In the autumn of 1928 George Gershwin began writing Embraceable You, a popular jazz song that would become part of the Broadway musical Girl Crazy, starring Ginger Rogers and choreography by Fred Astaire. I love that song, specially the version performed by the American pianist Herbie Hancock, and this is what I tell Simon Gronowski when we are seated in his office on Rue Tenbosch, in Ixelles.
Gronowski is an affable man who peers at you with eyes of eternal peace and forbearance, the life of someone who has overcome tragedy and turned it into forgiveness. His eyelids seem to be heavy with longing. At 87 he likes to sit at his piano and play jazz pieces by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman, all of them by ear. He has never learned how to read music.
“I got the love of music from my sister,” he says. “She was such a great piano player.”
Embraceable You was published in 1930, a year before Gronowski was born in Uccle, Belgium, on the 12th of October 1931. Eleven years and five months later, on the 17th of March, 1943, the Gestapo would raid the garret in Woluwe Saint Lambert where he, his sister, and their mother had gone into hiding.
“We never knew who had denounced us,” he says. “I still remember that morning very clearly. My sister was preparing me a toast – ma tartine – and the coffee was still brewing when two officers banged on the door and broke into the house. ‘Show us your papers,’ they commanded. In a few minutes we were on our way to a basement on Avenue Louise.”
On that day, Gronowski’s father was coughing in a hospital bed because of the fibrosis he had in his lungs. Leon Gronowski was born in Poland and had emigrated west, passing through Cologne and Achen, and eventually settling down in Belgium. At the time, there was no work in Brussels so he had to crawl into a coal mine in Wallonie, where he developed the silicosis that stayed with him until his death in 1945. “When my father was 20, he came to Belgium illegally, he had no papers. He walked into the country by night. That’s why I have sympathy for the people who come to Belgium in similar conditions these days. I understand exactly what it’s like to be without a home.”
After WWI, Leon Gronowski traveled to Lithuania where, during the war, he had met a young woman, Chana, with whom he fell in love. They were married in Liege in 1923, and the same year, their first child, Ita, was born.
“My sister was a brilliant student at the lycée in Ixelles. Top of her class in Latin and Greek. And she loved jazz. That’s where my love for music came from,” he says, and smiles mournfully. “I play jazz thanks to my sister. It’s a tribute to her.”
After one sleepless night in the basement of the Gestapo Brussels’ headquarters on Avenue Louise, they were driven on a bus to the Caserne Dossin in Mechelen, which was used as a temporary detention camp. Roma and gypsy people were also imprisoned, so-called communists and political prisoners, resistance fighters and homosexuals. “Jewish people don’t have a monopoly on the suffering that occurred during WWII. Many people were inflicted unforgettable pain. The grief is not owned by Jewish people alone.”
On the 19th of April, 1943, Simon and his mother are given the order to get on a train, a convoy which, as they are told, is going to bring them to factories in the East. ‘You are going there to work,’ is what they are told.
“That day I said goodbye to my sister,” Simon recounts. “My mother and I and several other people were forced by soldiers to board a train. It was a wagon meant for animals. Only a little hay on the floor and a tiny opening for air, that was it. Still, we kept believing we were going somewhere to work.”
By 1943, Ita Gronowski had become a Belgian citizen. When she’d turned 16, she was offered the choice whether she wanted to receive the Belgian nationality, and she embraced it. Simon, on the other hand, at 11, was still considered a foreigner. “That’s why the Gestapo only sent me and my mother. My sister stayed back a little longer,” Simon says. “At that point in time they were only deporting the non-Belgians.”
Later on, however, on the 19th of September, 1943, Ita Gronowski, would be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where she died in the gas chamber. She was nineteen years old.
On the 19th of April, 1943, Simon and his mother had to wait in the wagon until nightfall. “The Nazis preferred to have those trains ride at night, to minimize the risk of locals seeing that hundreds of people were being deported East.” This was the convoy number 20. Between 4 August 1942 and 31 July 1944, 28 convoys left from the Caserne Dossin and deported over 25,000 people.
