She Left Her Sick Father Behind to Survive – Claire Prowisor’s Heartbreaking Holocaust Story
The world has suffered many tragedies in its history, but none are worse than those which target different groups of people, simply because of their skin color or for the god they choose to worship. The Holocaust was one such time and it’s where Claire Prowisor’s remarkable story came from.
The brave girl was able to survive one of the hardest trials in history, but she had to make a heartbreaking sacrifice, that would haunt her decades later. If you’d like to read Claire’s incredible tale, keep scrolling.
An Unexpected Encounter
Klara Prowisor and her husband were on holiday in the Holy Land (Israel) visiting from their residence in South America. The couple was walking on the streets, taking in the sights and the people while happily chatting with each other when an unfamiliar woman stopped the two and called out the name “Clairette.”
Confused by the stranger, Klara didn’t know how an unfamiliar person in Israel would know her nickname that was used decades ago, in another land and far from her South American home. She looked at the woman and said, “I don’t know you,” to which the woman gave an ominous reply “But I do know you.” Klara was more puzzled than ever when the woman said: “I was there…”
The story of Klara Prowisor is one that has fascinated everyone who hears about it, and it all started in Germany, in the 1920s, when she was born. Klara was born in 1922 in a small town just on the outskirts of Hamburg. Her parents were Jewish; her mother was from another district in Germany, while her father was born in Poland. When she was young, she was given the nickname “Klarachen” by her father, Chaskel.
But things were not the best for this family in Germany as they were struggling to make ends meet. Her parents, hoping for better for their child, decided to make the move from Germany to Brussels, Belgium. They were excited at the new possibilities the country would offer, but they were in for the shock of their lives as the unexpected would soon happen.
A New, But Awful Start
Klara decided that like her parents, she would commit to this new move. A fresh start in Belgium meant new friends, a new language and even a new name. Instead of using the name “Klara,” which was German, the young girl converted it to French and started calling herself “Claire.”
But things did not go as planned for any of the members of the family. They had hoped that the move would mean more money, but it didn’t and the family was still extremely poor. Klara, now Claire, had a very rough childhood because of it. Chaskel, her father, had not gotten a residency or a work permit in their new country, which made things more difficult. With job opportunities scarce, he became depressed because he could not provide and soon turned to drinking, which got him in trouble with the law.
No Hope In Sight
By this time, the couple, who still had no money, had three other children, all younger than Claire. Her father was still getting in trouble with the law because of his drinking and was often expelled from Belgium and back into his home country of Germany. Each time, he returned and the cycle repeated itself.
It was then, at a young age, that Claire decided that she wanted more for herself, her family and especially her father. And she would do whatever it took to make that happen.
An Audacious Young Lady
At age 15, Claire was already a brilliant young lady. She became the chief breadwinner of her six-person family, while her father was still having no luck. The young lady was desperate to see her father make something out of himself, so she had an idea, and it was an audacious one.
Wanting a better life in the country they now called home, the 15-year-old decided to take matters into her own hands and ask for help. But she didn’t go to a neighbor or even the governor of her town; she skipped all that and set her sights to the top. Claire decided to write a letter to Belgium’s Queen Mother at the time, asking her to help her family.
A Queen’s Response
Although Claire had written the letter, she did not really expect a queen to help her out. After all, she had more important things to do than to help out a little girl who wasn’t even a Belgian native. But the Queen did answer. And she provided the help that Claire and her family needed.
Queen Elisabeth declared that Chaskel, Claire’s father, would receive the work permit he so desperately needed. But that wasn’t all. The queen also made it that Chaskel would receive a salary that was the same as what Claire was currently making. Happy and eternally grateful for the Queen’s help, things seemed like it would be more stable for the Prowisor family. But it wouldn’t last long, because something was coming that no one could have predicted.
The War Begins
Three years later, in May 1940, the Second World War had come to Belgium. The Nazis had successfully invaded the country and occupied it during the fight. Claire, who was 18 years old at the time was frightened beyond words. Things were going great for her and her family and now, a set of people who detested her and those who shared her religion had made her home theirs.
Belgium’s streets were now incredibly hostile and it could not be more dangerous for Jews like Claire and her family. Sadly, it would remain that way for the next few years, where Belgian Jews were captured, tortured and killed simply for being what they were.
