The 20th train
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