Childhood Holocaust survivors reunited after 76 years
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.
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.
Gronowski’s own father could never come to grips with the Holocaust, 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.