The Hunt Was On
Things grew beyond difficult for Claire and all the Jews in Belgium. There were jobs that they were not allowed to work, but that’s not even the worst of it. Those who thought they could hide their Jewish status by keeping their heads down during work were also ousted. The Nazis forced business owners and employers to let it be known whether a Jew or Jews were under their employ.
Their places of worship were torched and these poor people were subjected to wearing badges- kind of like a visual ID that let everyone know what they were. The badges featured a yellow Star of David on a black field. Inscribed within the star was the word “Jew” in German or the local language and had to be worn on one’s chest. Almost everything around Claire and her family crumbled, but the resilient girl managed to find some light in all the darkness.
Finding Love During Hardship
By 15 Claire was supporting her family and asking the Queen for help, so it would stand to reason that this strong young woman would not let the Nazis scare her from her own home. Refusing to believe that things could not change, she began going to underground Communist meetings where ideas of equality were discussed.
At those meetings, Claire found something she did not expect: love. She met a young Jewish man by the name of Philippe Szyper. The two fell in love over their like-minded discussions and soon, they were married- Claire was just 20 years old at the time.
A Passion for Politics
The young couple had a lot in common and they realized that with every passing meeting. It might have been what attracted them to each other initially, but they did fall for each other genuinely. They motivated each other to stay strong during the Nazi leadership and each encouraged the other to want to fight back.
The couple were sick and tired of being persecuted for their religion and could not stand that helpless people were being affected by the Nazis and the nonsensical views. But they had to move quietly to cause change. So, by day, Claire Prowisor worked as a tailor. When the night came, however, she was something else entirely.
Starting the Fight
By this time, the Nazis had implemented a plan that would help them identify every single Jew in the country. The forced each person who partook in the religion to make themselves known to the police; they had to go to the offices and register as a Jew. Claire and Philippe were disgusted by the idea of having to do such a thing. They did not want their statuses known, and not because they weren’t proud of their religion, but because it was safer to do so. So, the couple defied Nazi law.
Phillipe, who was a citizen of Belgium, managed to get a forged passport and he also managed to avoid submitting documents that gave up his ties to the Jewish community. Claire, on the other hand, had to find another way to dodge the police because she was an immigrant.
When Being Resourceful Comes in Handy
Claire had already proven herself to be a resourceful young woman. She somehow managed to get her hands on a yellow foreigner’s ID card, but without the stamp that all Jews needed to have. It was another method used by the Nazis to not only segregate the Jews but to watch, track and control how they moved within the country.
With their documentation in hand, the two still went underground and officially joined the Resistance. They would bravely pass out anti-Nazi leaflets to other Jews which was one of the most dangerous things that could be done at the time. Those who had been caught before were killed.
The Worst Is Yet To Come
The Jewish community in Belgium were living in horrible conditions by 1942. There were treated badly, were poorer than ever and were persecuted simply for existing. But things were about to get much, much worse as the Nazis came up with one of the most despicable plans in human history.
By the time the summer of 1942 had come around, the Germans put their plans to completely destroy the Jewish community to work. Because they had already identified all (or so they thought) the Jews in the different communities, they began to round them up, thousands at a time.
Jews all over Belgium began receiving what was known as a summons to report themselves to the Germans. They wanted to deport natives and immigrants alike, as long as they were of that religion, to ghettos and detention centers. And although Claire and Phillipe were in hiding, and were not publicly known to be Jewish, they were still very afraid.
One of Claire’s younger sisters, Edith, got a summons shortly after they began. Her older sister begged her not to go, but she did not listen. It would not be long before Edith was never heard from or seen again. When that happened, Claire began to fear for all her family members, especially her father.
A Father in Trouble
The detention camp that the Jews in Brussels (the area Claire lived in) were being sent to was a place called Mechelen. They were initially military barracks that the Nazis decided would be a perfect place to hold the Jews. It had a capacity of 60, 000 and was smack dab in the middle of Antwerp and Brussels- the two Belgian cities with the highest Jewish populations in the country.
Claire, at this point, begged her father quite often to be careful and to avoid being seen. She warned him that there was a high possibility that he could be caught and killed, just like his younger daughter had been. But the stubborn man did not listen to his daughter.
Chaskel Is Arrested
Chaskel, who had asthma, was used to going out for daily walks so he could get some fresh air. The old man refused to let the threat of some Nazis prevent him from doing that, so he went out.
The Gestapo was the official police of the Nazi. They were a brutal task force sent out to eliminate anyone who opposed their leaders and to round up Jews throughout Europe, bringing them to extermination camps all over the country. And that’s exactly who was waiting for Chaskel Prowisor in January 1943.
