November 26th, 2013
08:49 PM ET

Giving thanks for the miracle of survival

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.

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Catholic Church • Hanukkah • Holocaust • Israel • Judaism • New York • Poland • Thanksgiving

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soundoff (1,346 Responses)
  1. Kathy jo

    And you... evil or nuts? Both?

    November 27, 2013 at 8:32 pm |
  2. Jesse

    Times have changed, people haven't, still good and bad among us, hopefully more good than bad.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
  3. S. W. Rock

    so many negative comments. Over all, this is a very heartwarming story.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
    • S. W. Rock

      Sad thing, soon there will no longer be stories from mouths of those who lived it. Enjoy them (or learn.. whatever) while you can. Just stop with the negative comments.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
  4. Joel

    Wonderful story. Much to be thankful for. I am thankful for Yeshua who came to this world without sin and took on the sins of the world so that we, through faith in Him, could have eternal life. Shalom

    November 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  5. Robin Wier

    For those posters who use this uplifting story to praise the decline of churches and religions in this USA, I offer that it is not only churches and religions going down the tubes. It is also the United States of America. A careful study of American History of the years between 1610 and 1770 would cause one to conclude that during this gestation period and the following childbirth of said USA, Man and God were wrapped up together tighter than a Gordian Knot. Without God, the USA is now plunging headlong towards that dark abyss that is the domain of Third World Countries.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • RobNYNY1957

      Yeah, just the way that Sweden has descended into anarchy since rejecting religion.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        When was Sweden a religious state?

        November 27, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
        • HotAirAce

          When was the USA a religious state?

          November 28, 2013 at 8:22 am |
  6. Marje McLaughlin

    God Bless these 2 men. they share a past that few can understand – they deserve our respect

    November 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • joy munro

      God Bless and make this Thanksgiving a real day of thanks for all that are loved despite race or creed.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • Pasturebuddy

      It is, indeed, a good story to be told and to see two men, who have walked separate paths for so many years find that their paths meet once more. It will be a wonderful gift for the rescuer to see that he not only saved the one life but the many in the form of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Few of us will ever have the gift of seeing the results of our own acts. It is, in a sense, only right, that he now sees it before his passing into history. Unlike some here, I sincerely appreciate the efforts taken by the Jewish community to remember such tragic history.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  7. Gant

    More. Stories. Like. This. please.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  8. Hadenuffyet

    It's far too sad that today's generations are lacking many of qualities of empathy towards fellow human beings. I guess that's really always been the case , it just seems with all the negative media coverage , things seem worse.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • karek40

      I could not agree more.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • stephen48739

      As long as those with empathy for others, outnumber the apathetic ones, I have hope for the survival of mankind, long after I'm dead and gone. The news coverage is deceptive. Happy, "feel good" stories, don't sell newspapers or generate internet traffic to websites. Sad, tragic deaths in the news, are like traveling past an accident on the highway, everyone slows down to look.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
      • YesOkBut

        I agree. But sometimes whilst driving by you can see people being the best that they can be to each other. Like these two gentlemen.

        November 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  9. Bribarian

    The Eternal victim strikes again.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Mike

      So obvious.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • Brian

      What does that even mean

      November 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
      • Zumbo

        It simply means that Mike is a hater.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
    • BeBoppin

      In this case the "victim" is recognizing his rescuer. Do you have a problem with that?

      November 27, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  10. Mimi

    This is beautiful

    November 27, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  11. Sarah

    Potatoes is another AZTEC food. The same goes with tomatoes, peanuts, chocolate, tobacco, etc. All of them were discovered by the AZTECS. What would europe be today, without those AZTEC foods?, those poor jews survived eating potatoes. I can not imagine a italian pizza without tomatoes. LOL

    November 27, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      Better recheck your chocolate claim. But thanks for the info, and glad we didn't keep their practice of routinely tossing virgins into volcanoes or playing soccer with the heads of vanquished foes.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
  12. charlie

    I was so moved by this story. Both men are heroes. The will to live; the desire to do the right thing; and the spirit of the good are all present. I am not a "soft" guy, but I was really moved by this story. Just imagining myself in either of their positions is so humbling.

    The strength of these men is miraculous. Very happy for them to be reunited.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  13. Sarah

    The russians won World War Two.....!!! stop claiming the americans won that war.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Sharkmann

      Ahh A student of history, that is a rare thing today,

      November 27, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      With what commodities did the Soviets build their weapons with? With what metal were the tanks built from, with whose metal did the bullets and guns get made from? With whose food did the Soviets feed their troops? With whose supplies did the Soviets build their aircraft?

      All the answers would be USA USA and USA. Without the US the Soviets would have been demolished. And it is a shame that the Soviets did not get demolished and it is a shame that this nation chose to support the Judeo-Bolshevikism who slaughtered far far more people than the Nazis did .

      November 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Zumbo

      Gee Sarah, you missed the point of the article.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  14. Gilbert Montemayor

    May God bless him and his entire family. A very moving story of courage and truth. May God have mercy on the people that hate. Judgment day will come to you.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      God doesn't like Communists.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  15. jodi

    It's called the Golden Rule. I wish you all the best. Excited for you and the fun looking family waiting for you. Have fun folks.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
  16. a reasonable atheist

    Dziękują bardzo za wasz bohaterstwo!

    November 27, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
  17. jed

    Living memory of this time and place in history is nearly gone.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  18. Karl VonFrick

    What a shame

    November 27, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
  19. Richard

    A truly righteous gentile... May God bless him and his entire family. A very moving story of courage and truth.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  20. Simone

    Oh be quiet Erin! Robert and I can thank our God if we want to, just ignore it if you think it's crazy!

    November 27, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
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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.