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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. Krompir

    There are thousands of stories like this one, the sad part is that few people do much to highlight them. I've read several sources, Jewish and non Jewish from shortly after WW11 and several years later...Pius X11 was very instrumental in organizing and asking Catholics throughout all of Europe to help those in need. Jews deny it today and I find it shameful that anyone would deny these gestures from Catholics...Golda Meir, Albert Einstein and so many other prominent Jews praised the pope while today's Jews are ungrateful, disrespectful and deny the undeniable!

    I've always enjoyed reading and hearing about humans helping each other throughout history, it puzzles me to learn how ungrateful many can be!

    November 27, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  2. EasyRhino

    Can let a month or even a week pass without another holocaust story

    November 27, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      And this obviously bothers you – Jew hater.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Holocaust stories are much more real than christmas stories. More real as in backed up by actual evidence vs. none for The Babble.

      November 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  3. Steve

    It has already has occurred. Many times, in Africa and elsewhere. The world stands by and does nothing yet again

    November 27, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • YesOkBut

      But we can respond.. we always can.

      November 29, 2013 at 12:54 am |
  4. tc

    Faith and miracles – great story!

    November 27, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
  5. skeptisketch

    These prisoners were freed by a miracle? Really? Isn't more accurate that they were freed by the 70 million allied soldiers who fought the axis, and the 18 million who gave their lives? It is a disgrace what happened to the Jews and other vulnerable minorities in WWII, I don't see evidence for a "miracle" anywhere.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • jim

      Well, we tend to describe any low probability event that happens as a miracle. Truth is, for every happy ending story like this in the holocaust (or anywhere else for that matter) there are 10000 with an unhappy ending. Wonder where the "miracle god" was for these people.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
  6. frank

    i got my basement ready for any minority if the tea party gets into power

    November 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
    • Trayvizzle

      get your wife ready too. she needs some "cultural enrichment" yo. me an tyrone gonna tax dat, HARD.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
    • Airwear78

      You are an idiot. Your comment perfectly fits your hateful personality.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
  7. Akira

    These r nice Jew haters. All part of that conspiracy to take over the world thru destroying Jews. Soso

    November 27, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • Jerry Davis

      Non-Jewish goyem losers always jealous of the winners who happen to be disproportionately Jews.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • Akira

      Not me above.
      Get a life, Jeff.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  8. sam stone

    Donkey punch can't sleep. Getting read for eternity in flames of hatred

    November 27, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
  9. AndyM

    Lest We Forget...

    November 27, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
  10. SearingTruth

    "A life, delivered in the service of liberty, endures forever."
    SearingTruth

    A Future of the Brave

    November 27, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
  11. Przemyslaw

    I'm proud to be Polish.....we did save a lot of people....unfortunately not everyone recognizes it...

    November 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • Jerry Davis

      Nothing to be proud of. ASHAMED is more appropriate. 1 out of a million righteous poles is the harsh reality. They plundered the Jew's assets, homes, possessions and after the war refused to return anything. Victimized by Nazis and then Poles.

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

        Really? It looks like you missed big part of history. I'm not going going to argue with you, but I fell sorry for you for luck of knowledge and one-way thinking....
        Good luck anyway, and I hope some day you will understand more...

        November 27, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  12. Doug

    What a great story... I just wonder if the Jewish man has any regrets for not sending a large sum of money to this man's parents.... The parents not only risked their lives, but they risked the lives of their children... To read how wealthy this man became and read he sent a care package, wow... I would be ashamed to meet this man today...

    November 27, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • Jerry Davis

      You are so stupid, it's pathetic. This is not about money. And how do you know or even care how much if any money was given one way or another. Typical American mindset. All they know is money, money, more money and cheap thrills or lying, cheating, stealing to get it. .

      November 27, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      C'mon man, Jews giving money to a non-Jew is a crime for Jews. Shouldn't expect these honorable and pure people to break their laws can you?