Other Friendly Faces…Or Are They?
With Chaskel at an extermination camp, things were about to get a lot worse for the married couple. Being Jewish was incredibly dangerous. But being Jewish with fake documentation and on the run from Nazis, even more so. Claire and Philippe were still in hiding and still contributing their efforts to the Resistance. They did as much as they could in their predicament and it was through their movements that they met a man who they would offer some help.
This man introduced himself to the couple as being a fellow Belgian Communist and a believer of the cause. He also said that he was hiding from the Nazis and being the kind people that they were, they offered him shelter. It was the biggest mistake the couple made.
A Betrayal Like No Other
The man that Claire and her husband Philippe had taken in was not who they thought he was. He was not a Jew; he wasn’t a Communist supporter, nor was he a sympathizer who wanted to see a change. He was quite the opposite.
They man that they had offered asylum was a Nazi collaborator. Claire and Philippe had been set up! Their guest had gone to their dwelling, seen everything and had reported to the Gestapo the details of what he had seen, which is why there was suddenly a loud pounding at their door, at three o’ clock one morning.
They Were Caught
The collaborator had ratted them out. Three Nazi members had gone to where Philippe and Claire slept and cornered them inside the home. One of them banged loudly on the door, and when Philippe got up to open it, he was met by the face of a Gestapo member. The three men burst into their dwelling with their guns drawn, with not so much as an explanation.
They began searching the house and it wasn’t very long before the found what they were looking for- the anti-Nazi leaflets that the couple had been passing around. Angry that they had found two people hiding right under their noses, the two began to viciously beat Philippe, hitting him in the face and causing damage to his nose.
Jewish Status Revealed
Claire tried to save her husband. She ran to his side to help him get off the group and she was beaten for it. The Gestapo, wanting to learn more of these anti-Nazi supporters searched the quarters some more and when they were satisfied, dragged the couple away for questioning.
The two were separated once they got to their destination. Philippe was brought in for questioning where he was grilled about his actions and origins. When he refused to answer, he was beaten some more. The Gestapo, despite getting a hold of Philippe’s falsified passport and Claire’s ID, neither of which revealed their Jewish status, were still found out to be Jews in hiding. After the discovery was made, they were thrown into the back of a truck and driven to a destination that they had only heard about, but had never seen in person.
Like many Jews before them, the married couple was being transported to the Mechelen camp. Philippe was stripped of his Belgian citizenship and Claire, of her German citizenship. The clerks at the camp registered each of them as “stateless” and they were then sent to hand over all their belongings, including their jewelry.
Claire did not want to give her wedding ring up and pleaded with the officials to keep it. Luckily, she was allowed to, and it was the only valuable thing the young German entered the death camp with.
A Mortifying Search
Claire and Phillipe were not to be trusted as far as the Nazi members were concerned and each of them was subjected to a humiliating search once they had given up their belongings. In Claire’s case, she had two men in the room with her. One was a civilian and the other was an officer and they both forced her to remove her clothing.
They searched every inch of her body to see if she was hiding anything. The young girl, who had never experienced anything like that before, was more embarrassed than she had ever been in her life. What she didn’t know was that there would be a familiar face waiting for her on the other side of the wall.
When Claire and Philippe had finished being processed, there were given a piece of cardboard as identification, as so many other Jews had been given before them. Each piece of cardboard had a number on it. In Claire’s case, she had the number “255,” and Philippe had one before hers “254.” They two had been reduced to mere numbers and not the human beings that they were. But confusion set in when they realized their tags had an additional “XX” on it. Not knowing what to do, the two entered the camp.
Claire’s father was there when they were brought in. He was secretly searching every group of people to see if any of his family members got caught. When he saw his daughter, grief mixed with joy at the realization that his son-in-law and daughter had been caught. He had never thought to see them again and yet, here they were.
Life As A Prisoner At Mechelen
The prison was not an easy place to live and Claire and her husband did it for the next three months. They had to sleep on used, dirty straw mattresses, which rested on the floor of the cold barracks. Because food was so scarce, they only had a few bites to eat each day which consisted of bread and jam and maybe some cabbage soup if they were lucky.
What was scarier than the food and sleeping arrangements were the cruel camp authorities. Tales had spread from other parts of the continent about what had been happening to Jews in Poland. The horrifying rumors put everyone on edge because, at any moment, the same could potentially happen to them.
