BRUSSELS – Simon Gronowski had committed many acts of bravery and generosity in his 89 years of life, and opening a window in April would not normally count among them, but this was no ordinary April.
It was the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic that hit Belgium just as hard as anywhere in the world. But as a Holocaust survivor, Mr. Gronowski had previously been more death-facing.
The little lawyer summoned his courage, moved his electric piano to under a window sill, and threw the window open, letting the spring sun along with the thick, cautious calm of a city afraid of the virus. And he started tapping a jazz tune.
But soon his neighbors jumped their heads out of the windows, some even put on masks and went up to his house to hear better.
They took a black and white picture of him playing, printed it and threw it in his mailbox later and simply wrote “Merci”.
He started playing regularly and filled the green streets with jazz notes, bringing relief to his besieged neighbors throughout the lockdown that lasted until the end of May.
Amy Edwards Anderson, an English teacher from the United States who has lived in Brussels for 22 years, first heard Mr. Gronowski playing 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 practicing the piano. It was someone who appeared for the block.
The short window concerts broke into her family’s confinement and lifted them up.
“Here was someone who amplified music to be shared with neighbors, for no other reason than to make people feel good in a difficult time,” she said. “A kind of unsolicited gift to the neighborhood.”
Mr. Gronowski had meant that his impromptu concerts should make people happy, but playing for others has also had an inherent value for him throughout his life.
“Music is a means of communication, of connection,” he said one recent afternoon in his home office, surrounded by piles of documents.
Sir. Gronowski taught himself to play the piano as a teenager because he, too, sought to communicate, first and foremost getting in touch with his older sister Ita, who had died in Auschwitz in 1943, aged 19 years.
“I loved her,” he said. “She was a brilliant pianist.”
Sir. Gronowski’s first bravery took place many April ago, when a completely different kind of disaster gripped Europe.
On April 19, 1943, when he was 11, Mr. Gronowski out of a fast train.
He and his mother were packed with dozens of others in a cattle wagon on the deadly route from Mechelen, a town where Belgian Jews were rounded up, to Auschwitz.
Of all the trains to ruin, Mr. Gronowski specifically engraved in Holocaust history. Known as “Convoy 20”, it was interrupted by three resistance fighters shortly after leaving Mechelen. In the uprising, dozens were given a chance to flee into the agricultural lands of Flanders.
Shortly after the train began to accelerate again, Mr. Gronowski’s mother, perhaps encouraged by the incident and glimmers of hope, made him jump off.
“I ran because I was listening to my mother’s orders,” Mr Gronowski said. He ran for his life. His mother did not follow.
“If I had known she would not jump, I would have been on the train,” he said, resting his cheek in the palm of his hand, as if his head were suddenly too heavy.
For the next 17 months, the boy was hidden in the attic of some Catholic families. After the liberation of Brussels in September 1944, he reunited with his sick father, who had been in and out of the hospital for years and eventually succumbed – to a broken heart, Mr Gronowski believes – leaving the boy an orphan the following year .
Sir. Gronowski drew memories of protracted incarceration, fear and desperate sadness from the 1940s in a newspaper column he wrote as encouragement to other Belgians in late March as they struggled to settle into lockdown.
“Currently reduced to forced idleness that promotes reflection, my mindset wanders and joins the inclusions I suffered 75 years ago, from 1942 to 1944, when I was 10-12 years old,” he wrote.
“Today we can stay with our family or be helped by it, keep in touch, we can shop, refill supplies, read newspapers, watch television, but then we lived in terror, we lacked everything, we were cold, hungry and our families were separated, distorted, ”he added.
The pluckiness shown today was already burning inside the boy who had lost everything by the end of World War II.
After spending three years in a nursing home, he moved back to the empty family home alone and took in tenants to raise money for his life and his schooling.
Da Mr. Gronowski was 23 years old, he had a Ph.D. betrays. He became a lawyer, married Marie-Claire Huybrechs, had two daughters, Katia and Isabelle. And for six decades, he said little about his deceased parents, his beloved sister, Ita, or that day he jumped out of a moving train on its way to Auschwitz.
“It was not a secret, but I did not talk about it,” he said, while his optimistic mood briefly darkened. “Why? Because I felt guilty. Why are they dead and I’m alive?”
All this changed in 2002, when, under pressure from 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 courage that gave Mr. Gronowski an unexpected new life with the media and a higher profile to advance progressive goals.
After “The Child of the XX. Convoys ” (“The Child of the 20th Convoy ”) was published, and Mr Gronowski’s story became better known in Belgium and abroad, he began lecturing, especially in schools.
“It was very painful to stir it all up again,” he said. “But now I feel that I am bringing something positive to young people, and it makes me happy that I am liberated.”
His newfound fame led him to another act of bravery and generosity.
A student who listened to him speak at a Belgian school in 2012 called him shortly after with a fantastic suggestion.
A Belgian man named Koenraad Tinel, an artist the same age as Mr. Gronowski, had written about the guilt of being born into a Nazi family. His brother had been a guard at the Mechelen camp, where Mr. Gronowski and his mother had been held before being placed in convoy 20. Would Mr. Gronowski meet him?
The two men, both more than 80 years old at the time, met at the humble offices of the Belgian Union of Progressive Jews.
“This is how our friendship was born,” Mr Gronowski said. “And now Koenraad is more than a friend, he is a brother.”
The two wrote a book, “Finally Liberated,” and lectured together.
As the older Tinel brother, Walter, the camp guard, lay on his deathbed, he asked to meet 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.”
As Belgium battles another coronavirus wave with yet another lockdown, Mr. Gronowski puts on his piano with closed windows this time (“It’s a little too cold now”) and plans future adventures. “I want to play with this band from New Orleans,” he said, full of boyish enthusiasm. “They’s called Tuba Skinny, they’re amazing!”
Most of his school lectures have been put on hold due to the pandemic, but they are restarting fast enough, he says, and that is what he is most looking forward to.
“When I tell my story in schools, 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.”
Monika Pronczuk contributed with reporting.