Holocaust survivors who were childhood friends meet again, 76 years later

When the Nazis burst into Belgium, Alice Gerstel Weit and "Little Simon" Gronowski were childhood friends. Their parents were friends as well. 

The invasion changed all that, ripping them apart. For 76 years, each figured the other was most likely dead.

Recently, they sat at the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum, reunited at long last, and between laughter and tears, they talked of their individual journeys and what they lived through after saying goodbye in Brussels in 1941.

Alice recalled an 11-year-old boy in short pants. Sitting beside her was an elderly man, his beard snowy white. "I didn't recognize him at all," she said this week. "I don't see Little Simon. But he's here. Little Simon is here," she said, patting his heart.

"I thought the entire family was murdered. I had no idea," she said as she clutched Simon's age-spotted hand.

RELATED: Photos from Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018: 

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Holocaust Remembrance Day 2018
March of The Living participants with Israeli (Israel) flags are seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 12 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An original yellow star (not on general display) is seen at the artifacts department of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, ahead of the Israeli annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Drivers stop and stand in silence on a street in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on April 12, 2017 as sirens wailed across Israel for two minutes marking the annual day of remembrance for the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. Israel began marking Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day at sundown on April 11 with a ceremony at the Yad Vashem memorial museum in Jerusalem, which commemorates the Jews killed by the Nazi regime during World War II. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lays a wreath during a ceremony marking the annual Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, April 12, 2018. Debbie Hill/Pool via Reuters
A group of Israeli soldiers visits the Hall of Names in the Holocaust History Museum at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem ahead of the Israeli annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Israeli soldiers stand guard during a ceremony marking the annual Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Debbie Hill/Pool via Reuters
Young orthodox Jews sits in front of the gate to Birkenau during the 'March of the Living', a yearly Holocaust remembrance march between the former death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, on April 12, 2018 in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. Held for the 30th time, organisers say the annual March of the Living is the world's largest single Holocaust memorial event. Thousands of young Jews from more than 40 nations marched alongside a handful of Holocaust survivors and Polish teenagers in homage to the victims of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau WWII death camp in southern Poland. / AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
An original prisoner's coat (not on general display) is seen at the artifacts department of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, ahead of the Israeli annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
A youth sits along the railway during the 'March of the Living', a yearly Holocaust remembrance march between the former death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, on April 12, 2018 in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. Held for the 30th time, organisers say the annual March of the Living is the world's largest single Holocaust memorial event. Thousands of young Jews from more than 40 nations marched alongside a handful of Holocaust survivors and Polish teenagers in homage to the victims of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau WWII death camp in southern Poland. / AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
March of The Living participants with Israeli (Israel) flags are seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 12 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Original artifacts not on general display are seen at the artifacts department of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, ahead of the Israeli annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 10, 2018. Picture taken April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
March of The Living participants with Israeli (Israel) flags are seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 12 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An album containing photographs and signatures of Jews from the Jewish community of Kavala in Greece, before most were killed in the Treblinka extermination camp, as well as other original documents are seen in the archive of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, ahead of the Israeli annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 9, 2018. Picture taken April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Drivers stop and stand in silence on a highway in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on April 12, 2017 as sirens wailed across Israel for two minutes marking the annual day of remembrance for the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. Israel began marking Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day at sundown on April 11 with a ceremony at the Yad Vashem memorial museum in Jerusalem, which commemorates the Jews killed by the Nazi regime during World War II. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
March of The Living participants with Israeli (Israel) flags are seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 12 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Messages are left by visitors on the railway during the 'March of the Living', a yearly Holocaust remembrance march between the former death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, on April 12, 2018 in Oswiecim (Auschwitz), Poland. Held for the 30th time, organisers say the annual March of the Living is the world's largest single Holocaust memorial event. Thousands of young Jews from more than 40 nations marched alongside a handful of Holocaust survivors and Polish teenagers in homage to the victims of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau WWII death camp in southern Poland. / AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Reuven Rivlin President of Israel and Andrzej Duda President of Poland are seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 12 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Reuven Rivlin President of Israel and Andrzej Duda President of Poland are seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 12 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Drivers stop and stand in silence on a street in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on April 12, 2017 as sirens wailed across Israel for two minutes marking the annual day of remembrance for the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) Chairman of Yad Vashem, Avner Shalev, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein attend a ceremony marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on April 12, 2018. Israelis came to a halt throughout the country to observe two minutes of solemn silence as a siren blared, marking the annual remembrance of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. / AFP PHOTO / DEBBIE HILL (Photo credit should read DEBBIE HILL/AFP/Getty Images)
The Arbeit Macht Frei inscription shadow is seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 12 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
People stop and stand in silence on a Jerusalem's downtown street on April 12, 2018, as sirens wailed across Israel for two minutes marking the annual day of remembrance for the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide. / AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Jews from Korea and USA with Israel and United States of America flags are seen in Auschwitz - Birkenau Death Camp in Brzezinka, Poland on 11 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Birkenau death camp area is seen in Auschwitz - Birkenau Death Camp in Brzezinka, Poland on 11 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The Death Wall in the Auschwitz Death Camp is seen in Auschwitz I Death Camp in Oswiecim, Poland on 11 April 2018 Taking place annually on Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day - The March of the Living itself is a 3-kilometer walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. (Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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The Gronowskis had hidden Alice's family in their home for nearly two weeks while her father, in France, bartered a deal with a human smuggler to get Alice, her mother and her siblings out of Belgium.

Both families were Jewish. The Gronowskis thought they could hide from the Nazis and stayed put. They managed to avoid being captured for 18 months until they were rounded up and put on a train to Auschwitz.

Meanwhile, Alice's father, a diamond dealer, had managed to convert his stones into cash, buying nine visas that got members of his extended family through Nazi-occupied France and into French-controlled Casablanca and from there, onto a boat bound for Cuba. 

Simon, however, was on his way to a death camp, crammed into a stifling railroad car with no water and no light. The occupants, emboldened by resistance fighters who tried to stop the train, were able to kick open one side of the car, letting in cooling air.

Simon's mother held him over the side by his shoulders, and when the train slowed, she told him to jump. He ran through the trees as Nazi soldiers fired at him. Eventually he made his way to a house, where he was given clean clothes and food. He went back to Brussels and found his father, who had been in the hospital when the Nazis came.

His mother had told the soldiers she was a widow.

"You didn't know that I jumped off the train?" he asked Alice, who is now 89. "No, no. I didn't know anything," she answered.

His mother and sister died at Auschwitz.

The reunited old friends are scheduled to speak Sunday at the museum about how the Holocaust ripped their families apart.

"My father was not very conscious to tension," Gronowski said. "My father was not political. He was a poet. He wrote in six languages."  Gronowski stopped to wipe his eyes. His father could not fathom "that Germany can fall into barbarism."

After the war, Gronowski went to law school and still practices in Brussels. Alice and her family eventually came to the U.S., where she married and had two sons. She became a real estate agent in Los Angeles. 

Her family contacted the Gronowskis after the war. Simon wrote to her older brother Zoltan, who has since passed away, and told him that his mother and sister had died at Auschwitz. But Zoltan never told his family that Simon and his father had lived.

Zoltan may have been too upset talk about what happened to the Gronowskis. Simon's sister was his girlfriend. 

His father couldn't talk about it, either, Gronowski said. For a long time, he hoped his wife and his daughter would somehow return to him.

"But when we received information of the concentration camps, the gas chamber, the mountains of corpses, my father understood that his wife and his daughter would not come back," Gronowski said.

His father, he said, died of a broken heart.

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