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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. Emma Goldman

    A grand story of heroism and bravery against the evil and ugliness that keeps expressing itself. Unfortunately, evil does not see a problem with itself and so the nazis still live, just with other names.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  2. Jason

    Courage to do the right thing is admirable, given that they weren't rich or powerful makes it so much more difficult. What a great story, just wish I had half that courage.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  3. Maida

    Great Story! Once more we see that in all the bad in the world there is some good that drives some of us. This story really hits home for me and many of the Bosnians across the world as we went through the same horrors of a war but just in the 1990's. Happy Holidays to both families!

    November 27, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  4. Ted

    The sad reality is, that today Millions of Muslims wish all Jews dead, and in Middle East their hate is being taught early on.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Pink Eagle

      And how does that differ from millions of Americans wishing all Muslims were dead?

      November 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • bostontola

        There are lots of ignorant people in every group. The difference is, the official policy of the US does not advocate that, the official policy of multiple countries/organizations in the middle east is to obliterate Israel.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      Before Yiddish Europeans showed up in the Middle East and began slaughtering the people there, stealing their lands in their homes, and began ethnically cleansing the population I bet you those people had no opinion of Yiddish Europeans.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Kate

      Google "Albania Jews WWII." M uslim Albania is the only country in Europe where Jewish population INCREASED during the Holocaust. Because Albania was behind the Iron Curtain, their story isn't well known. But Israel has confirmed that of the 2000 Jews who sought refuge in Albania, not a SINGLE betrayal has been reported.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  5. NeoKat1

    A truly beautiful story to pass on for generations. Thank you for sharing!! I applaud the courage and faithfulness to God of this Catholic family. God bless them all.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  6. Another Voice

    Throughout all of the evils men have done to one another, there have always been some that said no and worked to try and offset that evil. Whether they did so quietly in the shadows, or publicly standing in the town square, whether they did so out of religious training or from a deep sense of justice and compassion without religion - we must remember the actions of these people and hold them as our heroes. Forget the entertainers, athletes and politicians. The true heroes are those who take a stand to help others.

    This Thanksgiving I am thankful that, even though there are evil people in the world, there are also people that are genuinely good and strive to do what is right. I will try to remember and follow their example.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • mzh

      May The Almighty make it easy on them and through out the mankind and keep them in good health and bless them with great blessing, amine

      Peace

      November 27, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  7. David Stern

    There should be some fund raising activity in favor of these brave Poles. Money will not re pay for their good deeds but will help.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  8. q

    GOD BLESS BOTH FAMILIES!

    November 27, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • DustyOnes

      Amen.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Yes! God bless them, but not everyone else that was killed.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  9. Mark

    My heart breaks while reading this... its a very touching story. I cant imagine living in such a time (that really wasn't that long ago).

    Those making negative comments here should really be ashamed and wish that they never are the object of such hatred and violence.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  10. mzh

    “How wonderful to be reunited”

    We all will have to taste death and then raise on that day for accountability and there will be family reunion in heavens and outside of heavens where no one wish to be… what a great loss for the one who would be reunited outside of the heavens like the people of Noah who did not believe in him, people of Lot did things that they were not supposed to do, pharaoh with his army and many more… on the other hand Noah with the ones who believed in him, Abraham and his family who are submitted as Abraham submitted to The One God Almighty, Lot and his daughters and many more…

    Those who go to Egypt to visit those museums of pharaoh and gets so obsessed but does anyone give it a reason that why pharaoh was drowned with his army and get the cause and look into him/herself and compare? I guess most of us we do not… so what if I happen to follow the way pharaoh followed? Then would I be end up like him? And many more question one can ask him/herself…

    Peace and happy holidays to all…

    November 27, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      why are you talking about stories from your bronze age book like they really happened?

      November 27, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
      • mzh

        D:

        Would you deny your previous generation like your grand father? would you be able to bring him back or your childhood time when you just came out of your mom? do you remember those days when you used to be completely dependent on others even for very little thing?

        I guess the answer will be NO... no one can deny the past whether it was ten years or hundreds... now the question is to believe in the past, there are diff opinions, here comes the question which one to believe... what are the criterias to use in order for me to accept one out of many... we have to use our intellect in this regards...

