“Auschwitz and forgiveness” – a letter by Simon Gronowski (lawyer) was published in French originally as “Auschwitz et le pardon” in Le Monde (France) on Sept. 20, 2013.
Below the English translation of Simon Gronowski’s letter by Michel van der Burg
Auschwitz and forgiveness
I lost my mother and sister in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – Birkenau and my father died in despair, in July 1945.
I myself was 11 years old when, on 17 March 1943, the Nazis took me, threw me into a dungeon, the basement of the Gestapo on the Avenue Louise in Brussels, then in a big prison, the Dossin barracks in Mechelen, the ‘Belgian Drancy‘. A month later, April 19, 1943, they put me in a cattle car of the 20th Convoy to Auschwitz. Miraculously, I jumped off the train and escaped death. And all this for what? Because my parents were born Jews.
It took me 60 years to tell the drama of my childhood (L’enfant du 20e convoi [tr. The child of the 20th convoy], ed. Luc Pire, 2002, reprinted Renaissance du Livre, 2013). It took sixty years for Koenraad Tinel to tell his own history of a son of a Flemish Nazi. He did this courageously by extraordinary drawings in a book titled Scheisseimer (Lannau, 2009); he is an artist, a sculptor, and he draws.
His father adored Hitler. He had his two elder sons in the Waffen SS, the oldest one to the eastern front, the other, at sixteen and a half years old too young to fight, in the Flämisch Wachzug (Flemish Guard), a subsidiary of the Gestapo, camp guards of Breendonk and Mechelen. Fortunately, Koenraad was only 6 years old when Hitler came into Belgium, otherwise he would have imitated his brothers. He has rejected completely the ideology of his father.
We met by chance in February 2012. A 16 year old boy I did not know but who knew our two stories, brought us together. Koen said at that time: “When I read your story, I cried.” I replied: “Children of the Nazis are not responsible.” A great friendship is born between us. We were two children crushed by a war we did not understand at all, one on each side of the fence, I at the side of the victims, he the side of the executioners.
For sixty years, he has carried the burden of his father’s fault. Our grief is not comparable but I understand his. He has freed himself of it first by his book Scheisseimer, then by our friendship.
We made a book on this: Neither victim, nor guilty, FINALLY LIBERATED (Ni victime, ni coupable, ENFIN LIBÉRÉS; Renaissance du Livre, 2013): I wrote, Koenraad drew with ink. In January, Koenraad told me: “My brother knows your history, he wants to see you“, this brother, guardian at the Dossin barracks (Kazerne Dossin) when I was detained there, took me at gunpoint into the wagon of death.
So he regretted what he had done and asked me to forgive.
When I saw him, we hugged each other without saying a word, in tears. I forgave him only on my own behalf, not on behalf of other victims and I forgave him alone, not all Nazis. I did it especially for me, feeling I transcended it.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. On the contrary, it gives the memory greater prominence, a larger dimension. Our memory is essential: we must know the barbarism of the past to defend democracy today. Democracy is a struggle every day.
Amnesty is unacceptable : it is a blind collective measure that absolves all culprits without requiring them to repent.
Forgiveness is a religious virtue. For Buddhists, it is an act of liberating wisdom.
The bigger the crime, the greater forgiveness.
Some say they would not be able to forgive: – this statement does not make sense because they have never been asked as I have been and it is unlikely they will ever be, but if it happened to them, what would they do ? – 70 years later, they still suffer from their wounds and their resentment when they should love life and believe in happiness, out of respect for the deceased relatives.
When the culprit repents and asks for forgiveness, the victim not only can but must forgive, for refusing means maintaining hatred from both sides. Some criticize my friendship for Koenraad and my forgiveness for his brother.
They want to keep the children and descendants of victims and perpetrators separated forever into two enemy camps.
They are often victims of Nazism. This is normal, they have suffered terrible trauma in their body and in their soul. But they freeze in their victim posture, locked in their bitterness.
Aren’t they thinking too much of their own pain, and not enough of that of the other? Some, born after the war and who have not suffered the Holocaust, are not less hateful.
Such an attitude opens the way to new animosities, new wars, new suffering for our children.
It is not because children of victims and children of offenders for long, for generations, unconsciously, carry the stigma of absolute evil, that they must stay pitted against each other.
Men should not be divided but brought closer together, one must go toward the other to progress and grow together for a better world of peace and mutual respect. This is a message of hope and happiness.
I who lost my family by criminal hate, I do not hate. Despite the tragic events of yesterday and today, because even today in the world there are peoples who suffer, men who suffer, I keep my faith in the future because I believe in human goodness.
Long live peace and friendship between men !
Simon Gronowski (Lawyer)
Simon Gronowski – escaped from the 20th convoy – received the 2006 Grand Prix Condorcet-Aron for democracy – is a former president of the Union of Jews deported from Belgium (Union des Déportés Juifs de Belgique).
