By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - Leon Gersten could not bear to watch “Schindler’s List,” the movie about Czech industrialist Oskar Schindler who saved 1,200 Jews from Nazi extermination camps. It was too painful for the Holocaust survivor, too close to reality.
But now, almost 70 years after his village in Poland was liberated by the Soviet army, Gersten is meeting the man who is the Oskar Schindler of his own life: Czeslaw Polziec.
Like Schindler, Polziec is Catholic. His family secretly sheltered Gersten in rural Poland for two years during World War II.
As though such a reunion between survivor and rescuer were not emotional enough, this one is taking place Wednesday on the eve of Hanukkah, which coincides this year with Thanksgiving. Two celebrations of gratitude.
Gersten, 79, had tried to imagine how he might feel when he would finally meet his Polish friend at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He said only this: “I think it will be a physical reaction.”
And it was. The two men embraced. Then, they embraced again.
"Hi, hi, hi," Polziec said, his English limited to just a few words.
But words seemed useless now anyway. For Gersten, none seemed adequate for a man who saved his life. A man who had, through his actions, given him precious assurance there was goodness left in a world that seemed purely evil.
“I am alive because of them,” Gersten said of Polziec and his family. “They are heroes.”
Gersten had waited for this day when he could express his gratitude in person. When he could show Polziec his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were the greatest proof of the enormity of the Polziec family's actions.
As a boy, Leon Gersten hid for two years with his mother and other family members in the attic of a barn.
On Thanksgiving, the two men will sit down for a formal dinner and on Sunday, several generations of Gersten’s family, including a granddaughter traveling from Israel, will share a meal with Polziec at a New York restaurant.
“How wonderful to be able to see him,” Gersten said earlier this week, each word laced with the kind of anticipation a soldier coming home after battle feels. “How wonderful to be reunited, share memories.”
With Polziec by his side, Gersten’s Hanukkah promises to be special. He plans to perform an act he was never able to do when he was in hiding on Polziec’s family farm, one that will celebrate the miracle of his survival.
Life in the attic
The shared memories will take Gersten back to Frystak, Poland. To July 1942.
Gersten’s mother, Frieda Tepper Gersten, worked as a peddler and traveled throughout southern Poland, selling fabric and other items. She and Leon moved from the town of Rzeszow to Frystak to live with her parents shortly after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Gersten’s father, Yonasan, was unable to get work in Frystak and stayed in Rzeszow with Gersten’s sister and three brothers.
Gersten never saw his father or siblings again. He has no photos except one of his sister. He knows they all perished but everything else is blank. Where? When? How?
Then one July day, the Germans ordered the Jews of Frystak to assemble in the marketplace. They rounded up 1,600 people, mostly children and the elderly, marched them outside town, slaughtered them and tossed their bodies like garbage into a mass grave.
Among the dead were Gersten’s grandparents.
His mother knew she and her son would die, too, unless she escaped the Jewish ghetto. She disguised herself as a Catholic, a cross around her neck. With her boy, she walked into the countryside and knocked on the doors of her customers to ask for shelter for herself and her son - as well as her sister and brother-in-law and their son.
Many turned her away. It was risky to come to the aid of Jews. It could prove fatal.
But the Polziecs were different.
Now almost 70 years later, Gersten has been reunited with one of his rescuers.
Maria and Stanislaw Polziec lived on a farm in nearby Zawadka with their four daughters and son, Czeslaw. They had barely the means to feed their own family, let alone buy food for five strangers.
But they took in the desperate Jews and created a living space for them in a dark attic above their barn. Czeslaw Polziec brought them food and stood guard when other people came to the farm.
Gersten remembers receiving one big loaf of bread a week. It was divided into five – the two boys got first pick. And there were potatoes. Gersten offered his uncle an extra potato for every two hours he entertained the boys with stories.
“Food was very tight,” Gersten said. “But we weren’t starving.”
The space was adequate, too. The main problem was inactivity. There was nothing to do. Gersten watched spiders catch flies. Or plucked lice from his cousin’s head. That’s how he passed time.