        Peace

        November 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • bostontola

      Paraphrased:

      Believe or suffer for eternity.

      Peace and happy holidays to all…

      November 27, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  11. Dyslexic doG

    hello double standards.

    how can you credit your god for this family's salvation and not blame god for the deaths of so many others.

    either your god is in control or he isn't. either he cares or he doesn't. you can't have it both ways!

    November 27, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      They like their false sense of security, that feeling that God is watching out for them. And when tragedy strikes another family they justify it with musings in their heads about the others not being as worthy or not trying hard enough which is why bad things befell them. It is the same as a person thanking God for some NFL team win without ever considering how moronic it would be if God actually cared about a stupid football game and to actually bless one team over the other.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  12. Love&All

    Genocide and holocausts stem from men being in power.

    Just sayin'...

    November 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      I don't understand what you are trying to say. Please expand?

      November 27, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
      • Love&All

        Obviously that millions of innocent people died because simple-minded men are in power and yield control over groups of other simple-minded men who do their bidding....see Hitler and the Nazis, Stalin and the Soviet police, etc...

        I was just pointing out men have majorly dominated human societies because of their formidable size and aggressive tendencies and need to worship something greater...and we all know with the IQ of the average guy there will ALWAYS be something greater. And the world currently sucks. and we know who to blame.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
        • Kevin

          Just a fat, ugly man hater who is jealous she can't get a look.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Kristin

      Holocausts and Genocides are theoretically the same thing...

      November 27, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  13. Hani

    What a beautiful touching story of selflessness, compassion and putting others lives first over one's own safety at the risk of unimaginable consequences if found out. How often do we hear of such virtues and kind deeds in today's day and time? This article is merely bringing forth the immense moral integrity and generosity of the Polziecs. Why can't the readers just focus on that and be thankful that we are living in much better times, for we cannot go back and undo history. How many of you can honestly say that if ever a situation arose, you would be a "Polziec"? Argueing about native Americans, black slavery, the innocent dying at war is immaterial over the internet. You want to raise your voice against injustice...come forth and do something about it instead of fighting like a bunch of middle schoolers.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Referencing your first sentence, people do selfless acts every day. Nothing new. Humans are quite capable of great compassion and sacrifice and that was true before this happened and it is true today. Nice story, nothing new.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
      • Love&All

        I think the point is this man was granted generosity by strangers in the 1940s...most people may help someone out, but not at their own expense, much less their family and very lives.

        However this article implies this man experienced the holocaust because he lived in an attic for a couple of years...yeah, I dunno. Kind of trivializes the whole thing.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
        • Kevin

          Okay, you try living in a 1940's barn attic without making noise under the threat of deportation to the likes of Auschwitz and see how trivial it seems.... some idiocy just baffles the mind.... They survived 1600 of their fellow Jews being herded up and executed outside town as well, I'd say that's a tad more than trivial.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
        • Dad101

          What are you talking about? How is losing your entire family except for your mother trivializing the Holocaust? How about hearing the person brave enough to hide you being beaten by Nazis and being unable to do anything about it because you are hiding in a small shelter underground? Seriously, you need to read the article again if you think it trivializes the Holocaust. My goodness.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
        • gateway

          Wow! His father and siblings gone, he lived in constant fear for two years and you managed to trivialize this into "he lived in an attic"? Either your reading and comprehension or your compassion is very low.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • gramma nance

      A wonderful read! thank you for such well written words-words DO have power!

      November 27, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  14. oldguy68

    A really uplifting article. Thanks for the gift CNN. Great timing with Hanukkah and Thanksgiving occurring so close.

    There will always be evil-past and present- but IMO it's a shame that some people bring it up when there is an opportunity to see good

    November 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  15. bostontola

    Nazi Germany is a stark reminder that there are things worth killing and dying for. For a civilian to stand against that while others cowered, is exceptional.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Ted

      Today, hundreds of millions in Middle East wish that the Nazis murdered all Jews, and their hate is being taught and rewarded from pre-school age.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        And yet before white Yiddish Lithuanians showed up in the Middle East and began terrorizing locals, stealing their land, slaughtering entire villages of men women and children, most Middle Easterners had no opinion of those white Yiddish Europeans.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  16. tired

    thank you for this wonderful story. it will be in my thoughts on thanksgiving day.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
  17. Greg

    Nice story. Really something to be thankful for. I hope there's a video later of their reunion.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  18. Annastasia

    Such a touching story. It brought tears to my eyes. We don't truly realize the depth of sacrifice and risk this was for the Polziec family. They could have had their children killed right before their eyes for what they did. I hope there is a camera there when they finally meet. I wish I could be in the room to spectate the raw emotions they have carried for so long...

