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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. Bryan Green

    It's curious that Gersten states: “I have ambivalent feelings about going back there.” Poland may be predominantly catholic, but there was a time, before the Nazi occupation, when it was the best place in Europe for the cultural support and mixing of Jews and Christians. It's a shame that this meets with ambivalence on the part of Gersten and other Jews with ties to the area – is it the Nazi past or something else? Thinking ahead, i am a bit inclined to say that Poland, especially Krakow and a few other places, may grow to be places where Jews can re-emerge and prosper within Europe.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  2. Selmers

    The Nazis believed in gun control.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
  3. children of Israel

    Who killed Christ, the Romans with the help of the elders and the chief priests. Who supports the Roman catholic church? All of these antichrists. Why is the Pope blowing incense? That is an abomination to YASHIYA the Christ – Jeremiah 31:9 for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. (St. John 11:54) *Psalm 60:7 Judah is my lawgiver;

    November 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
  4. Erick Holmes

    While I do condemn what the Nazis did, which was sick, gruesome and just plain horrible, people need to realize that Stalin was just as bed if not worse. He killed hundreds and thousands, and sent thousands to Siberia prison camps. Makes me wonder what would have happened if Hitler would have listened to his men and pulled out of Stalingrad when he had the chance, instead of hoping they could be resupplied.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
  5. Lovin Me Jewish Media

    Great story media Jews...Yawn....How many billion were killed? I am sure this number will grow and grow, and the American sheep will continue to believe these wonderful stories. Bahhhhh Bahhhhhh

    November 27, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • rafael

      Are you always this stupid or is it the anonymity?

      November 27, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  6. children of Israel

    AHAYAH is our God I Am: These fraudulent Jewish folks are the synagogue of satan. The holocaust is not written in the Holy Bible. But slavery going from Egypt is in the Holy scriptures (Deuteronomy 28:68) Israel sons and daughters were put on slave ships and sold to their enemies! When were Jewish people ever in Africa as slaves? Going to the America's and the caribbean islands -Deuteronomy 28:15

    November 27, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • Akira

      How can you call yourself a child of Israel and bash Jewish people and deny the Holocaust?

      November 27, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
  7. LaLa

    CUTE!

    November 27, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
  8. children of Israel

    These fradulent Jewish folks are the synagogue of satan. The holocaust is not written in the Holy Bible. But slavery going from Egypt is in the Holy scriptures (Deuteronomy 28:68) Israel sons and daughters were put on slave ships and sold to their enemies! When were Jewish people ever in Africa as slaves? Going to the America's and the caribbean islands -Deuteronomy 28:15

    November 27, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • Akira

      How can you call yourself a child of Israel and bash the Jewish people and the Holocaust?

      November 27, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
  9. Cassarit

    Hmmmm
    It seems that only Pro Jewish comments don't get deleted.
    So much for using these forums as thermometers of public opinion.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
  10. John Rosen

    The holocaust is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. Jews are very family orientated, focused, and tend to be highly educated. They have been persecuted for centuries and manage to overcome obstacles time and time again. If all minority groups were as motivated as the jews, the landscape of the US would be totally different.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • AC

      forget about the minority groups, majority is failed group here. Whites have less graduation level and low income than Indian Americans. And do not lump all minority groups as one. Only blacks and hispanics are messed up.

      November 28, 2013 at 12:12 am |
  11. Bart Rainsky

    Why don't You name Mr. Czeslaw Polziec, a Pole (???) and don't switch the word "Nazi" for "German"???!

    November 27, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  12. sweet2th

    Amazing pic of them now, reuniting. Caption contest or pulitzer prize applies.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  13. THANK YOU GOD - for saving me and letting all those others die!

    Cuz that's how our LOVING and ALL MERCIFUL god works.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:10 pm |
    • Akira

      That's how some get saved. U will plead 4 mercy when the pain gets a little too unbearable, mouth

      November 27, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  14. stayinalive

    "Czech industrialist Oskar Schindler" – he was German, not Czech.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  15. Jumbo

    I knew this story would not be very popular on CNN. The level of antisemitism in this blog is amazing. You have to be either gay or a socialism to be accepted in this doman.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      Actually, Nazis exterminated gays as they did the Jews. Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is considered the most gay-friendly city in the world. So, the fact that most American gays are so anti-Israel just goes to show how ignorant Americans are – both gay and straight.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
  16. Pat Evans

    Correction... The Communist News Network has just cencored the last 5 posts! Fucin Commies!

    November 27, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
  17. springthecat

    WAIT! Is this hijacking Thanksgiving? Hanukkah is supposed to celebrate events from 2000 years ago. Now, on the eve of Thanksgiving the CNN crew is turning it into a Jewish event with Holocaust stories. What gives?

    November 27, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • Informed1207

      It may surprise you, but Thanksgiving is not the only event going on in the world.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      This story is about giving thanks. That's what Thanksgiving means. The lack of WWII history instruction has lead to a generation of Nazi sympathizers in the US as it is apparent from a myriad of Jew- hating posts that praise Holocaust. This is a great achievement of the American democracy and freedom of speech (hate).

      November 27, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
      • Chaim sheckleburgstein

        okay, but name one thing hitler did wrong though.

        protip: you can't

        November 28, 2013 at 12:37 am |
  18. Bill

    Interesting story. Glad there is still a connection and the importance of their actions is being highlighted. Sad part of history but one that must be remembered to avoid future events

    November 27, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
    • MAA

      Well said, and sad that so many people on here are just ignorant to history and want to rant, call it what it is, spite at this story. After so many years, stories like this amaze me in a positive way and make me realize that some people are just inherently good. Fantastic article and thank you for sharing. BTW, I'm not American or Jewish but when you read something as strong as this, it shouldn't matter what you are or where you are from. It should just impress and inspire you to be better.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  19. Pat Evans

    Communist News Network just censored my last 2 posts... JUST LIKE PRAVDA!!! GOOD COMMUNISTS!

    November 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  20. TheBob

    Mordechai Vanunu is a true hero. If you ever wonder what human integrity looks like, look to Mordechai Vanunu.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:56 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.