National Army Museum

A Child in Time: Surviving Auschwitz

In 1943 a train was stopped by resisters as it travelled from Flanders to Auschwitz. Althea Williams tells the story of a survivor.

Kazerne Dossin, a former infantry barracks, during its use as a detention centre in 1942.
Kazerne Dossin, a former infantry barracks, during its use as a detention centre in 1942.

On the night of April 19th, 1943 a train pulled out of Mechelen, a small town in Belgium. It carried 1,631 men, women and children and was the 20th convoy to leave the infamous Kazerne Dossin assembly camp for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Up to that point, of the 18,000 people who had already made the journey only a handful had escaped.

This time three young men, Youra Livschitz, Robert Maistriau and Jean Frankelmon, students at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, lay in wait for the train. Ten miles down the line, they flagged down the convoy using a lamp covered with red silk to resemble a warning light. Armed with just two pairs of pliers and a single pistol, they cut through the barbed wire that secured the heavy bolts on the outside of each cattle car.  Two hundred and thirty-seven Jewish deportees took their chance, pushing themselves through tiny windows, or wrenching the doors aside, falling or leaping into the dark. The Germans fired upon the fleeing shadows and at the easier targets of those who waited for their loved ones to follow.

In one of the carriages were Channa Gronowski and her 11-year-old son, Simon. As the train accelerated again, escape seemed impossible. But the mood in the carriage had changed and men broke open the lock on the door. Channa lowered Simon by his shoulders onto the footrail. He remembers his mother hesitating, saying: ‘No, the train’s going too fast!’ But Simon had jumped, rolling down the embankment. He leapt to his feet unhurt and waited for his mother to follow. The train halted and shots rang out. Three people fell. After 20 minutes of shooting and searching, the train departed and with it Simon’s mother.

Simon ran all night, through woods and over fields. He intended to reach Brussels and find his father, Leon, absent when the Germans had raided their home. He knew he risked capture but he needed help so he knocked on a door. His clothes torn and covered in mud, he said he had been playing with friends and had got lost. He was taken to the local police officer; Simon was sure he would be arrested. Jan Aerts had indeed guessed Simon came from the train but he had no intention of betraying him. He took him home and his wife fed him and washed and mended his clothes. The policeman helped Simon catch a train back to Brussels and he was finally reunited with his father, although they spent the remaining years of the war hidden in separate locations. Channa Gronowski was sent to the gas chambers on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Simon’s sister Ita, 18, was sent on a later convoy and was also killed at Auschwitz.

At the Liberation, Leon Gronowski wrote: ‘People flood the streets, wild with joy; crying, laughing, singing, embracing each other. But I am miserable ... My loved ones are still in the camps ... I wander through the streets aimlessly; my heart is bleeding’. Ignorant of his wife and daughter’s fate he died of pulmonary disease in June 1945.

A total of 25,833 Jews and over 352 Roma were deported from Kazerne Dossin. Of the 233 people who attempted escape from the 20th convoy, 26 were shot that night. One hundred and eighteen got away of whom 89 were recaptured, 79 of these were deported on later convoys and 153 survived Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As for the three who stopped the train, Youra Livschitz was captured and executed in February 1944 and Jean Frankelmon was arrested soon after and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was liberated in May 1945. He died in 1977. Robert Maistriau was arrested in March 1944. He was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945 and lived until 2008. 

Today Simon Gronowski lives in Brussels and practises as a lawyer. He has two children and four grand-children. For over 50 years he hardly talked about his past but, following a chance meeting between his daughter and Robert Maistriau’s son, he was persuaded to overcome his reluctance to speak publicly about his experience. He has now written a book and speaks regularly in schools.

In the context of the Belgian occupation, when the number of active resisters is thought to have amounted to only about six per cent of the population and helping escapees was punishable, Jan Aerts and his wife were unusual people. Simon Gronowski was fortunate to have encountered them.

Gronowski’s story and those of many others are related in the new Kazerne Dossin Museum and Documentation Centre of the Holocaust and Human Rights, one of the most ambitious in Europe. The Kazerne Dossin replaces a smaller museum about deportation and the Resistance; the Flemish government agreed to finance the 25 million euros necessary to renovate the previous museum on the condition that its scope and aims were completely revised. It cited the dwindling number of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and its wish to show that Flanders not only recognises its part in the Nazi period but intends to contribute to the study of the mechanisms of exclusion, intolerance and racism in today’s society. The new museum owes its growing reputation to its efforts to render the Holocaust relevant to a younger public, drawing attention to the underlying conditions that can lead to human rights’ violations.

Althea Williams helped research a report on Simon Gronowski for the BBC World Service’s Witness series last April. 

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