Sat, Apr 14, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Childhood Holocaust survivors reunite

AP, LOS ANGELES

Childhood Holocaust survivors Simon Gronowski, left, and Alice Gerstel Weit are interviewed at the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum memorial on Wednesday.

Photo: AP

When Alice Gerstel bid an emotional farewell to her family’s closest friends in October 1941, she was hopeful that she would see “Little Simon” Gronowski again. And she did — 76 years later and half a world away from where they were separated in Brussels.

Gerstel and her Jewish family had hidden in the Gronowskis’ home for nearly two weeks before her father sent word from France that he had reached a deal with a smuggler who would get her, her siblings and their mother safely out of Nazi-occupied Belgium.

The Gronowskis, also Jewish, decided to stay. They hid for 18 months until the Nazis came knocking at the family’s door and put Simon, his sister and mother on a death train to Auschwitz.

“I thought the entire family was murdered. I had no idea,” Gerstel (now Gerstel Weit) said on Wednesday, the day after their reunion.

She and her friend clutched hands at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as they recounted their story.

“You didn’t know that I jumped off the train?” asked Gronowski, now 86.

“No, no. I didn’t know anything,” his 89-year-old friend replied.

The two are to return to the museum on Sunday to recount to visitors how the Holocaust ripped apart a pair of families that had become fast friends after a chance meeting at a Belgian beach resort in 1939. How it led an 11-year-old boy to make one of the most daring escapes of the war. How it put the other family on a perilous journey through occupied France that reads like a scene from the film Casablanca.

And, finally, how those separate journeys culminated three-quarters of a century later in a joyful, tear-streaked reunion in Los Angeles just before Holocaust Commemoration Day.

There was much hugging, kissing and crying as the two old friends held hands tightly while sitting outside on a museum patio to share memories from a long-ago past.

It was a past that began idyllically before turning nightmarish after the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940 and began rounding up Jews.

Gerstel Weit’s father, a diamond dealer with a wife and four children, decided to flee in 1941. He turned his diamonds into cash, bought nine visas that got his family and brother’s family through Nazi-occupied France and to the French-controlled Moroccan city of Casablanca. There they boarded a ship bound for Cuba.

Gronowski’s father believed naively that he and his family would be safe hiding in Brussels.

It was on a train to a death camp a few weeks later that the mother pushed her son toward the door of the boxcar that they were in, telling him to jump.

After the war, he eventually moved back to the apartment where he grew up. He rented out the other units and used the money to pay for law school. He is a practicing attorney in Brussels.

Gerstel Weit’s family immigrated to the US, where she married, had two sons and eventually settled in Los Angeles, taking up a career in real estate.

For a time, Leon Gronowski held out hope that his wife and daughter had somehow survived, and that he would find them.

“But when we received information of the concentration camps, and he died of ...” he said, his voice trailing off.

“Of a broken heart?” Gerstel Weit asked.

“Of a broken heart,” he replied.

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