      November 27, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
    • Helmut

      Doug your comments need a reply. A Care Package now and then was extremely valuable at the time, i.e. just after the war when no one had enough clothing or food in Poland or Germany. Money meant nothing at the time as there were no goods to purchase.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  13. Steven Budovlya

    You are insane. This just shows how educated you.are. You should be ashamed of yourself to bad your mother didnt have miscarriage with you.

    For everyone else Happy Holidays!

    November 27, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
    • Steven Budovlya

      My last remark was to "holocaust hoax"

      November 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
      • GAW

        I think that the CNN moderators removed them. Good

        November 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
      • Alan

        Holocaust Hoax was jettisoned through the airlock into the vacuum of ignorance, perhaps never to be seen or heard from again. Their untimely departure seemed to coincide with my warning them the FBI was likely watching them, so they better behave themselves and not cause harm to anyone. It's scary how many hostile people crawl out of the woodwork whenever an article like this surfaces.

        November 27, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
        • GAW

          He's back playing somewhere else trying to prove that the earth is flat.

          November 27, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
        • Alan

          That being the case, I'm guessing he's one of the so-called "experts" being interviewed on the FOX News Flat Earth Special with that famous blonde interviewer FOX always calls on for really important stories, oh, what's her name.

          November 27, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
        • shlomo shecklestein

          not as scary as this liberal echochamber of white guilt

          November 27, 2013 at 10:17 pm |
      • robin

        Definition of freedom of speech: Don't say anything against holo(sorry,forgot the spelling)cust. Lets tell the story of our own 4000+ soldiers who died in wars or about thousands of them who became disable and begging everyday to die. Publish these stories 1 in everyday. How many years we will need? If we get extra time, fine, publish some other stories.

        November 27, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  14. urnotathinkerareu

    http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/orgs/american/skeptic-magazine/skeptic-12.html

    Proof of the gas chambers

    November 27, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  15. Bride

    My husband is 91 and was Prisoner of War from the Nazis for a year. He was on a march for 86 days sleeping in barns with animals and lice all over, trying to find something to eat. Some were killed, he lived till the liberation came. He is writing a book about the last mission, IN GOD'S TIME, available next Spring.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
    • GAW

      Many thanks for your husbands courage.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  16. ancv1992

    I was moved to tears by this story of human goodness and the courage to do what is right. Thank you, Mr. Polziec, for caring about the safety and wellbeing of one Jewish family, and at the risk of your own life. May G-d bless you always!

    November 27, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  17. Carl, Secaucus, NJ

    Here's what Churchill had to say about the Holocaust, by the way. It also mentions Eisenhower's reaction:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/churchill_holocaust_01.shtml

    November 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  18. zenaida

    I loved this story. It is also a perfect example of free will. So many people stood by and did nothing. They claimed to not know. Yet in this story we see the humanity. It is a great THANKSGIVING story but its also a great humanity story.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
    • Zwei Stein

      You are being naive...or maybe you just haven't had to exist in a war-torn, war-zone. The people who lived close enough may have had good guesses about what was happening, but those people had no means of doing anything about it. There was an army there that civilian old men, women and children could not fight with pitch forks and good intentions. Talk brave when you are nice and warm and well fed...not to mention safe from a constant threat of real life and death violence.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
  19. Alan

    I love happy endings.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
    • Jerry Davis

      Keep watching movies in La La land. Realty is very different

      November 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  20. screwyouallhaters

    I'm surprised that many of these stinky comments are not moderated. Sham on you, you know nothing about war and suffering. Read, learn and respect! God bless these two men.

    November 27, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
    • Alan

      Click on "Report Abuse" whenever there are hate comments whether anti-Semitic or racist. The whole thread is sent into the digital void for those comments, I've observed. CNN moderators are doing a good job.

      November 27, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        The Hasbara censorship team earning its nickels and dimes.

        November 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
      • shlomo shecklestein

        oy vey, this lack of censorship is like another holocaust! THREE TIMES I was disagreed with! oh the horror!

        November 27, 2013 at 10:21 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.