What the “XX” Meant
Claire and Philippe finally found out what the “XX” on their cardboard plates meant. It was the date that they were supposed to be sent on the deportation train. They were told by the guards a few days in advance that they were going to be sent east on Convoy 20, to the same place the gruesome rumors originated from.
Despair took hold of Chaskel Prowisor, causing him to become severely ill. He started to deteriorate so quickly that soon, he could not get up from his bed on his own. He was also going to be transported on a separate train from Claire and Philippe and her worry for her father was at an all-time high. Claire knew that she had to find a way to stay by her father’s side.
Choosing Her Father
At the Mechelen camp, each prisoner’s cardboard plate had a number that corresponded with the train they were meant to be on. Claire’s number was nowhere near her dad’s which meant that they would be separated. Taking his health into consideration, she tried to find someone who would switch places with her. But she had to be careful because if she was caught, she could be killed.
She found someone who was open to trading places, but it would require a sacrifice she did not want to make. But she had to. So, the 21-year-old gave up her wedding ring for a spot that would allow her to be close to her sick father.
The time was near for the Jews to be transported to Convoy 20. On April 19th, 1943, they were all gathered outside to begin the loading process. But where the previous prisoners had been brought in third-class passenger trains to make the trip, Claire’s and her father’s train was nothing more than cramped cattle cars not fit for human transportation.
Philippe, who had also managed to get a spot on the same train as his wife and father-in-law, joined the two on the wagon with about fifty other people. They were then threatened that if one person tried to escape, the rest of the people on the train would suffer for it. At this point, Chaskel’s fever had gotten worse and there was a long trip ahead. The last thing on Claire’s mind was to try to escape. But her husband was thinking of exactly that.
Philippe was sure that their new destination would be much worse than the one they had just been in and that it would, without a doubt in his mind, lead to their demise. So, he told his wife that they had to escape. Claire, who was known for taking risks did not doubt her husband’s words or shy away from the idea, but it would not be an easy task to pull off.
Not wanting to reach Convoy 20 in Poland, the plan was for the couple to jump off the train- and they had to do it while they were still in Belgium. Both had grown up in the country and knew that once they were in Germany, all hope would be lost, and no one would dare help. This meant that they had to act soon. But there was a big problem.
Claire Says No
Claire’s father was very sick. He had been laying down for the entire trip, which there was barely space for him to do. He had not been able to fend for himself as of late, and his body was more fragile than ever. Just how would he jump from the train and be able to survive while they were on the run? Claire considered these things and told her husband “no.” She would not subject her father to the rest of his days being sick and on the run- if he even survived the fall.
Chaskel was deteriorating quickly on the train. With no medical care to speak of, the man was soon unconscious and unresponsive. Philippe begged his wife to try to escape with him, telling her to come with him “in the name of their love.” Claire simply responded “I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to jump from the train.”
A Decision Had To Be Made
Despite saying no, Claire really did weigh the options at the back of her mind and it was tearing her apart. The train was quickly approaching Germany and she still didn’t know what to do. What made it worse was that other passengers heard their plans and discouraged them, fearing the wrath that the guards had promise. Philippe pleaded with his wife again, telling her that if they jumped, at least they would be together. If they ended up in Poland, they would be separated.
The stress of her decision got to her and she fell asleep next to her father out of pure exhaustion. Startled by something, maybe her own dreams, Claire woke up with the realization that she knew what she had to do. She went to find her husband and told him that she was in- that she would jump off the train.
Decision made, the two slowly made their way to the windows near the wall of the wagon they were in. They left whatever they had accumulated during their stay at Mechelen behind on the floor of the train and started to move. The two were determined to be in control of their destinies after being prisoners for three months.
Phillippe let Claire go first. He lifted his wife to the hatch of the window where she slipped her legs through first. In a heartbreaking moment, she looked back to where her sick father lay, unconscious and unaware that if and when he woke up, she would no longer be by his side. But she pushed the hesitation away as best as she could and slipped out of the train.
The Great Escape
The train continued to speed through Belgium with Claire standing between two wagons. It was additionally frightening because there were Nazi guards keeping watch and so far, they hadn’t seen her. Prepared to make the jump, after coming this far, she protected her head with her arms (like a diver) and got ready to jump.
Claire took a breath and jumped. She landed in a bed of grass near the train tracks and lay there, watching the train go by. She had paid the price of leaving her father behind and had survived the jump. But something was wrong. Where was Philippe?
