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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. Minerva from LA

    Very moving story, thank you CNN! I am grateful that integrity, loyalty, compassion, tenacity still exist as human traits. We become so selfish and cowardly the more we have. This was a great act of kindness, and look how much it reaped! What a wonderful story to share on T-Day.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  2. bostontola

    I am always moved by stories of courage ans selflessness, this one is extraordinary. Risking one's own life for another is unusual, but risking your family for another family is extraordinary. I really can't say if I would do that. Gut wrenching.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • austin

      walk by faith like Abraham

      November 27, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  3. rob0rah

    Cant even imagine going through all that. Lets hope history never repeats itself in this regard.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  4. rob0rah

    Cant even imagine going through all that.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  5. crazy train

    "Belief?... I dont discuss it anymore...... I have come to realize that there are people that believe in God and can prove beyond any doubt that he DOES exist...... There are people that do not believe in God and can prove beyond any doubt that he DOES NOT exist. But, the aurgument stopped being about God long ago and became an aurgument about who was smarter..... and frankly.... I dont care who is smarter"

    November 27, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Are you suggesting that people who believe in unicorns because there is no proof that they DON'T exist is using logical reasoning in the same way as people who don't believe in unicorns because there is no proof that they do exist?

      November 27, 2013 at 11:27 am |
      • crazy train

        Yes

        November 27, 2013 at 11:31 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          It's very sad that your reasoning can't spot the flaw in such logic. :(

          November 27, 2013 at 11:34 am |
      • crazy train

        no one is even arguing the exsistance of unicorns anymore Cpt. you obviously need to keep up on new is the scientific community..... http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/13/world/asia/vietnam-rare-mammal/ ...... silly Cpt.

        November 27, 2013 at 11:35 am |
      • crazy train

        awwww..... the poor little Cpt. ran out of things to say.... tisk tisk..... you are a terrible troll.... get better

        November 27, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Scuromondo

      I always thought that, by definition, belief or non-belief was a choice made in the face of doubt, not a provable conclusion.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • paul

      Why would you choose to focus on such a mental structure and not embrace the soal fulfilling act of humanity? It is natural for man to take care of his neighbors. It is beauty when such action is taken selfishly.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
    • psalm73

      People believe in God because God has left evidence (internal and external) which those who do not believe do not know or see.

      November 28, 2013 at 1:20 am |
  6. Sgw Munro

    This story of extraordinary heroism by ordinary people of little means brought tears to my eyes.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • ThinkAgain

      Mine, too. Blessings to all people everywhere who see the humanity in each other and do heroic acts every day. Stanislaw and Maria Polziec and their family were courageous and loving and giving beyond words.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  7. somervillechangeling

    As has been pointed out, it would have been harder for ordinary children to not let slip that the family was hiding Jews. The difference between Poland and Holland during the Shoah is this: The Germans did not execute whole Dutch families for hiding Jews. The Germans executed whole Polish families for hiding Jews.

    That's because the Germans at the time considered both Poles and Slavs to be inferior to those of alleged "Aryan" descent, like the Dutch, the Danes and the English. The Polziec family was unimaginably brave to take them in.

    I know a woman who was the daughter and granddaughter of Shoah survivors. Her mother was hidden by a Polish family as a young child during the whole war while her grandmother pretended to be Catholic in another city. That family of rescuers was brave too. The choice was much starker in Poland than anywhere else and in Poland religious based antisemitism was stronger than in liberal western Europe that claimed the Enlightenment.

    As for the simpleton atheists who like to troll stories like this, the one sensible argument that works for me is that God allows us all freedom of action. We are free to choose our beliefs, and our actions in times of weal and of woe. Many who thought themselves brave showed cowardice during the Shoah, and many who felt they were nothing special proved they were heroes.

    Most were bystanders and might have prayed for the Jews and Romani but could not find the courage to help. Still others thought they were enlightened moderns believing in equal rights, or faithful Christians who went to church every Sunday but when they were faced with the horrors, either their fear or their prejudice took over.

