Wednesday, October 27, 2021

“My story is a miracle,” says the 90-year-old, who escaped from the Auschwitz train as a child

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Simon Gronowski was just 11 years old when his mother pushed him out of a cattle wagon that was going to Auschwitz

Simon Gronowski was just eleven years old in April 1943 when his mother pushed him out of a cattle wagon in the direction of Auschwitz. That was the last time he saw her. She stayed on the train.

Mr Gronowski, who turned 90 on Monday, is slowing down as he tells his story of surviving the war.

“She said, ‘The train is going too fast’ in Yiddish. And those were her last words to me, ”he says.

Born in Brussels in 1931, Mr. Gronowski still lives in the city, his house is only 500 meters from the former Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation of Belgium.

“My story is a miracle,” he says. It actually became an opera, while a memorial commemorates the three Belgian resistance fighters who helped him escape.

In his study, surrounded by mementos from his long career as a lawyer, the likeable Mr. Gronowski tells how his family hid for 18 months until the Gestapo knocked on the door. He and his mother Chana were held in the Kazerne Dossin prison camp in Mechelen for a month before the Belgian Waffen SS bundled them into convoy 20 – a train with 1,631 Jewish men, women and children in 34 narrow wagons.

“I didn’t understand anything,” says Mr. Gronowski. “I was still the boy scout in my world. I didn’t know that I was sentenced to death and that the train would take me to my place of execution. ”

This was one of the convoys that were supposed to send 28,000 Jews from Belgium directly to the death camps. It stopped shortly before Mechelen. “I heard screaming and shooting,” says Mr. Gronowski.

The train had been stopped by three daring young Belgian resistance fighters, Youra Livchitz, Jean Franklemon and Robert Maistriau, with fake distress signals. They tried to free the prisoners and helped 233 escape, 118 of whom survived.

Last month, Brussels authorities agreed to memorialize the attackers while three streets in the city are named after them.

Mr. Gronowski’s escape took place when the train was running again. His mother held his shirt and told him to jump. He hesitated, so she pushed him out. Soon the guards came to close the sliding doors. She died in the gas chambers three days later.

Mr Gronowski was 80 kilometers from Brussels when he rushed out. “I walked through the forest all night,” he says. “I hummed Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ to reassure me.”

He finally returned to Brussels, where he met his father, Leib, who had escaped the Gestapo raids because he was in a hospital at the time. They survived the war, hid with friends, but his older sister Ita was captured and died in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 19.

In the decades that followed, Mr. Gronowski kept the childhood trauma to himself.

“I felt guilty. Why are you dead and I live?” He says. But 20 years ago his story leaked through. He began speaking at schools and memorial services and writing memoirs.

Seven years ago, Mr. Gronowski met the composer Howard Moody, who was so touched by the story that he wrote an opera about it. Called To press Following his mother’s gesture on the train, the opera was performed in Boortmeerbeek earlier this month, where the convoy was stopped. It has performed at Glyndebourne, Chichester Cathedral and the House of Lords.

Mr Gronowski was also contacted by a Belgian artist, Koenraad Tinel, who was plagued by guilt about his Nazi family, including his brother, who had been a Waffen SS guard at the Mechelen camp. They became friends, and Mr. Gronowski also forgave Mr. Tinel’s brother.

“Yes, I forgave him,” he says. “I never hate. I don’t want to convey a message of sadness, but of hope. “

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