Gersten was only 8 then; Polziec, 10. Their interaction was limited.
Stanislaw and Maria Polziec hid Leon Gersten and his family from the Nazis in rural Poland.
Sometimes, in the early morning, Gersten climbed down the ladder to help Polziec in the stable. There were two cows, a horse and pig.
Other times, Polziec picked mushrooms and brought them up for soup.
On some winter nights, the attic got cold and the Polziecs invited their Jewish guests into their home to spend the evening in warmth.
They built an earthen bunker in the barn to hide Gersten and his family for the times when Germans raided the farm. It measured 4 feet by 3 feet and was just big enough to hold five people. It resembled a grave, really. The Polziecs slid a big, wooden grain storage bin over the opening to deflect suspicion.
One night, Nazi collaborators raided the farm and heard the footsteps of Gersten’s family scurrying into the bunker. They questioned Stanislaw Polziec, who blamed the noise on children in the attic. The collaborators beat Stanislaw, bloodied him without mercy. Gersten could hear the Polziec family’s screams. Still, the Polziecs did not betray the Jews.
Gersten said he remains impressed the Polziecs never showed any resentment toward their Jewish guests for the enormous danger they had brought them.
Gersten remained in the Polziec’s attic for two years, until the day in 1944 when Soviet soldiers liberated the area. Gersten and his mother eventually moved to America.
'Should we have let them die?'
For many years after, Gersten had dreams of being shot by the Nazis. He liked sleeping when it rained. All those months in hiding, he’d felt secure on stormy nights, knowing the Nazis would not go out to look for Jews then.
He grappled with his own survival as he made a new life for himself in New York.
“My mother was very religious,” he said. “She had a more positive outlook about surviving, although we could never answer why God would want us to survive over others.”
Gersten and his mother kept up with the Polziecs after the war. They sent a few dollars and care packages with clothes back to Poland.
Gersten earned a doctorate in educational psychology from Columbia University and started his own practice. He stopped speaking Polish – his mother tongue was Yiddish - and forgot it with time. He never yearned to return to the town where he lived as a boy. His house and the life he once knew were gone. So were most of his loved ones.
“I have ambivalent feelings about going back there,” he said.
Over the years, he lost contact with the Polziecs. But after his mother died, Gersten wrote to the Jewish Historical Society in Poland about what the Polziecs had done. About two years ago, he decided to submit the family’s name to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. The memorial also recognizes non-Jews who helped Jews survive. Schindler’s name is in that database, as are the Polziecs'.
In America, The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous helped Gersten find Czeslaw Polziec in Poland. His parents had passed away years before.
The New York-based foundation supports non-Jews who refused to remain passive during the Holocaust. About 650 rescuers in Europe receive funding for food and essential goods like heating fuel.
The foundation is sponsoring Polziec’s visit to New York, including a dinner honoring him and his family.
Stanlee Stahl, the executive director of the foundation, visited Polziec in Poland. It was not possible for CNN to speak with him before the reunion - he was preparing to make the long journey across the Atlantic.
But Stahl described him as someone who has the handsomely rugged looks of a retired Marine. He served in the Polish army and then worked in security for many years.
Polziec doesn’t think of himself or his family as heroes, he told the foundation. They were God-fearing people, ordinary people, who simply did what they deemed the right thing to do in a desperate situation.
Gersten's entire family will share a meal with Czeslaw Polziec in New York.
Should we have let them die? he asked in a statement to the foundation.
“The question alone does not bear thinking about,” he said. “They had every right to live. Nobody who has not lived through those desolate days will ever really understand what my parents did, and I am sure, were they still with us, they would be surprised that an honor has been bestowed upon them.”
Stahl said the foundation has helped arrange 18 reunions between survivors and rescuers. But this year, because Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving, Gersten’s reunion with Polziec is truly special.
“We owe a great deal of gratitude to these righteous gentiles,” Stahl said. “They saved the honor of humanity.”
Gersten, meanwhile, said he remains amazed by the loyalty of the Polziecs, especially Czeslaw and his sisters, who were so young then. They went to school and church and interacted with so many people. Yet they never uttered a word.
