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Childhood Holocaust survivors reunited after 76 years

AP  |  Los Angeles 

When 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

Gerstel and her Jewish family had hidden in the Gronowskis' home for nearly two weeks before her father sent word from that he had reached a deal with a smuggler who would get her, her siblings and their mother safely out of Nazi-occupied

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

"I thought the entire family was murdered. I had no idea," Gerstel (now Gerstel Weit) said on Wednesday, the day after their tearful reunion. She and her friend clutched hands at the 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 on 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 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 that reads like a scene from the film ""

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

"I didn't recognise him at all. I don't see Little Simon," said on 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 is here," she added, her voice breaking as she put her hand over Gronowski's heart.

There was much hugging, kissing and crying on 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 in 1940 and began rounding up Jews.

Gerstel Weit's father, a 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 and to the French-controlled Moroccan city of There they boarded a ship bound for

Gronowski's father believed naively he and his family would be safe hiding in

"My father was not very conscious to tension. My father was not political. He was a 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 of the 20th century, of that civilization, he cannot believe that 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

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 He is a practicing in

Gerstel Weit's family immigrated to the United States, where she married, had two sons and eventually settled in and a career in

Immediately after the war, her family tried to locate the Gerstels. Gronowski eventually wrote back to her late older brother Zoltan, telling him his sister and mother had died at and his father had since passed away. For some reason, 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 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, 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?" asked.

"Of a broken heart," he replied.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Fri, April 13 2018. 13:15 IST
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