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The Holocaust survivor lifts the neighbors in the dark

BRUSSELS – Simon Gronowski has performed many acts of courage and generosity in his 89 years of life, and opening a window in April would not normally count among them, but it was not an ordinary April.

This was the culmination of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Belgium as hard as any place in the world. But as a Holocaust survivor, Mr Gronowski has faced death more intimately before.

The petty lawyer called for his courage, moved his electric piano under the window sill, and opened the window, letting in the spring sun with the thick, cautious silence of a city terrified by the virus. And he started listening to a jazz tune.

“I was scared,” he said. “It’s not normal to just open the window and play.”

But soon his neighbors popped their heads out the windows, some even putting on masks and approaching his house to hear better.

One of them took a black-and-white photo of him playing, printed it out, and put it in his mailbox later, simply writing “Merci.”

He began playing regularly, filling the leafy streets with jazz notes and bringing relief to his besieged neighbors during the lock, which continued in late May.

Amy Edwards Anderson, an English teacher from the United States who has lived in Brussels for 22 years, first heard Mr Gronowski play while sitting in his backyard with her husband and three children. She was surprised, she said, because it quickly became clear that this was not someone who practiced the piano. This was someone posing as the block.

The short concerts at the window erupted in the family’s closed family and lifted them up.

“There was someone here who was amplifying music to share with the neighbors, for no other reason than to make people feel good during a difficult time,” she said. “A kind of unsolicited gift for the neighborhood.”

Mr. Gronowski wanted to make people happy for his impromptu concerts, but playing for others was also inherent in him throughout his life.

“Music is a means of communication, of communication,” he said recently this afternoon in his home office, surrounded by piles of documents.

Mr. Gronowski learned how to play the piano as a teenager, because he also sought to communicate, to connect, above all, with his older sister Ita, who died in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 19.

“I adored her,” he said. “She was a brilliant pianist.”

Mr Gronowski’s first act of courage took place long before April, when Europe was gripped by a very different kind of disaster.

On April 19, 1943, at the age of 11, Mr. Gronowski jumped out of a fast train.

He and his mother were packed with dozens of others in a cattle van on the deadly route from Mechelen, a town where Belgian Jews were gathered, to Auschwitz.

Of all the doomed trains, Mr. Gronowski’s are particularly in the history of the Holocaust. Known as Convoy 20, it was disrupted by three resistance fighters shortly after leaving Mechelen. In the turmoil, dozens were given a chance to escape to the agricultural lands of Flanders.

Shortly after the train began to accelerate again, Mr. Gronowski’s mother, perhaps encouraged by the accident and the glimmer of hope, urged him to jump.

“I jumped because I was listening to my mother’s orders,” Mr Gronowski said. He jumped for his life. His mother did not follow him.

“If I had known he wasn’t going to jump, I would have stayed on the train,” he said, resting his cheek in his palm as if his head were suddenly too heavy.

For the next 17 months, the boy was hidden in the attics of some Catholic families. After the liberation of Brussels in September 1944, he reunited with his ailing father, who had been in and out of the hospital for years, and eventually succumbed – with a broken heart, Mr Gronowski said – leaving the boy an orphan. next year.

Mr Gronowski draws on memories of prolonged imprisonment, fear and despair from the 1940s in a newspaper column, which he wrote as an encouragement to fellow Belgians in late March as they struggled to find a conclusion.

“Currently reduced to forced idleness, conducive to reflection, my thinking wanders and joins the limitations I endured 75 years ago, from 1942 to 1944, when I was 10-12 years old,” he wrote.

“Today we can stay with our family or help them, keep in touch, go shopping, stock up, read newspapers, watch TV, but then we lived in horror, we missed everything, we were cold, hungry and families we were separated, displaced, “he added.

The audacity shown today is already burning in the boy who had lost everything by the end of World War II.

After spending three years in foster care, he moved alone to an empty family home and took in tenants to raise money for his life and education.

By the time Mr. Gronowski was 23, he had a doctorate. in the right. He became a lawyer, married Marie-Claire Huybrex, and had two daughters, Katya and Isabel. And for six decades he didn’t say much about his dead parents, his beloved sister Ita, or the other day he jumped off a moving train on his way to Auschwitz.

“It wasn’t a secret, but I wasn’t talking about it,” he said, his optimistic mood darkening for a moment. “Why? Because I felt guilty. Why are they dead and I’m alive?”

All that changed in 2002, when, pressured by friends who knew his story, he decided to take on the past.

“I needed to testify and write my story, so I wrote my first book,” another act of courage that gave Mr. Gronowski an unexpected new life of media appearances and a higher profile for achieving progressive goals.

After “The Child of the XX Convoy” („The Child of the 20th Convoy ”) was published and Mr. Gronowski’s story became more widely known in Belgium and beyond, and he began lecturing, especially in schools.

“It was very painful to mix everything up again,” he said. “But now I feel I am bringing something positive to young people and that makes me happy, I am free.”

His newfound fame led him to a new act of courage and generosity.

A student who listened to him speak at a Belgian school in 2012 called him shortly afterwards with a stunning proposal.

A Belgian man named Cohenraad Tinel, an artist of similar age to Mr Gronowski, had written about the guilt of being born into a Nazi family. His brother was a guard at the Mechelen camp, where Mr Gronowski and his mother were detained before being accommodated in Convoy 20. Would Mr Gronowski meet with him?

The two men, both over 80 at the time, met in the modest offices of the Belgian Union of Progressive Jews.

“That’s how our friendship was born,” Mr Gronowski said. “And now Koenraad is more than a friend, he’s a brother.”

The two wrote a book, Finally Released, and lectured together.

When Tinnell’s older brother, Walter, the camp guard, was on his deathbed, he asked to meet with Mr. Gronowski and ask for forgiveness.

“I took him in my arms and forgave him,” he said. “This forgiveness was a relief to him, but it was an even greater relief to me.”

While Belgium is battling a second wave of coronavirus with a new lock, Mr Gronowski plays the piano with the windows closed this time (“It’s too cold now”) and plans future adventures. “I want to play with this band from New Orleans,” he said, full of boyish enthusiasm. “They’re called Tuba Skinny, they’re great!”

Most of his school lectures have been delayed because of the pandemic, but they will restart soon enough, he says, and that’s what he’s looking forward to the most.

“When I tell my story in school, I always end with a message of hope, I always tell them one important thing: I tell them that life is beautiful,” he said. “But it’s also a daily struggle.”

Monica Prontsuk contributed to the report.

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