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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. Kate

    Please Google "Albania Jews WWII." It is another amazing story. Albania is the only country in Europe where the Jewish population actually INCREASED during WWII. Their story deserves to be told.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  2. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    I've read that one out of four Poles died during the war. Imagine having Hitler on one side of you and Stalin on the other!

    November 27, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  3. Marci Shapiro

    Thank you and God Bless the Polziec's family for their humility and selflessness in such an utterly desperate time. This story made my heart smile and will not be forgotten.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  4. altkoa

    What a great story, unless you lived during world war 2 you have no idea of the h-- people lived through.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  5. Lindy

    So, he's not really meeting his rescuers, he's meeting their son who was close to his own age when they were hidden. It's really a shame he didn't go back and meet his rescuers and thank them when they were still alive.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
    • Akira

      Dies this make thus story any less moving?

      November 27, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • Kate

      I think you might want to forget as well. However the son was 10 – 12 at the time and very much participated in the sheltering of this family. You know, able to understand right and wrong and life and death matters, unlike even adults of today? Read the story. You'll learn something.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
  6. Reza

    I do not understand. I did not read this story, but is it related to Thanksgiving?

    November 27, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • Akira

      Hanukkah starts tomorrow, as well.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • bobo111

      maybe if you read the story you will learn something !

      November 27, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • Kate

      READ THE STORY! It's beautiful and inspiring.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        A Communist saved a communist, yippee!

        November 27, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • adoptedusa

      Without reading the story you are making comment on it, bravo Mr. Mohammed Reza! It's a story of how humanity often shines brighter than the brightest star in the sky in the darkest of the dark period of time. And yes the reunion will happen between the saver and and saved two beautiful people on the eve of Thanksgiving. And saved one will be able to thank his savior in person for the first time.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
  7. Jesus

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DHBo7ka3YZQ

    November 27, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
  8. Yaya

    M.erry Ch.ristmas to both of them :)

    November 27, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
    • truth

      yes, the best of holidays

      November 27, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
  9. Yaya

    M.e.r.r.y. C.h.r.i.s.t.m.a.s to both of them :)

    November 27, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  10. Yaya

    Merry Christmas to both of them!!

    November 27, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  11. C h r i s t m a s

    Merry Christmas to both of them... God must be so proud of you.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  12. Thankful

    and to know the vatican cut a deal with Catholic Hitler to protect themselves first while this was going on. We can be thankful to the others for their efforts as this story.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
  13. Garry Basu

    I am not a Jew but visited Auschwitz and Birkenew concentration camps in Poland and also watched "Schindler's List". I can co-relate this having gone through the Nazi horror stories and having been to these camps. There were and still are so many good people around us. May God bless them.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      Lol @ I watched Schindler's List. Really man? You know Jewish Hollywood lies, right? Just like Spielberg did when he claimed 11 million Jews dead.

      Want to study a real slaughter? Check out the Holodomor.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • Trayvizzle

      Good Goy.

      [hand rubbing intensifies]

      November 27, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  14. Rick

    A beautiful story from a horrific time in history. Gives me hope that the human spirit will always survive, despite the hate, intolerance, and lack of compassion which seems to be everywhere, especially during election season.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:45 pm |
  15. Theodore Hyczko

    Jesus Christ says to love God with all your heart love your neighbor as yourself and love your enemies
    The world would be a much better place if we did that

    November 27, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
  16. Thinkergal

    The real question is why there were not more of the righteous and brave who could live out their faith in the face of danger.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
  17. abbydelabbey

    Polziec is a very righteous man who did what others should have done. I am so glad that they can have this reunion after all these years. Bless them all and it is a miracle indeed.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
  18. jodi

    Karma. Thank you for a wonderful story.Hopefully you all have family stories from when your grandparents were there. Take care all.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  19. John

    Thanks for sharing such a historic experience! Proof that some people stood their ground and stood by their beliefs even though their lives were at great risk. This is the definition of bravery! Puts "Thanksgiving" in perspective!

    November 27, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
  20. Tina

    What a beautiful, heartwarming story. The news should be full of stories like these, of normal people doing extraordinary things just out of love for others.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:33 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.