That’s something Gersten plans to point out when he sits down for Thanksgiving dinner with Polziec. He will be grateful that for two years, his Polish friend kept a secret.
But before that, on Wednesday night, Gersten is looking forward to lighting a Hanukkah menorah, which commemorates the rededication of the ancient temple and the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting eight.
Gersten was never able to light a menorah when he was hiding in Polziec’s home. The light would have given away the family’s presence, put an end to their survival. Now with Polziec finally by his side again, Gersten’s menorah will symbolize his own family’s miracle.
Leon Gersten (at the far left end of the third row back) with other schoolchildren in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war.
Others have posted this, but it bears repeating: The courage of this Polish Catholic family is beyond understanding. The Nazis would have murdered every one of them, including their children, should the Jews have been found out. I don't know whether god exists or not. Perhaps he does, perhaps not. But he has a LOT to answer for, if he does.
The guilt of Germany will live for 1,000 years.
Why stop at 1,000?
The god of the bible is still willing to send us all to hell because Adam ate an apple.
1,000 years b/c Hitler said it would be a thousand year Reich. So I guess since it started in 1933, that there are 920 years left of German hatred.
One thousand? I thought Hitler got six million?
Don't blame Germany, the country, for the actions of individual people. And Hitler was Austrian, by the way.
Sadly, not many remember how many Poles risked everything to save Jews, everyone paints Poles as bad people, referring to Nazi camps as Polish camps.
This is a nice story, but not isolated, there were hundreds or thousands of Polziecs back then
You are absolutely right. Perhaps we will hear more of such stories.
The horrors and tragedies of this world are brief and unimportant compared to the paradise of everlasting life that follows. It is the latter for which we must recognize God's perfect goodness.
Yes, I can't wait until I go up to chocolate candy heavy with marshmallow angels. And wake me up when Elvis gets here.
I don't understand how God bears any responsibility for this, though I guess it depends on how you define "God." I suppose if you define God to be a sort of omipotent superman who controls all that happens and manipulates creation as pawns in a cosmic game, then maybe. But that's a pretty primitive view of "God."
Whether you're religious or not, let's give thanks for the Polziec family and others like them that saw the wrong being perpetrated on a people just for their religious beliefs. It was wrong before, it was wrong then, and it is wrong today. That took a lot of bravery to do that, and Mr. Gersten is alive today for it.
May they have a wonderful, beautiful celebration of life after having lived through such a difficult time.
Why do the comments *always* end up with people arguing with each other about stupid crap instead of commenting on what a beautiful story it is they're just read????
THIS IS A BEAUTIFUL STORY OF LOVE AND SACRIFICE. THANK YOU FOR SHARING IT, CNN. I LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING A VIDEO OF THE REUNION!
I Love your comment Mel, thank you.
It is really true" Who saves a life saves the whole world"
I agree with you Mel. Yours has been one of the only positive ones. The others are holocaust deniers
or worse. This was a wonderful story to heard especially as we have Thanksgiving and Hanukkah on
the same day.
Yes Mel, good job getting brainwashed.
Thant's it exactly Mel!
We should be celebrating the beautiful courage of that family!
The rest is Ka ka !
Bingo Mel! Those two happy faces will stay with me for years!
Story makes no sense...Gersten's saviors (Stanislaw and Maria Polziec) would be over 100 now..so he is not meeting the man who saved him but that man's son, Czeslaw, who is only two years older than Gersten.
'But now, almost 70 years after his village in Poland was liberated by the Soviet Army, Gersten will meet the man who is the Oskar Schindler of his own life: Czeslaw Polziec.......Polziec is Catholic. His family secretly sheltered Gersten in rural Poland for two years during World War II.'
You're so smart for figuring that out! Such a bright boy!