Notes – by Michel van der Burg
- English translation (with help from Richard Bloom) by Michel van der Burg
- I inserted some extra links
- “Auschwitz and forgiveness” – a letter by Simon Gronowski (lawyer) was published in French originally as “Auschwitz et le pardon” in Le Monde (France) on Sept. 20, 2013. (I left out the photo published with the Le Monde letter)
- The image in this post is a frame from video I captured during the visit of Simon Gronowski and Koenraad Tinel in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oświęcim, Poland on May 24, 2012. (image BUM10010V01 – michelvanderburg.com)
Update – Full letter - Sept. 27. Now the translation of the (final) 2nd part of the letter was added (after it became publicly available for all on the website of Le Monde today). This second part starts with: Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. On the contrary,…….
Also the last sentence of the first part was altered.
Watch online now:
“Transport XX to Auschwitz – a film by Karen Lynne & Richard Bloom and Michel van der Burg”.
The attack on this deportation train in Belgium – by three young men – the rescue, and the many escapes and escape attemps are documented in this film.
Today 70 years ago – on the night of April 19, 1943 – this remarkable heroic rescue occured in Belgium, were 17 people were liberated during an attack on the cattle car train ‘Transport XX’ – crammed with 1631 Jewish passengers, heading for Auschwitz – and another more than 200 others jumped out also.
During the Nazi occupation of Belgium 28 train convoys with over 25,000 Jews and 351 Roma left Mechelen towards the Auschwitz extermination camp.
On the night of April 19, 1943, the 20th transport headed East with 1631 Jewish passengers crammed into 40 cattle cars.
This ‘Transport XX’ left the Mechelen transit camp ‘Kazerne Dossin’ at 10 pm. and was attacked and stopped some 30 minutes later outside Brussels – near Boortmeerbeek.
Armed with only 1 pistol, pliers and an improvised red hurricane lamp the three young Belgians Robert Maistriau, Jean Franklemon, and Youra Livschitz – old schoolmates – stopped the train by putting the red lamp in the middle of rails. They were able to open one of the cattle cars and liberated 17 men and women. Another more than 200 prisoners escape from the train before the German border. Many were shot and 26 were killed. Eventually, half of them succeeded to escape.
The attack, rescue, and many escapes and escape attemps from this 20th deportation train in Belgium are documented in this newly released film “Transport XX to Auschwitz” by the first-hand accounts of one of the attackers, people that jumped from the train and survivors who returned from Auschwitz.
This attack by three young man, who follow their heart, is the only documented attack on a death train during the Shoah.
The film “Transport XX to Auschwitz” documents the attack and rescue story of one of the attackers, Robert Maistriau, and several escape attempts and escapes of the deportees: Régine Krochmal, Louis de Groot and his brother, the 11 year old Simon Gronowski, Lilly Wolkenfeld Schwartz and her friends, Gunther and Marie Mendel, Willy Berler, Louis Micheels who as doctor in charge of patients decided not trying to escape – and others…
Régine Krochmal had been active in the resistance and was a nurse. She had to escort together with a doctor the more dead then alive deportees in the ‘hospital’ car. Just before she went into the car she was warned by the Jewish camp doctor of the Dossin barracks, who gave her a knife with the words: “Cut the bars, jump, because they will burn you“.
Régine, had to fight off the accompanying doctor in her car who was trying to prevent her from sawing through the bars of the small vent in order to escape. She jumped out the very same moment the train was attacked and stopped.
Then when the train stops, the attacker Robert Maistriau cuts the barbed wire on the sliding door of one of the cars, opens the door and calls “Fliehen Sie, Fliehen Sie!” At first people are confused and scared – but then 17 people jumped out and escaped, while the Germans were shooting. He next starts working on a second car, but the train began moving…
In every car the Germans had appointed one prisoner responsible for preventing and reporting attempts to escapes. Louis de Groot – was one of these appointed ‘guards’ and was told “When anybody escapes, or you let anybody escape, everybody is killed!“. He, however, calmed down the scared people in his car. “They did not want to let me out of that – they were so afraid – that I – that we will be killed. So, I say ‘no – I arrange it for you’. I was quite an acrobat. So, we broke open that little air thing…“. He, together with some others managed to break open the little ventilation window. Louis then took a girl with him when he jumped – together with his brother Abraham and two boys.
Simon Gronowski was only 11 years old when he was helped by his mother to jump from the train, and survived – unlike his mother who was gassed at Auschwitz. Simon was ‘lucky’. He was taken care of by the Belgian gendarme Jean Aerts and his wife, and not betrayed. That salvation was no exception: almost all refugees from the deportation train survived with the help of the Belgian population. Simon Gronowski was the youngest person to ever escape from a death train.
