Friends reunite 76 years after Holocaust tore families apart
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,
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