A-Z Site Index

Holocaust survivor lifts lockdown spirits with jazz

On 17 March 1943, an 11-year-old Simon Gronowski was taken by the Gestapo in Brussels, Belgium with his mother Chana and sister Ita. The young Jewish boy was being deported to the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz when, “by a miracle, I jumped from the train and escaped”, he recounts. His mother and sister died in Auschwitz and his father, Leon, left devastated by their deaths, also passed away within months of the end of the war. The young Gronowski was left alone in the world.

Today, nearly 80 years after his escape, 89-year-old Gronowski is a Doctor of Law, with two children and four grandchildren, and a proud jazz pianist. As we mark International Jazz Day, Gronowski, who started playing jazz in memory of his piano-playing sister, tells us how “life is impossible without music”.

Music connects

Simon Gronowski and his sister
Simon Gronowski and his sister, Ita on the beach in Ostende, Belgium during the summer holidays in 1938 © Photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski

“After the war, jazz helped me to find stability and integrate in society. Music unites people and brings them some joy”, he told UNRIC in an interview.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and first lockdown in Belgium, Gronowski played jazz “to give people courage.” He opened the window from his home in Brussels and started playing the jazz classic ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’ from his electric piano for neighbours and passers-by.

“I look up, and I see lots of people in front of my house, and people clapping”, recounts Gronowski, who plays music by ear and takes inspiration from jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

“I feel good when I play. I feel I am bringing happiness to those around me”.

Simon Gronowski, aged 10, in 1941 © Photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski
Simon Gronowski, aged 10, in 1941 © Photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski

Peace through justice 

To mark the 75th anniversary of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, the Netherlands, on 18 April 2021, Gronowski was invited to participate in a virtual musical event that paid tribute to the work of the Court. The ceremony was an online premiere of the piece “Hymne des Nations”, written in 1913 by Jewish-Dutch composer Charles Grelinger (1873-1942), who died while being transported to Auschwitz. Bar a one-off performance on The Hague’s city hall bells, the piece had never been played before.

As a lawyer and survivor of the Holocaust, participating in the ceremony was a “great honour” for Gronowski, who commends the important work of the ICJ.

“The International Court of Justice is important not only to me but for all of humanity. It fights against barbarism, fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism, of which I was a victim. Thanks to the Court, we can hope that conflicts between states are resolved not through war, but through law.”

Simon Gronowski with his mother, Chana, and his father, Leon
Simon Gronowski with his mother, Chana, and his father, Leon, on Avenue Louise in Brussels, Belgium 1940 © Photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski

Message of hope

Simon Gronowski and his mother Chana during the summer of 1935
Simon Gronowski and his mother Chana during the summer of 1935 in their garden in Etterbeek, Belgium © Photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski

For nearly 60 years, Gronowski hardly ever spoke of his incredible escape. Today, he has written books and his story even inspired composer Howard Moody to make the opera PUSH based on his life.

He now continues to tell his tale far and wide, particularly in schools, to bring a message of hope to the next generation.

“To defend today’s freedom and democracy, we have to be aware of yesterday’s evils. Life is beautiful, but it is a permanent battle (…) I tell young people, never forget, long live peace and friendship between men.”

#COVID19 HUB

Stay informed and engaged during #COVID19

Latest news