Holocaust Survivors Who Were Childhood Friends Meet Again, 76 Years Later
'Little Simon' Gronowski was 11 the last time he saw Alice Gerstel Weit.
When the Nazis burst into Belgium, Alice Gerstel Weit and "Little Simon" Gronowski were childhood friends. Their parents were friends as well.
The invasion changed all that, ripping them apart. For 76 years, each figured the other was most likely dead.
Recently, they sat at the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum, reunited at long last, and between laughter and tears, they talked of their individual journeys and what they lived through after saying goodbye in Brussels in 1941.
Alice recalled an 11-year-old boy in short pants. Sitting beside her was an elderly man, his beard snowy white. "I didn't recognize him at all," she said this week. "I don't see Little Simon. But he's here. Little Simon is here," she said, patting his heart.
"I thought the entire family was murdered. I had no idea," she said as she clutched Simon's age-spotted hand.
The Gronowskis had hidden Alice's family in their home for nearly two weeks while her father, in France, bartered a deal with a human smuggler to get Alice, her mother and her siblings out of Belgium.
Both families were Jewish. The Gronowskis thought they could hide from the Nazis and stayed put. They managed to avoid being captured for 18 months until they were rounded up and put on a train to Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, Alice's father, a diamond dealer, had managed to convert his stones into cash, buying nine visas that got members of his extended family through Nazi-occupied France and into French-controlled Casablanca and from there, onto a boat bound for Cuba.
Simon, however, was on his way to a death camp, crammed into a stifling railroad car with no water and no light. The occupants, emboldened by resistance fighters who tried to stop the train, were able to kick open one side of the car, letting in cooling air.
Simon's mother held him over the side by his shoulders, and when the train slowed, she told him to jump. He ran through the trees as Nazi soldiers fired at him. Eventually he made his way to a house, where he was given clean clothes and food. He went back to Brussels and found his father, who had been in the hospital when the Nazis came.
His mother had told the soldiers she was a widow.
"You didn't know that I jumped off the train?" he asked Alice, who is now 89. "No, no. I didn't know anything," she answered.
His mother and sister died at Auschwitz.
The reunited old friends are scheduled to speak Sunday at the museum about how the Holocaust ripped their families apart.
"My father was not very conscious to tension," Gronowski said. "My father was not political. He was a poet. He wrote in six languages." Gronowski stopped to wipe his eyes. His father could not fathom "that Germany can fall into barbarism."
After the war, Gronowski went to law school and still practices in Brussels. Alice and her family eventually came to the U.S., where she married and had two sons. She became a real estate agent in Los Angeles.
Her family contacted the Gronowskis after the war. Simon wrote to her older brother Zoltan, who has since passed away, and told him that his mother and sister had died at Auschwitz. But Zoltan never told his family that Simon and his father had lived.
Zoltan may have been too upset talk about what happened to the Gronowskis. Simon's sister was his girlfriend.
His father couldn't talk about it, either, Gronowski said. For a long time, he hoped his wife and his daughter would somehow return to him.
"But when we received information of the concentration camps, the gas chamber, the mountains of corpses, my father understood that his wife and his daughter would not come back," Gronowski said.
His father, he said, died of a broken heart.
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