    I'm a Christian but I would have been Jewish enough for Hitler to have murdered. I pray that Jesus returns soon to reconcile Jews and Christians and to redeem the world. Reductionists rely on sociobiology and brain chemistry to explain what it means to be human, they believe that each society can determine it's morals but cannot explain why the morals of the Allies trumped the morals of the Axis, other than the historical fact of victory.

    Since I trust in God, I can understand why the morals of the Allies trumped that of the Axis and why, though people suffer evil in all generations, the world is progressing towards redemption. Christ will wipe away all tears in the New Heavens and the New Earth. This fallen world is not eternal but the human soul and human hopes are eternal.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • unpcpc

      Do you also trust in the Easter Bunny?

      November 27, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
      • GreyGhost

        Does it make you feel good to insult a person's faith? How petty your life must be.

        November 27, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
        • Religion is a disease

          Yes, mocking the Jewish fait is as legitimate as you probably mock the Scientology faith. At the end there's a few who got rich and the rest gets played for suckers. National Socialism was at the end a religion and like all religions it must rid itself of other religions.

          November 28, 2013 at 12:20 am |
        • psalm73

          @ religion is a disease....
          The greater disease is possessed by those who think they know all about religion and condemn it categorically.

          November 28, 2013 at 1:26 am |
  8. Lawrence of Arabia

    I love it when my posts get deleted...
    Note to self – never post anything that disagrees with the majority opinion.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Every regular poster here has had posts deleted. Guess which side most often claims some weird form of personal persecution?

      November 27, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • Topher

      That's because of WHAT gets deleted. Atheists are dropping f-bombs and their posts remain. I had "Good morning, everyone" deleted.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • :)

      Poor lil' old persecuted you.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • :)

      Oops! sorry for being so snotty there, Lawrence – got you confused with someone else.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • juanmoretime

      That's right, thank God the majority are not morons.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • Religion is a disease

      I think that they simply have a threshold on the "Report abuse" . Nobody actually looks like at that, it just just gets deleted if enough people don't like what you have to say. So how dare you of saying anything mitigating against the Jewish faith. You will get deleted...evidently.

      November 28, 2013 at 12:24 am |
  9. Max Wendroff

    A real hero. Many times heroes become heroes by impulse. This man had plenty of time to think about what he was doing. This man is a hero above heroes.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:10 am |
  10. Steve

    God won't have a lot to answer for but you and I and the rest of humanity. Do you think atrocities no longer occur today? They do!! What are we doing to help? Most if not all of us go about our days carefree and worrying about trivial things while there is suffering all around. No, God won't have to answer for it, , but you and I surely will.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  11. Seadawg2

    What a glorious story of heroism, sacrifice and compassion by one family for another. I am grateful to hear this on this holiday.It touches my heart.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  12. Marc L

    As years pass, it is human nature to forget or at least diminish historical significances. Certain things should never be forgotten. In fact certain things should be ingrained in us as if they happened yesterday. As the numbers of Holocaust survivors dwindles, I only hope that the horrors of it and lessons from it are never forgotten. It is quite frightening to think that the reality is it may well be forgotten as time goes on.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • Hazel Bailey

      Right on target!

      November 27, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Cfalk

      Well said. I agree. Hopefully, humanity can learn rather than repeat this cycle or pattern of behavior. Hitler was a master manipulator. He convinced himself and his followers that what they were doing was just and acceptable.. Look at our history, we enslaved human beings for a century and to many that was acceptable and as it should be. I dont think we are all born with an innate sense of right and wrong, we are wired differently and our conditioning can program us to walk through life with blinders on not seeing how immoral and wrong our behavior is... I loved this story. If we could all act in a more selfless way, show kindess and expect nothing in return, imagine what a more pleasant world we would have..