Did you read the article? Of course, Czeslaw 's parents are dead. However Czeslaw and his isters also kept the secret for two years , from their friends, teachers, schoolmates and church congregation, despite the anti-Semitic brainwashing they received in school. Czeslaw bought the Gersten's food and also kept guard in the barn during raids. he also watched his father being beaten beyond recognition and still kept the secret. Czeslaw was a child, but he was braver than most adults. Name one ten year old who could have kept the secret and did what Czeslaw did during those years of horror. Why are you trying to minimize this? It's an amazing and joyful story!
Oscar Schindler was not a Czech industrialist, he was an ethnic German from Moravia, Austria-Hungary. Do your research if you receive a paycheck from CNN.
No kidding...see my comment also !!
you're right, but can killed my comments
I have nothing but contempt toward Germany. The years gone by aren't enough to forget and forgive what they did. Both of my grandfathers fought them. Both nearly died. Those same feelings towards Jews still exist today in Germany. Shameful.
Good christian values there Pat.
Way to be part of the solution!
He's part of the solution all right – the final solution.
The vast majority of people in Germany weren't even alive yet.
True, but on the other hand the christian god is still judging all of us over something he said Adam did ....
If Adam hadn't have done it, you or I would have. God also offers forgiveness, and all you have to do is ask.
Its the victors that write the history thus Britain is a such a shinning example of democracy. They too used gas in WWI, bombed civilian populations in WWII. They used countries to fight their wars and betrayed them when they no longer served their purpose. Just one example. Can't condemn a nation just because they lost a war. Its easy now that Holocaust has come to light to justify Allied war crimes but the fact is they turned blind eye to the news of extermination so they had no excuse back then. Again, can't condemn a race, otherwise you just like Nazis.
You've obviously never been to Germany, or you would know this is not true.
Do you hate the skin-head Americans who also seem to hate the Jews, and anyone else who isn't a white American?
Shame on you. You cannot blame this generation for the sins of the previous generations. I'm an American Jew whose grandmother was a holocaust survivor. I have worked in Berlin and Frankfurt, and have nothing but respect and friendship for the people I met while there. The world has moved on, so should you.
So Jews can displace thousands of people every year, refuse to uphold international law and the world should feel love for them?
Sometimes when I get down with the selfishness and disregard for others shown by my fellow humans, a story like this makes the news and gives me faith in the goodness of mankind.
Well said. We need to hear more of these stories in the news.
Hiding Jews in Poland was punishable by death, the only occupied country in Europe where Germans did that. Just keep that in mind. In many instances entire villages where executed as punishment.
That is bravery on a whole other level. I wonder if I would have the stones for it, combat is one thing, but what they did is amazing.
Yes, very brave. Next thing we know they'll be bungee jumping and drinking "extreme" Mountain Dew.
I know of a village in France that was completed burned and destroyed by the Nazis so unfortunately it didn't only happened in Poland
It was an isolated inciddent, Im talking about a policy, it was certain to be shot along with your family if you were found. That simple.
One thing from this era that America likes to try and forget about is their participation in the eugenics movement, which both paralleled and encouraged the same in Nazi Germany.
Eugenics, or selective human breeding, was a surprisingly popular idea at the beginning of the 20th century.
The US went so far as to enact sterlilization laws and had forcibly sterilized some 40,000 "mental deficients" in 30 states by 1944.
Just as the Third Reich feared the tainting of the Aryan gene pool by inferior races (like the Jews), America was feeling threatened by the influx of "lower races" from southern and eastern Europe.
One Yale study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine states that "the comparative histories of the eugenical sterilization campaigns in the United States and Nazi Germany reveal important similarities of motivation, intent and strategy."
Even after seeing the extremes to which the Nazis took it with their concentration camps, the US continued the program and another 22,000 underwent neutering from the mid-1940s to 1963.
In the end, it was a combination of public unease, Roman Catholic opposition, federal democracy, judicial review and critical scrutiny by the medical profession that ended the policies.
The Eugenics movement was a terrible twisting of evolutionary theory and a black eye for both science and the nations like the US, France, Sweden, Australia and Nazi Germany who participated in its application.
While the Allies might not have run any death camps, the shared belief in racial superiority allowed them to at best ignore and at worst encourage the Third Reich's aggressive campaign of racial purity.
