The 20th train

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Si­mon Gronowski re­counts his nar­row es­cape from the Holo­caust

Si­mon Gronowski said he of­ten thinks about the mo­ment in April 1943 when he was eleven years old and jumped from a train car­ry­ing more than 1,600 Jews to the con­cen­tra­tion camp at Auschwitz. Gronowski and his mother, Chana, who had been ar­rested by the Gestapo at their hid­ing place in Brus­sels, were be­ing sent from a tran­sit camp at Meche­len in Flan­ders to al­most cer­tain death in the gas cham­bers. Many pris­on­ers were still doz­ing that night when the death train was am­bushed by three re­sis­tance fighters, al­low­ing 233 to es­cape, in­clud­ing Gronowski. He was among the 118 pas­sen­gers on the in­fa­mous 20th train who got away safely. Oth­ers were shot by the Ger­mans.

Gronowski will be telling his harrowing story on Tues­day, Dec. 6, at Tem­ple Beth Shalom and later in the week at three other venues. “I think al­ways about my ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the WWII and the twen­ti­eth train,” he said in an email. “It’s not pos­si­ble to for­get it, but I feel happy.” Gronowski pub­lished his rec­ol­lec­tions in a 2002 book in French, L’en­fant du 20e Con­voi; an il­lus­trated chil­dren’s edi­tion was pub­lished in 2005. In Oc­to­ber, PUSH, an opera by Howard Moody about Gronowski’s ex­pe­ri­ence, pre­miered at the Bat­tle Fes­ti­val in Eng­land. Gronowski con­tin­ues to speak about his wartime ex­pe­ri­ences to au­di­ences in Europe. De­scrib­ing him­self as a “vic­tim of the Nazi bar­bar­ity,” he said he presents “es­pe­cially to the young peo­ple, stu­dents ... a mes­sage of democ­racy, tol­er­ance, op­ti­mism, for a bet­ter world ... and for­give­ness.” In a 2013 interview with the BBC, he said he tells stu­dents, “I speak about what hap­pened to me so you will pro­tect free­dom in your coun­try.”

Richard Atkins, a pi­anist, play­wright, actor, and artis­tic direc­tor of the East Moun­tain Cen­tre for Theatre in San­dia Park, “stum­bled upon” Gronowski’s story on the in­ter­net when he was re­search­ing his own Holo­caust play — DeliKateSSen — which pre­miered at the Adobe The­ater in Al­bu­querque in April 2015. “It was so in­trigu­ing,” he re­called of learn­ing about Gronowski’s es­cape. “It screamed a Steven Spiel­berg movie.” At one time, Atkins thought about adapt­ing Gronowski’s book for a play, but he scrapped the idea af­ter see­ing how ex­pen­sive it would be to trans­late from French into English. They’ve com­mu­ni­cated via email for eight years, and re­cently Atkins in­vited Gronowski to visit New Mex­ico. He be­lieves ev­ery­one, but es­pe­cially young peo­ple, will be fas­ci­nated with Gronowski’s story and his mes­sage of hope. “There are so many sto­ries peo­ple don’t know about and sur­vivors don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to talk about,” Atkins said. “And here is some­one who is still vi­brant, wants to tell his story, and has a good out­look on life . ... It seems re­fresh­ing,” he added, “af­ter what we’ve been through,” re­fer­ring to the re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Pri­vate donors are un­der­writ­ing the cost of Gronowski’s visit, and a com­mem­o­ra­tive sil­ver coin hon­or­ing the event will be on sale at the ap­pear­ances for $12. In ad­di­tion to telling his story, Gronowski, a jazz mu­si­cian, will play some pi­ano duets with Atkins and an­swer ques­tions from the au­di­ence. Although Gronowski speaks some English, Atkins said he has en­gaged trans­la­tors to help out at all four New Mex­ico ap­pear­ances.

This will be Gronowski’s third visit to the U.S. In 2014, he was in­vited to play with film­maker and mu­si­cian Woody Allen and his band at the Car­lyle Ho­tel in New York City. “It was one of the most beau­ti­ful days of my life,” he said.

The day that still haunts him is April 19, 1943. Train 801, a steam lo­co­mo­tive pulling 30 trucks, left the Dossin bar­racks at 10 p.m. with 1,631 Jews — rang­ing in age from less than six weeks old to ninety — bound for Auschwitz. Gronowski awoke in his mother’s arms and saw men pry­ing open the car­riage. She went to stand with him at the

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