. The only valuable that Claire was allowed to keep was her wedding ring.
Claire was then taken aside into a room. Two men, one in SS uniform, one civilian, forced her to take her clothes off. They searched her to see if she was hiding contraband. It was a humiliating ordeal. But someone was there to comfort her.
It was Claire’s father. Every time a transport arrived at Mechelen, he would go to his window to look at the crowd. This time, to his joy and his sorrow, he spotted his captured daughter and son-in-law. Now they were together again. He hugged her in a bittersweet embrace.
Like the other prisoners, Claire and Philippe were given a dehumanizing piece of cardboard that they had to wear around their neck, his reading “254”, hers “255”. They were no longer even considered people, but numbers. And something else was written on the cardboard: XX. What did it mean?
For three monstrous months, Claire, Philippe, and Chaskel were imprisoned at Mechelen. They slept on filthy, sweaty straw mattresses on the cold barracks floor. There was very little food to eat, just a few scraps of bread and jam, and a tiny amount of cabbage soup.
Everyone was constantly afraid of the cruel camp commander and his attack dog. The inmates heard frightening rumors of what was happening to Jews in the East, far away in Poland. But opinions were divided. The stories seemed too terrible to be real. Could they be believed?
As it turned out, the XX that Philippe and Claire wore on the cardboard around their necks was the number of their deportation train. The German guards informed them that in a few days, they would be sent east, to an uncertain fate, on Convoy 20.
For Chaskel, the news was unbearable. Deep in despair, he became seriously ill with fever. He could barely move from his bed. Claire was frantically worried. Her father was so fragile, and he was going on a separate train. She knew she had to stay with him.
Each prisoner’s cardboard tag determined their train number. Claire was desperate to find someone to switch places with her sick father so that they could be together. She needed a number close to hers. But if anyone was found on the wrong train, consequences would be dire.
Claire found a prisoner who was willing to swap. But he told her that there was a steep price for committing this risky act. She had to trade the last precious item she still possessed: her wedding ring. It had been on her finger for just a year.
On April 19 1943, the Nazis assembled the Jews of Convoy 20 for deportation from Mechelen. All of the previous transports that had left were in third-class passenger trains. This time, however, waiting before them were a series of appallingly cramped cattle cars.
They ordered Claire, Philippe, and Chaskel into a tiny wagon, with fifty other people. The Germans warned: if anyone tries to escape, we will punish the whole train. Chaskel’s fever worsened. The train doors were sealed, and they began to head east. But Philippe had a bold idea.
In the cattle car, Philippe and Claire were certain that whatever the destination was, it would lead to their doom. Philippe told Claire that they had to escape. Claire had never been one to shy away from taking risks, but this was her most daunting challenge ever.
They were not going to wait to find out what their fate was. They were going to jump from the train! It had to be done as soon as possible, in Belgium. Once they crossed into Nazi Germany, surely no one would help them. But there was a huge problem.
How could they leave Claire’s sick father? There was scarcely any room for him to lay down in the cattle car. He clearly was in no position to take care of himself. All her life, Claire had fought for her father’s well-being. She shook her head at her husband’s request.
By this point, Chaskel was not able to speak, unconscious and unresponsive. Philippe begged Claire to change her mind and to come with him in the name of their love. “I’m not going to do it,” she told him. “I’m not going to jump from the train.”
Claire was torn apart by the decision, and the train was fast approaching Germany. Worse, other passengers told them not to jump, afraid of punishment. Philippe insisted to Claire that if they jumped, at least they could try to survive together. In Poland, they were sure to be separated.
Claire continued to meditate on this awful dilemma. Exhausted from unimaginable stress, she dozed off by her sleeping father. All of a sudden, she woke up from her nap, startled back into their terrible reality. She looked for her husband — and told him she would jump.
Philippe and Claire left their suitcases on the floor of the train. For three months, they had been prisoners of the Nazis. Now, they were about to take back control of their lives. They moved past the other passengers towards the window on the wagon’s wall.
Philippe lifted his wife to the window hatch. Her heart breaking, she looked at her ill father, asleep, unaware she was leaving him. It was clear that this was the last time she would see his face. But she couldn’t hesitate. She slipped her legs through the window.
