By Ben Tinsley
Seventy-five years ago, 11-year-old Simon Gronowski jumped off a Nazi deportation train heading from Belgium to the deadly gas chambers of Auschwitz.
“I jumped and I escaped and I ran all night into the woods,” said Gronowski, now 86.
The 11-year-old barely escaped the Nazis with his life on that day, April 19, 1943. His mother and sister, unfortunately, later died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Last week, on the 75th anniversary of his escape, Gronowski shared his incredible story of survival with several reporters and an audience of about 50 at the Dallas Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance. Later in the day, he gave a second, museum-sponsored, presentation at Congregation Shearith Israel.
Gronowski, his mother, Chana and his sister, Ita, were apprehended by the Gestapo at their Brussels home in February 1943. Gronowski’s father, Leon, was in the hospital when the Gestapo raid took place, and his presence went undetected. Gronowski’s mother told the Gestapo she was a widow.
Over 1,600 Jews were being transported to Auschwitz on the train on which Gronowski and his mother were placed. (Gronowski’s sister was on a separate transport.)
Gronowski said he still remembers hearing the members of the Belgian Resistance stop the train in an attempt to rescue the Jews on board.
There was a brief shootout before the train started moving again, he said.
The members of the Resistance were unable to reach Gronowski’s boxcar to free the people inside before the train started moving again.
However, heartened by the efforts of the Resistance, the deportees in Gronowski’s boxcar pried open the boxcar door so they could escape. Gronowski’s mother, also heartened, gave her young son 100 francs and urged him to jump from the train and run to safety.
Chris Kelley, a representative of the museum, said Gronowski’s mother was trying to convince him to escape by himself because she had very little chance of joining him.
“It was too far of a jump and it was far more important to her that her son be saved,” Kelley said. “There were 231 Jews who jumped from that train and he is one of the last survivors of the group.”
Kelley said this entire incident stands as one of the best examples of the Jewish people standing up during the Holocaust. It also is said to be the most significant rescue action taken by resistance fighters during World War II.
Only 5 percent of 25,602 deportees from the camp survived the Holocaust. Of the 116 deportees who were freed, Gronowski was the youngest.
“This was an 11-year-old kid who had to go into hiding for the rest of the war — but he survived,” Kelley said. “This is history that comes alive. This is history that moves us forward.”
After Gronowski’s escape from the Nazis, a Belgian police officer helped him return to Brussels.
The child survived the war by hiding.
Despite Gronowski’s tragedies, his story and positive outlook on life visibly moved Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO of the museum. and members of an audience of 50 listening to his story last week.
“I do not bring to you a message of sadness — but one of hope and happiness,” Gronowski said to the museum audience. “Life is beautiful. Every day matters and I am happy — even more so because I met you.”
Gronowski told the audience he refuses to become jaded.
“Even today, there are people in the world who suffer,” he said. “I am keeping my faith in the future, because I believe in human goodness.”
His comments led to a standing ovation from the museum audience.
After the war, Gronowski became a lawyer and an amateur jazz musician, and was featured in Transport XX to Auschwitz, the only documented rescue attempt of a Nazi death camp during the Holocaust.
He co-wrote a French children’s book about his life experiences, titled Simon The Child of the 20th Convoy. He is also a regular public speaker.
His story is considered to be of great importance at a time that public memory of the Holocaust seems to be fading.
This month, a national survey released for Holocaust Remembrance Day disclosed that many Americans, particularly millennials, do not have basic knowledge of what happened during World War II.
As many as 66 percent of Americans ages 18-34 could not identify Auschwitz when asked. Furthermore, 31 percent of adults and 41 percent of millennials who were questioned thought 2 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, even though the actual number was at least 6 million.
Gronowski, meanwhile, said he has tried his best to live up to his words of hope.
There was one incident that took place in 2003, after Gronowski made public his identity as the 11-year-old who escaped the Nazis.
One of the former Nazi guards at the facility where Gronowski and his mother had been held before being placed on the Auschwitz train approached him begging for forgiveness.
“He heard about him (Gronowski) in the news,” Gronowski’s grandson, Romain De Nys, 24, explained
Gronowski forgave him.