    November 27, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  19. Dyslexic doG

    a heartwarming story about the strength of the human spirit.

    it's a shame people are trying to somehow link it to some imaginary bronze age daddy figure in the sky.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Gol

      My gosh you are a downer. Can't you guys just enjoy a story without having to give in to your snarky behavior?

      November 27, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        Gol, you are the one doing the criticizing. I agree with D-Dog.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        as I said it's "a heartwarming story about the strength of the human spirit."

        giving any credit to any imaginary creature like santa claus or the tooth fairy or the local woodland gods or yahweh or jesus or the god of barn attics ... all are infantile foolishness and detract from the true bravery of Maria and Stanislaw Polziec

        November 27, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          Agree.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • dbarak

      You could have stopped with your first sentence and you would have achieved so much more -. you would have shown your admiration for the human spirit; you wouldn't have castigated those who do the right thing in the name of religion; and lastly, you wouldn't have made yourself seem like an a ss hole.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
      • dbarak

        That was aimed at you Dyslexic DoG.

        With that last sentence you completely unraveled what you tried to express in your first sentence. You showed exactly the opposite trait of the subjects of the story – intolerance.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
      • God

        "you wouldn't have castigated those who do the right thing in the name of religion"

        I will only be saving those who do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. Many are saying they have done powerful works in my name and I am saying I don't know any of them.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
        • dbarak

          You knob.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
      • Kevin

        Yep, no less annoying than the religious who have to interject their views everywhere that I'm sure he is ready to condemn... Two sides of the same coin.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
        • dbarak

          I see your point, however there is often one difference. In many cases, most I'd dare to say, comments from religious believers tend to at least contain positive messages, whereas comments from non-believers, if the comments address religion, tend to be negative. This isn't universal of course, but a generality that I see. In case you're wondering, I number myself among the "ain't sure" crowd. I have no proof that an afterlife exists, I have no faith or belief that an afterlife exists, although I hope one does. I call myself a hopeful agnostic. ; )

          November 27, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • INVMA

      The only reason the Polish family risked saving Jews is because they believed in the morality set forth by the "Bronze Daddy In the Sky." Almost without exception, the only people who did protect Jews were religious believers.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        that statement is SO incorrect it displays the fantasy world in which you live.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
      • Me

        I believe they helped because of their compassion for their fellow humans. These were truly compassionate people risking their lives for others. Sadly, I feel we are losing this compassion in today's society.

        November 27, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      I agree, it is a shame. Credit should be given where credit is due, and all the credit goes to those people who took risks to save the lives of others. God took no risk here and apparently was standing silently by as 6 million Jews were hunted down and murdered by people who claimed to be Catholic and had "Gott Mit Uns" (God be with us) on their belts and hats. I'm much happier in the thought that there was no God standing by the oven doors letting it happen.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        exactly!

        November 27, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      Well said. :-)

      November 27, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  20. Brad

    If you aren't commenting on the story please shut up.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      That would apply to you right now, so I guess we won't be hearing from you anymore.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Leon Spinks

      I likes eggths.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Strangely, many have mistaken the soul "entering" the body with that of the soul "leaving" the body. Ensoulment takes place at death when you are made into a god part. You see, God is a collective. Many soulganisms are entwined to create a powerful deity.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
      • Just the Facts Ma'am...

        I think you misspelled just one word there, it should read "Many soulganisms are entwined to create a powerful doodie."

        November 27, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          My bad.

          November 27, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      There is a reverse side to reality; I can see it in my feverish dreams

      The power of the anti-world is as frightening to me as a gun to my temple; exciting and dangerous

      So many possibilities yet so few people willing to climb out from the tall grass to embrace the magnificence of being conscious

      Hiding behind fantasies rather than breathing in the thick air of strangeness

      November 27, 2013 at 12:48 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.