Eugenics is probably workable if modern genetics is applied to the problem. But the ethics of eugenics is not workable. We've been wise to restrict the concept of rights to individuals, terribly wrong when groups are given rights that supercede the rights of individuals. So that when the right to "purity" was recognized for races (race is a terrible concept), the result was suffering for millions of people and the threat of loss of individual freedoms within our civilization.
Ultimately we will try to "purify" ourselves of heritable genetic defects with a real possibility of success, but we will need to be wise enough to distinguish defects from other kinds of variants. Also, just as we must recognize that people have the right to determine what happens to their bodies, we must extend the same rights over what happens to their genomes.
I think the greatest irony is that the human gene pool will ultimately benefit far more from intermingling different traits than trying to preserve what is viewed as "pure".
Once again, I destroy the little girls trying to be my equal.
Picking on someone your own size, eh?
All my due respect to the heroes in this story.
I am atheist (and this is a belief blog). My question is : does it take (absolutely) a "belief" to be "hero" ?
In other word, does somebody with "no-belief" won't and will never be a "hero" ?
I agree with the Pope... just "do good and we will meet one another there..."
I agree with the Pope... just "do good and we will meet one another there..."
Unfortunately, that has absolutely no basis in the Bible whatsoever. In fact, the opposite is true – "by the works of the law shall no flesh be saved..." and "for it is by grace you have been saved, not of works, lest anyone should boast." And there are many other passages as well that say that no one is saved by doing good works – they contribute nothing to salvation.
people like you...went to visit eichmann in israel and told the press after that if he had accepted your jesus, he would get into heaven while his victims would not...that is your religion, that is christianity ands that is the thinking that will one day destroy everything on earth...you and your are pukes. period.
And you're a butt much. Happy holohoax, loser.
OK, forget about "other there".
But I can accept that you, believer, can do good (can do because of your belief).
Can you accept I, atheist, can also do good ?
If so, I rephrase and correct, I agree (partially) with the Pope : "just do good.".
"But I can accept that you, believer, can do good (can do because of your belief).
Can you accept I, atheist, can also do good ?"
Sure, anyone can "do good."
All I was saying is that the Bible is clear that salvation does not come by performing good works.
LoA – nobody was talking about salvation...
Trust me buddy, if someone thinks you're a jerk, it's NOT because you're an atheist.
Thank you Lawrence of Arabia for accepting that I, as atheist, can do good with a "no-belief"... I mean, with "no-belief" in God and the whole system of "stick and carrot" (hell and heaven).
Yes, I can do good, because I am living in society. It is like living in couple: I will do good (to my partner) and will consider and work for her well being; I will (not) do things I want (not) from her .. and reciprocally. I don't need "stick and carrot" to do that.
So you as a Jew are going to preach Christianity?
Your nose is getting longer by the second!
Instead of whining endlessly about how unfair god is, and how he doesn't exist, pray he will open your eyes.(unless you're too chicken)
Those were my prayers fool! Happy hell!
a wonderful story about the strength of the human spirit. no imaginary father figure in the sky had anything to do with it.
Did you just tell Obama supporters to pray for fried chicken Racist!
It's wonderful to hear of people who have done as much truly good as Czeslaw Polziec. I hope he has had the life he deserves and will enjoy his visit and reunion.
“My mother was very religious,” he says. “She had a more positive outlook about surviving, although we could never answer why God would want us to survive over others.”
one simple answer explains it all - because there is no god. see how neatly that fits. WE have to help each other, not look to a non-existent god for help. look to the kindness of your brothers and sisters and teach those with cruelty in their hearts to be kind. no god necessary - just compassion.
That's it. Look to Sam stone
No, just look to christiansteve.
Why belittle the courage of Czeslaw Polziec and his family by calling their acts a miracle? There are no miracles, but there are good people willing to do the right thing entirely on their own despite danger to themselves. They are heroes.
Exactly Tom, Tom. I fully agree with you.