On the way between Mechelen and Leuven, the train stopped briefly in Boortmeerbeek. The cause: Three resistance fighters had managed to make the train stop. They made a red light, a sign for danger ahead, and the train conductor had to brake. That was the first and only time that a train carrying deportees was stopped during WWII.
During that incident, the three resistance fighters (Robert Maistriau, Youra Livschitz, Jean Franklemon) managed to open a wagon and liberate a handful of people before German soldiers began to shoot at them, and soon regained control of the situation. The train continued riding East.
“I fell asleep on my mother’s lap,” recounts Gronowski. “Some time later noises woke me up and I noticed that some people, encouraged by the earlier incident, had managed to open the door of our wagon.”
He recalls the moment when his mother held his hand and walked him to the door, helped him sit on the edge. He was too small to reach the foot-rail beneath the door so his mother held him by the shoulders. Outside, the Flemish landscape seemed blurred, trees and bushes appearing for a moment, then disappearing forever. The wind felt strong in Simon’s face.
“We stayed like that for an instant, unable to move, and then my mother whispered in my ear, ‘The train is going too fast.’ She said that in Yiddish.” Simon swallows, then looks at his hands. “I don’t know if it was a miracle or if the conductor had noticed what was going on, but at that particular moment the train slowed down. And I jumped.”
The escape, Gronowski later found out, happened between Sint Truid and Tongeren, in Limburg. Under the Flemish night, he stood watching the train continue its ride eastward, hoping that his mother would jump. He waited, and waited, but his mother didn’t jump. Then the train stopped and he heard shots aimed at him. His first reaction was to run towards his mother. “In a situation like that you don’t think. It’s immediate. I rolled down a small slope and ran for the trees. And that was the last time I saw my mother.”
Silence fell between us for a long moment.
Several decades later he received the visits of a historian, a writer, an editor, a political prisoner, and they told him he ought to tell his story to the world. “Alone I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t write all of this without help. I had to be pushed to be able to put everything on paper, to give words to the unspeakable.”
Gronowski is thankful to the people who risked their lives to save him and other deportees. “There were many catholic families who hid Jews. They were risking being shot on the spot, like the policeman, Jan Aerts, who helped me on that night of April 1943. He could have turned me in but he didn’t.”
He spends a lot of time visiting schools, talking to children and teenagers. “There are some people who deny that all of this happened, that the gas chambers, the mass deportations didn’t happen. And I wish they were right, because I would have my family back.” He shakes his head a little and sighs. “These people are dangerous. They deny the crimes of yesterday to be able to commit the crimes of today.”
In his office I see piles of papers and journals lying on his desk. The walls are covered with images of lawyers and righteous people, all in wooden frames from a different era. At 23, Simon Gronowski became a doctor in law and to this day, he’s a practicing lawyer. He did his best to have a life. The horrible events that took place in 1943, he did not talk about any of that for nearly 60 years. “Whenever I thought about the past, I felt guilty. Why had I survived and not them? Why, I kept asking. And so I tried to bury all the painful memories.”
Writing the book has brought relief to his life in more than one way. In 2013, one of the Waffen SS soldiers who had worked at the Caserne Dossin during the war read Gronowski’s book and asked to see him. “He was old and felt death was coming to him. He wanted to have my forgiveness. I took him in my arms, and I forgave him. He died shortly after. That helped him I suppose, but it helped me even more. The ability to forgive. Yes, I was very sad and cried a lot for man years, but I never had hate inside me. I wanted to be happy, and so that’s why I chose to forgive.”
Before I leave his office he asks if I want to listen to him play some jazz tunes, anything. His enthusiasm is that of a child, contagious, and I tell him I’d be delighted. I watch him sit down in front of the piano, the afternoon sunlight pouring into the room, illuminating half of his face, his hands, and my mind keeps going back to the words he’s said halfway through our conversation and that I will never forget: “The number one hero of this story is my mother. On her final journey to death in Auschwitz-Birkenau she pushed me to life. That’s what mattered the most to her, to see her son live. That was my mother.”