The train had disappeared and Claire was all alone. Her husband was nowhere to be found and she started to cry. How could she have lost the two most important people in her life within a matter of minutes? She sat there, not certain what her next move should be. That’s when she saw a man walking towards her. It was Philippe.
Reunited, even though it was just a few short minutes that had passed, the couple held onto each other in a moment of pure bliss. They had done what they set out to do. But reality came crashing down on them soon after when they realized that they were still on the run.
Taking A Chance
Worried about being caught just by one glance at their filthy clothing, the couple had nothing else to change into. So, they walked hand in hand to a nearby village, hoping to find a generous soul to help them out. They came across a church and decided it would be the safest option to ask for help. Having been double-crossed by someone they trusted made them suspicious of everyone, but they had no choice.
Philippe spoke to the priest and told him the truth- that they had just escaped as prisoners from a Nazi train. To their shock, the priest not only prayed for them, but he also gave them 50 francs. The religious leader went further and told the couple how to make it into the nearest city of Liege. The two were able to make friends there who were not Jews but still sympathized. They hid Claire and Philippe for a year and a half.
It Was Over But The Memories Lived On
The Holocaust was over and Claire and Philippe had survived. Not wanting to stay in a place that held so many bad memories, the two made a new start in South America. The distance helped a bit, but Claire would never forget that she had left her sick father behind on that train- and it haunted her.
Her guilt followed her day and night and she kept thinking of the sacrifice she had to make to survive. For her to live, her father had to die and the thought of it killed a part of her every day. But she didn’t know that something was on the horizon. It was a message that she never expected to hear, but one that she needed very badly.
Tel Aviv, Israel
It was 1962 and Claire was 40 years old when she and Philippe had gone on their vacation to Israel. They were shopping and talking and that was when a woman tapped Claire on her shoulder and called her “Clairette.” Unsure of who the woman was, Claire looked at her puzzled. It was then that the woman said: “I’ve been searching for you for many years.”
Claire had no idea where the woman came from or who had sent her and proceeded to tell the woman that. The stranger answered, “But I do know you.” The woman then revealed something Claire would’ve thought to be impossible if she had not experienced it herself. The woman said that she was in the very cattle car that the couple had escaped from twenty years prior. Then she dropped another bomb: she had been with Claire’s father when he had woken up.
The stranger recounted the story as if it had happened yesterday. She said that Chaskel had opened his eyes and began calling out for his daughter. He called her by her nickname, which was “Klarchen” and “Clairette,” but no one answered. The prisoners who were still on the train told him that his daughter and son-in-law had jumped and his response would be the thing Claire needed to hear all these years.
Chaskel was overjoyed that his daughter had taken the leap. Through his sickness, he found a ray of light and happiness that his daughter would be free. He then asked everyone in the cattle car to promise him that if they ever saw her, to give her a message for him: that he was the happiest father in the world because of her choice.
Chaskel Prowisor’s Fate
The stranger also told Claire that her father passed away from his fever before the train got to Germany. It was a beautiful tale and the father’s wish had finally come true. It was as if he somehow knew that his fierce daughter needed to hear it- after all, she had taken care of her family since she was 15 years old.
For Claire, it was the one thing she needed more than anything in this life. She treasured those words the minute they were uttered and the guilt she had been carrying with her started to vanish. Her father’s approval meant everything to her and she knew that she had made the right decision in the end.
Even More Revelations
Claire and Philippe also found out a few things about their train and the war. They learned that they were not the only people who dared to jump, that others did as well. It also turns out that members of the Belgian Resistance had ambushed that very train before it crossed over into the German border, freeing some of the slaves. But not enough survived.
Instead of going to Convoy 20, the train arrived in Auschwitz three days later. Out of the 1631 Jews who had started on the train, less than ten percent (153) had survived and one of them was the stranger standing before Claire.
Claire and her husband had never found out who the mystery woman was but were grateful to her nonetheless for her message. By the time the Holocaust was over, only about 28, 500 Jews from Belgium had survived and one of them was Chaskel Prowisor, who had managed to hold out until the Resistance had saved him.
The couple moved to Israel and decided to live out the rest of their days there. Claire, who in her nineties, recounted the tale many times to bring awareness to the crimes done against her people during the Holocaust. One of her favorite parts is how unlikely it seemed that her father’s message would get to her, and yet, it did.