This to me is one of the core problems with religion: it gives credit for good acts to a "god" rather than to the good courageous folk themselves, who did these brave acts. Sadly, Christianity also lets evildoers off the hook from responsibility for their crimes.
Something I never understood, maybe you can help me: why are ancient Jews revered (like those in the Bible: Moses, Abraham, etc. ), while modern Jews are reviled by some people? Shouldn't some of the qualities that made the ancient Jews revered have transfered forward to the modern Jews? Thanks in advance for enlightening me.
They were equally reviled by Gentiles back in Biblical times, also.
because christianity sprang from judaism.
basically, christians think they went on to part 2 of the story while the modern jews stayed with part 1.
that's why they both more or less share the old testament, but jews don't recognize the new testament.
which means they don't recognize jesus as the son of god.
and that makes christians super angry...
Part 1 says part 2 is right around the corner. Part 2 says part 1 is right in rejecting the stone.
"Part 1 says part 2 is right around the corner. Part 2 says part 1 is right in rejecting the stone."
Actually part 2 makes claims that part 1 says part 2 is around the corner. There is nothing in the OT that foreshadows the NT. Spurious retroactive prophecy claims in the NT pointing to cherry picked OT passages are the cornerstone of the Christian myth.
I'm satisfied with what the bible says about Jesus.
Christians are not angry at Jews, case in point, Jesus himself was a Jew and Jesus is loved by Christians. The NT is clear that the high priests riled up the crowds against Jesus, similar to you right now in claiming followers of Jesus would hate Jews. You say that to get people upset. Upset people can become violent. Your statements makes Jews hesitate and fear, when there's nothing to fear, except from violent people that get upset, and you can find those in all beliefs.
What there is, is Jesus doing miracles then, and some people didn't believe him, and they become obsessed with trying to disprove him (much like you are), and becoming violent when no proof is given that he is the Son of God. And that's a basic rule, you get no proof of God. Lots of witnesses, no proof.
Most christians these days may not, but that is VERY different from how they've been treated (for the most part) by christians in the past until fairly recently. And even then I would be willing to bet most modern anti-semites (who aren't muslim) are christians.
Don't forget to pray to some extra cheese – gotta keep the spaghetti monster placated. And CNN deletes in 3...2...1...
The Old Testament saints that looked forward to the cross where Jesus the Christ died were made righteous by imputation. They believed He was coming. And He did. But most Jews today have rejected the Christ and their rejection cost them in many ways. However, their rejection is the gentiles' opportunity for salvation. We saints today look back at the cross by faith and we're made righteous by the blood of Christ.
Retro-theology. No – they were talking about a lot of other stuff, specific to their times and situations, not Jesus. The majority of the so-called prophecies that predict jesus weren't even predictions nor did they ever say "messiah". It's only after reading backwards into the text from a christian perspective that you might believe what you said. I'm just about positive it you could speak to those men they would have no idea what you are talking about.
And it will cost you Christians dearly for your know-it-all, "only I have the truth that I got out of this book" superiority.
Tell me ... just exactly WHO wrote the Bible?
Angela, short answer...it depends on the Book you believe to be true.
Hello, my name is David. I was told by my parents I was jewish. I'm 48 years old today and still trying to figure out what that really means. When you find out your answers, please let me know.
Jewish is both an ethnicity and a religion. People will disagree, but a quick Google will confirm. Jesus was an ETHNIC Jew. It seems that for centuries, Christians have resented Jews for betraying Jesus. Obviously not all ethnic Jews are religious Jews and not all religious Jews are ethnic Jews, but there is a huge cross-section (allowing the Germans to using ethnic Jewish physical characteristics as anti-Semitic propaganda.) I think people just associate religious Jews with the ethnic Jews who betrayed Jesus. But here's the deal, that was part of God's plan to save humanity, so why they have suffered for centuries, I don't understand.
Well done. Of all the Thanksgiving stories I've been told, this has to be the best. No matter one's faith, empathy is a virtue we should all nurture within ourselves and our children. Very touching, indeed.
Well said. I too wish the best to all involved and a happy thanksgiving to the rest!
What a lovely story about courage in the face of true evil.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.