      November 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  13. Futureman1

    Stan & DYLANE,

    Instead on criticizing the author of this piece you two dim bulbs should do your own research. If the son was two years older than Gersten then he Czeslaw, was absolutely complicit in risking his family by protecting Gersten's family and keeping it a secret. That's huge. And Stan, Oskar Shindler was an ethnic German but he held Czech citizenship so boom, go pound sand!

    November 27, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  14. Paul Patterson, Tacoma Wa.

    Amazing story. God bless all involved and thank you to the Polziec family for blessing the world with such a brave and beautiful incident of humanity. Although so long ago, it still reminds me that those people "Like the Polziec" are out there.
    With admiration, a non-Jewish, non-related, only affected by the purity of the love of humanity as it was shown through this story, American man.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • george kuczer

      Heart warming, thank you for sharing.
      Greetings and a very happy Thanksgiving to You and Yours.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • Hazel Bailey

      Love your post.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • everythingmenothingyou

      What a beautiful post.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  15. Elle_Lee

    Thank you for a wonderful, uplifting report. There is goodness in the world even in the face of evil. Many generations of the Gerson's may agree with this.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  16. vatoloke

    This story makes my Thanksgiving even more thankful! Thanx CNN!

    November 27, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  17. jerk face

    Is it just me, or does this Gersten guy look exactly like Gibbs' father on NCIS?

    November 27, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  18. cvg22

    Absolutely beautiful story. The photo of the Gersten family today is a testament to the heroic efforts Czeslaw Polziec's family made to maintain humanity when society gave in to the inhumane.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • unpcpc

      Uh, I'm pretty sure we're not supposed to call the Holocaust "beautiful".

      November 27, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  19. Anna

    אלוהים יברך אותך

    May God bless you, Mr. Polziec.

    November 27, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • george kuczer

      Thanks for sharing, Happy Thanksgiving and Hannukah to You and Yours.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  20. WhyConfeds

    This is sad, I bet he feels the same hate for the Nazi flag as most Americans do against the Confederate flag and what it represents...

    November 27, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Plenty of people hate the rebel flag. Perhaps some of them are justified in their reasons. To claim otherwise is sheer stupidity.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:07 am |
      • Scuromondo

        I don't exactly hate it, but is kinda weird that there are U.S. citizens who wax sentimental about past enemies of of the U.S.

        November 27, 2013 at 11:43 am |
        • :)

          Such as Lincoln.

          November 27, 2013 at 11:45 am |
        • Scuromondo

          ...are you saying that Lincoln was sentimental or that he was an enemy of the U.S.? I don't know of any evidence in support of either.

          November 27, 2013 at 11:51 am |
        • :)

          Like you, and pretty much everyone else, I, too had been brainwashed into believing that Lincoln was a great man, worthy of deification. He wasn't . He despised blacks. Wanted every single man, woman and child sent back to Africa or the Caribbean. He did not 'free' a single one. What he did was start a needless war that resulted in the slaughter of over a half million Americans, suspended Habeas Corpus and shut down the press when it dared speak against him. Didn't seem to mind when the psychopath General Sherman openly murdered helpless civilians, either.

          November 27, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
        • Art

          @:) Lincoln didn't start the war. The southern states started it when they seceded. He did what he did to keep the country together. You can make up whatever you want. Hey, it's a free country. As far as blacks go, um who gave the emancipation proclamation? I don't recall anyone forcing him to do that. Who was responsible for the thirteenth amendment? Give me the name of the person who forced him to do that.

          November 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
        • Just the Facts Ma'am...

          He uses a smily face emoticon as his name, that is the first clue the poster doesn't have one...

          November 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
        • :)

          If there is in fact a hell, that's where you will find 'Honest' Abe. Have a Happy-slaughter-of-indigenous-people day.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
        • unpcpc

          Spoken like a true numbskull.

          November 27, 2013 at 6:36 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.