The train sped eastward. Claire had to remain calm and move very precisely. If the Nazi guards spotted her, they would shoot her. She shimmied along the side of the carriage, between two wagons. Claire put her hands above her head, like a diver, to protect her skull.
Claire leaped from the moving train. She landed in a field by the tracks and lay there, watching the train roll away. At the cost of leaving her father, she had successfully escaped certain death. But now her husband Philippe was nowhere to be found.
Claire began to cry, searching for her husband as the train disappeared into the distance. For a few terrifying moments, she was alone by the tracks and unsure of what to do. That’s when she saw Philippe walking towards her. He had escaped.
Reunited, the young couple were filled with the pure joy of survival. They had made it. Now, they had to find their way to safety, not knowing where they were. The way was fraught with danger. Wouldn’t their dirty clothes give away who they were?
Together, Claire and Philippe walked to a nearby village. They found a church, and went to ask for help. Philippe told the priest they had just escaped a Nazi deportation train. But it was a big risk: what if the priest would turn them in for being Jews?
To his surprise, the Belgian priest blessed them, gave them 50 francs, and told them how to get to the nearest city, Liège. There, they succeeded in finding non-Jewish friends, who hid them from the Nazis for a year and a half. But the story was far from over.
Claire and her husband Philippe both survived the Holocaust. After the war, they moved to South America, leaving behind the Belgium that contained so many painful memories. But even there, far away on the other side of the globe, the memory of Claire’s father haunted her.
For many long years, she suffered with the weight of her decision to leave her sick father behind and jump from the train. Choosing to live had meant leaving him to die, and she was wracked with guilt. Why had she survived? She was about to receive an incredible answer.
In 1962, Claire and Philippe visited Israel. One evening, they were strolling down the main shopping street in Tel Aviv, when a woman tapped Claire on the shoulder. “Clairette!” she exclaimed. Claire turned to face her, but didn’t recognize her. “I’ve been searching for you for many years.”
Claire was confused, and told her she didn’t know her. “But I do know you,” the woman replied. And then she revealed something unimaginable. She had been there, in the cattle car that left Mechelen with Claire and Philippe. And she was with Claire’s father — when he woke up.
The woman gave Claire Prowisor a message, words from beyond, words she couldn’t believe that she was hearing. In the train, Chaskel opened his eyes, and began calling out for his daughter by her nickname: Klärchen. But the other passengers told him she had jumped. His response was amazing.
Through the fog of terrible illness, he told everyone around him how happy he was that his daughter had jumped. And he asked the passengers that if they survived, if they ever found her again, to tell her he was the happiest father in the world. How would Claire react?
Chaskel Prowisor never reached the train’s final destination, Auschwitz. He passed away from fever, there in the cattle car leaving Belgium, just after imparting his final, beautiful message and request. And all these years later, somehow, on a street in a faraway land, his words had reached his daughter.
For Claire Prowisor, these were the most important words she could have heard. The weight of guilt and wondering that she had carried since the moment she had jumped suddenly dissipated. She now knew that her father thought she had done the right thing. And she was not alone.
Claire and Philippe found out after the war that just after they jumped, members of the Belgian Resistance ambushed the train they had been on before it crossed the border, freeing some of the passengers. Many other people jumped too. But they were too few.
Three days later, on April 22, 1943, the train arrived at Auschwitz. Of the 1,631 Belgian Jews aboard Convoy 20, just 153 survived the war. One of them was standing in front of Claire in Tel Aviv. But who was she?
Claire and Philippe never found out the identity of this mysterious woman who had come to them bearing the fateful message. 28,508 Belgian Jews had not survived the Holocaust, including Claire Prowisor-Szyper’s father Chaskel. But at last, she could know solace.
Eventually, Claire and Philippe immigrated to Israel. In her nineties, Claire continues to tell their story, to pass on her and Philippe’s testimony as witnesses to the crimes of the Nazi Holocaust against Jews. And she lives with the words her loving father hoped would reach her — and succeeded.
The Twentieth Train, Jewish Resistance In The Holocaust, The New York Times