Lilly Wolkenfeld Schwartz had to push her Belgian friend Lilian to jump from the train. The train was moving fast when guys in the compartment of Lilly and her friends Bella and Lilian managed to open the doors. Bella and a lot of other people jumped, but Lilian said “…I can’t“. So Lilly pushed her to jump, and jumped after her. Lilly: “…and as I jumped I had a bullet here, which I found out later…“
Both Gunther Mendel and Marie (Neufeld) Mendel too managed to escape via the little ventilation window and jumped. Gunther: “I went out foot first…you have to throw yourself backwards, because the train was doing maybe 30-40 miles an hour..“. Marie: “..I jumped out – I let myself out - and I lost a shoe…“
Louis Micheels had thought of escaping, but as he was responsible for the seriously ill patients in the hospital car – then thought “how can I, as a doctor in charge of patients in this transport, how can I desert and escape?“. Upon arrival in Auschwitz however “my patients were dragged out, thrown on the truck like they were cattle, dead cattle..“
When Willy Berler was about to jump off the train, he saw that the unfortunate man who had jumped before him, was stuck to the train with his head crushed like a melon. Willy did not jump. “If I had known …. about Auschwitz …. I would have jumped.“
These are remarkable stories of the heroic rescue, escapes, and escape attempts from Transport XX to Auschwitz, which occurred on April 19, 1943 – the first night of Passover – when, at the same time, also the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began, some 720 miles away.
During the Shoah, the Nazis, in their quest for the ‘final solution’ of the Jewish question, utilized thousands of such trains from Germany and the occupied countries to transport 3,000,000 Jews to the concentration and death camps.
Film festivals & holocaust education programs
This documentary is available for Jewish and other film festivals as well as holocaust education programs.
For more info contact: Richard Bloom (Richard Bloom Productions – USA) or Michel van der Burg (michelvanderburg.com)
Currently (as of Jan. 2013) the film is available for viewing in the world holocaust museums and centers:
- the Yad Vashem’s Visual Center (Israel) – Library Catalog
- the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC - catalog info DVD collection (updated Aug 2013)
The film “Transport XX to Auschwitz” premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (FLIFF) 2012 – and was screened in October at the main film festival theatre Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, and again in November in Sunrise, Florida.
April 2014 — Screening “Transport XX to Auschwitz ” April 2, 2014 with guest speaker Richard Bloom in Temple Anshei Shalom – Delray’s Vibrant Synagogue of the Future – Florida , US
Following the news of the film other stories are emerging.
- Film tells story of daring attack on train to Auschwitz – Jewish Journal
- A Story of Transport XX – April 19, 1943 – by Audrey Rogers Furfaro
Escaping the train to Auschwitz
BBC News – 19 April 2013 – By Althea Williams and Sarah Ehrlich
This day in Jewish history / Daring escape from an Auschwitz-bound train
HAARETZ – Apr.19, 2013 – By David B. Green
The Survivor Mitzvah Project
Jan 30, 2014 – Lilly (Wolkenfeld) Schwartz passed away this week.
- post updated April 20 by adding News section and news items
- Aug 2013 : USHMM updated per august 2013 the catalog info of the DVD “Transport XX to Auschwitz” in their DVD collection
- Aug 2013 : added – a recently acquired – photo of Richard Bloom speaking at the premiere of the film at the Cinema Paradiso in Florida
- Jan 2014 : added News item - the Survivor Mitzvah Project – Films
- Jan 30, 2014 : added News item – obituary Lilly (Wolkenfeld) Schwartz
“Rescue during the Holocaust” is the theme this year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day – Jan 27, 2013 – and an important theme in the work of historian Tanja von Fransecky.
Tanja von Fransecky has done research over the past years in France, Belgium, Holland, and Israel on the rescue, escape attempts, and escapes from the deportation trains during the Holocaust.
It is a relatively unknown chapter of the Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, that many deportees from death trains fled, and often were rescued by others – neighbors – at the risk of their own life.
Tanja von Fransecky’s work is news this weekend in the latest edition (Jan 26) of the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” – the largest German national newspaper – in the report by Stephan Stracke, entitled: “Wir haben das Recht zu flüchten” – translated here as “We have the right to escape”.
Below my summary of this article on Tanja von Fransecky’s work (with some additions by myself) Continue reading
“Rescue during the Holocaust” is het thema dit jaar van de International Holocaust Remembrance Day – 27 Jan 2013 – en een belangrijk thema in het werk van geschiedkundige Tanja von Fransecky.
Tanja von Fransecky heeft de afgelopen jaren onderzoek verricht in Frankrijk, België, Nederland en Israel, naar de reddingsacties en vele vluchtpogingen en ontsnappingen uit de deportatietreinen tijdens de holocaust.
Het is een nog vrij onbekend hoofdstuk uit de geschiedenis van het Joods verzet tijdens de holocaust, dat veel gedeporteerden uit de doodstreinen gevlucht zijn, en vaak ook door anderen – omwonenden – met gevaar voor eigen leven gered zijn.
Tanja von Fransecky’s werk is nieuws dit weekend in de laatste editie (26 jan.) van de “Süddeutsche Zeitung” – het grootste Duitse nationale dagblad – in het artikel van Stephan Stracke, getiteld: „Wir haben das Recht zu flüchten“ – hier vertaald als “Wij hebben het recht te vluchten”.
Hieronder mijn samenvatting van dit artikel over Tanja von Fransecky’s werk (met enige eigen notities) Continue reading