Conditions inside the train were truly awful. “We were packed like a herd of cattle,” he would later recall. “We had only one bucket for 50 people.
“There was no food, no drink. There were no seats so we either sat or lay down on the floor. I was in the rear right corner of the car, with my mother. It was very dark. There was a pale gleam coming from a vent in the roof but it was stifling and there was no water to be had.”
Men in the train wagon holding Simon drew strength from the attack on the train and a short time later made their own bid for freedom. They succeeded in breaking open the door and began jumping out into the cold air. Simon and his mother joined the scramble to flee.
“My mother held me by my shirt and my shoulders. But at first, I did not dare to jump because the train was going too fast for me,” he remembered.
“I saw the trees go by and the train was getting faster. The air was crisp and cool and the noise was deafening. I remember feeling surprised that it could go so fast with 35 cars being towed. But then at a certain moment, I felt the train slow down. I told my mother: ‘Now I can jump.’ She let me go and I jumped off. First I stood there frozen, I could see the train moving slowly forward - it was this large black mass in the dark, spewing steam.”
An opera has been inspired by the true story of Simon Gronowski, who was pushed off the train from Mechelen to Auschwitz by his mother in Boortmeerbeek (Belgium - 1943)
Photo: Didier Lebrun © Photo News via Getty Images
With German soldiers in hot pursuit, Simon had to make a difficult decision. “I wanted to go back to my mother but the Germans were coming down the track towards me. I didn’t decide what to do, it was a reflex. I tumbled down a small slope and just started running for the trees.”
Simon walked and ran all night. “I was used to the woods because I’d been in the cub scouts. I hummed ‘In the Mood’ to calm myself, which was a song my sister used to play on the piano,” he says.
Simon wanted to get to Brussels and his father, Leon, but he knew he had no chance alone. He asked for help in a small village, claiming to have been separated from friends and lost, only to be turned over to the police.
Simon was understandably terrified. “The sight of this man in his uniform with his gun in his belt, terrorised me. I was sure he would bring me back to the Germans. He asked me what had happened and I kept telling him that I had got lost and I was playing with children and that now, I had to go to Brussels.”
The policeman, Jan Aerts, had guessed Simon came from the Auschwitz convoy, but instead of arresting him he hid, fed and clothed him. Aerts then arranged for Simon to catch a train back to Brussels where he was reunited with his father.
Unfortunately, there was no good ending for his mother and sister as they were both sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and died.