Friends sep­a­rated by the Holo­caust re­u­nite in Cal­i­for­nia

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FEATURES - By John Rogers

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. I had no idea,” Ger­s­tel (now Ger­s­tel Weit) said Wed­nes­day, the day af­ter their tear­ful re­union. She and her friend clutched hands at the Los An­ge­les Mu­seum of the Holo­caust as they re­counted their story.

“You didn’t know that I jumped off the train?” asked Gronowski, now 86.

“No, no. I didn’t know any­thing,” his 89-year-old friend replied.

The two will re­turn to the mu­seum Sun­day to re­count to vis­i­tors how the Holo­caust ripped apart a pair of fam­i­lies that had be­come fast friends af­ter a chance meet­ing at a Bel­gian beach re­sort in 1939. How it led an 11-year-old boy to make one of the most dar­ing es­capes of the war. How it put the other fam­ily on a per­ilous jour­ney through oc­cu­pied France that reads like a scene from the film “Casablanca.”

And, fi­nally, how those sep­a­rate jour­neys cul­mi­nated three-quar­ters of a cen­tury later in a joy­ful, tear-streaked re­union in Los An­ge­les just be­fore Yom HaShoah or Holo­caust Com­mem­o­ra­tion Day.

“I didn’t rec­og­nize him at all. I don’t see Lit­tle Si­mon,” Ger­s­tel Weit said Wed­nes­day of her pre­vi­ous day’s re­union with the now-bald, white-bearded man who sat next to her chuck­ling.

“But he’s here. Lit­tle Si­mon is here,” she added, her voice break­ing as she put her hand over Gronowski’s heart.

There was much hug­ging, kiss­ing and cry­ing Wed­nes­day as the two old friends held hands tightly while sit­ting out­side on a mu­seum pa­tio to share mem­o­ries from a long-ago past.

It was a past that be­gan idyl­li­cally be­fore turn­ing night­mar­ish 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 in 1941. He turned his di­a­monds into cash, bought nine visas that got his fam­ily and brother’s fam­ily through Nazi-oc­cu­pied France and to the French-con­trolled Moroc­can city of Casablanca. There they boarded a ship bound for Cuba.

Gronowski’s fa­ther be­lieved naively he and his fam­ily would be safe hid­ing in Brus­sels.

“My fa­ther was not very con­scious to ten­sion. My fa­ther was not po­lit­i­cal. He was a poet. He wrote in six lan­guages,” Gronowski said, paus­ing to wipe away tears.

“And like so many of the fam­i­lies he re­mem­ber in Brus­sels,” he con­tin­ued in Dutch-ac­cented English, “he can­not be­lieve that in Europe of the 20th cen­tury, of that civ­i­liza­tion, he can­not be­lieve that Ger­many can fall into bar­barism.”

When the Nazis ar­rived, Gronowski’s fa­ther was in a hos­pi­tal. His wife quickly lied, telling them he was dead and spar­ing him from Auschwitz.

It was on a train to that death camp a few weeks later that she saved her son, push­ing him to­ward the door of the box­car they were in and telling him to jump.

Af­ter the war he re­united with his fa­ther and even­tu­ally moved back to the apart­ment where he grew up. He rented out the other units and used the money to pay for law school. He is a prac­tic­ing at­tor­ney in Brus­sels.

Ger­s­tel Weit’s fam­ily im­mi­grated to the United States, where she mar­ried, had two sons and even­tu­ally set­tled in Los An­ge­les and a ca­reer in real estate.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the war, her fam­ily tried to lo­cate their friends. Gronowski even­tu­ally wrote back to Ger­s­tel Weit’s late older brother Zoltan, telling him his sis­ter and mother had died at Auschwitz and his fa­ther had since passed away. For some rea­son, Zoltan never told his fam­ily “Lit­tle Si­mon” sur­vived.

She learned he was alive six months ago when her nephew searched her maiden name on­line look­ing for more fam­ily his­tory. He came across Gronowski’s 2002 mem­oir, “The Child of the 20th Train,” in which her fam­ily is men­tioned promi­nently.

Gronowski says he be­lieves Ger­s­tel Weit’s brother was too dis­traught to say much about his fam­ily. His 18-year-old sis­ter, Ita, had been Zoltan Ger­s­tel’s girl­friend in Bel­gium, and he had pro­fessed his love for her re­peat­edly in war­time let­ters, in­clud­ing some she never lived to see.

Gronowski’s own fa­ther could never come to grips with the Holo­caust ei­ther, he said. For a time, Leon Gronowski held out hope his wife and daugh­ter some­how sur­vived and he would find them.

“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. And he died of ...,” he said, his voice trail­ing off.

“Of a bro­ken heart?” Ger­s­tel Weit asked.

“Of a bro­ken heart,” he replied.


In this Wed­nes­day photo, child­hood Holo­caust sur­vivors Si­mon Gronowski and Al­ice Ger­s­tel Weit stand at the Los An­ge­les Holo­caust Mu­seum memo­rial. Af­ter the Nazis in­vaded Bel­gium, they hid to­gether in the Gronowski fam­ily’s home be­fore the Ger­s­tel...

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