Friends re­unite 76 years after Holo­caust tore fam­i­lies apart

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LOS AN­GE­LES: When Alice Ger­s­tel bid an emo­tional farewell to her fam­ily’s clos­est friends in Oc­to­ber 1941, she was hope­ful she’d 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,” Ger­s­tel (now Ger­s­tel Weit), 89, said on Wed­nes­day, the day after their tear­ful re­u­nion at the Los An­ge­les Mu­seum of the Holo­caust.

“You didn’t know that I jumped off the train?” asked Gronowski, now 86. “No, no. I didn’t know any­thing,” his friend replied.

The two were to re­turn to the mu­seum to­day to re­count to vis­i­tors how the Holo­caust ripped apart a pair of fam­i­lies that had be­come fast friends at a Bel­gian beach re­sort in 1939. Also, how it led an 11-yearold boy to make one of the most dar­ing es­capes of the war and how it put the other fam­ily on a per­ilous jour­ney through oc­cu­pied France.

Also, fi­nally, how those separate jour­neys cul­mi­nated three-quar­ters of a cen­tury later in a re­u­nion, just be­fore Yom Hashoah or Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion Day.

The night­mare for these friends be­gan 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 to the US in 1941, while Gronowski’s fa­ther be­lieved naively he and his fam­ily would be safe hid­ing in Brus­sels.

When the Nazis ar­rived, Gronowski’s fa­ther was in hos­pi­tal. His wife lied, telling them he was dead and spar­ing him Auschwitz. She saved her son on a train to that death camp a few weeks later, push­ing him to­wards the door of the box­car they were in and telling him to jump. After the war, he re­united with his fa­ther in Brus­sels, where he is a prac­tis­ing at­tor­ney.

Ger­s­tel Weit had two sons and set­tled in Los An­ge­les and a ca­reer in real es­tate. She learned her friend was alive six months ago, when her nephew, re­search­ing her maiden name on­line, found Gronowski’s 2002 mem­oir, Child of the 20th Train.

He said when his fa­ther “un­der­stood his wife and his daugh­ter wouldn’t come back... he died of...”

“Of a bro­ken heart?” Ger­s­tel Weit asked.

“Of a bro­ken heart,” he replied. – Ap/african News Agency/ana

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