Escape from Auschwitz, aged just 11

Summary

Seventy-five years on, Simon Gronowski from Brussels recounts how as a schoolboy he escaped a train bound for the Nazi concentration camp and almost-certain death

20th convoy

Last month, Queen Mathilde visited Dossin Barracks, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Mechelen. It stands on the site of a transit station that was used to ship Jews and other deportees from Nazi-occupied areas in Belgium and northern France to the death camps – in particular Auschwitz. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 25,000 Jews and Roma were deported from here. Only 1,240 of them survived the war.

Among those meeting the Queen was Simon Gronowski, who at the age of only 11 had been part of the first transport to use the infamous cattle cars. Previous deportations had been organised aboard trains made up of ordinary third-class railway carriages, but the Nazis had decided more people could be carried packed into cattle cars.

“The Nazis attacked on 10 May 1940 and began taking measures against the Jews. The deportations started in August 1942,” Gronowski, 86, told Flanders Today from his home in Brussels. “My family – father, mother, sister and I – left our home in Etterbeek to hide out in Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe. We were denounced on 17 March 1943 and arrested by the Gestapo. My father was in hospital and escaped being arrested. My mother, sister and I were taken to the Gestapo cellar on Louizalaan, and the following day to the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen.”

What happened next is one of the most audacious events of the Second World War. Seventy-five years ago this month, on the night of 19 April 1943, a train known as the 20th convoy left Dossin Barracks carrying 1,631 Jewish men, women and children to Auschwitz. One wagon carried former escapees marked with a red cross on their clothing, indicating they were to be executed immediately upon arrival. The young Simon was one of the passengers.

Daring rescue

“After a month in the barracks, I was taken in a cattle car with my mother and about 50 other people on Convoy 20,” he says. “Shortly after departure, the train stopped and I heard shots and raised voices in German."

After the war, Gronowski would learn that the train had been attacked by three young members of the Resistance at Boortmeerbeek. They had placed a kerosene lantern covered in red paper on the rails to trick the train driver into stopping.

"They opened one of the wagons - not mine - and freed 17 people," Gronowski continues. "Then the train set off again, and I fell asleep on the floor in my mother's arms.”

I ran all though the night in the woods. I got help from some brave people who were risking their own lives to save me

- Simon Gronowski

The daring rescue was carried out by three men, Dr Youra Livchitz, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, armed only with a fake emergency lantern, some wire-cutters and an old pistol. By themselves, they were able to hold up the train long enough to allow 17 deportees to escape in the area of Boortmeerbeek, a town in Flemish Brabant. The train then continued and the driver is reported to have slowed down and even stopped between Tienen and Tongeren. Aboard the train, the escape had emboldened others to open their own carriages.

“The men in our car managed to open the doors,” Gronowski recalls. “My mother woke me up and took me to the door, lowered me down on to the running board and, when the train slowed down, I jumped.” In all, 233 people escaped; 26 were killed and 89 recaptured. Of those bound for almost-certain death, 118 survived until the end of the war. 

“I ran all though the night in the woods,” Gronowski says. “We were in Limburg, in the area of Berlingen close to Borgloon. I got help from some brave people who were risking their own lives to save me. For the next 17 months, up to the liberation of Brussels in September 1944, I was taken in by Catholic families who kept me hidden and saved my life. I was never captured. My mother and sister both died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. My father died in July 1945 in Etterbeek, despairing to the last, and I was alone.”

‘I feel safe here’

As Gronowski was meeting the Queen last month, the authorities in Paris were investigating the killing of another Holocaust survivor: Mireille Knoll, who was believed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime. Does Gronowski feel it is possible for Holocaust survivors to ever feel safe, given the stirring up of racism and xenophobia by new populist politicians of all stripes?

“I have no idea why Mireille Knoll was murdered,” he says, “but if it’s because she was Jewish, that would be abominable. As you know, I am a lawyer, and I am not satisfied with presumptions. It’s the job of the justice system to figure out if this attack was anti-Semitic.

“You ask if Holocaust survivors can ever feel safe again. I am Belgian, Belgium is my homeland, and just like you, just like everyone else, I feel perfectly safe here.”

Photo: Simon Gronowski and Queen Mathilde at the Dossin Barracks memorial museum on 27 March
© Belga/Benoit Doppagne