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. Brian

    Have been checking back for the video of these two meeting all day and now you post a still shot. Where is it?

    November 27, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  2. Anthony Ames

    I suppose one definition of "hero" would be someone who continues to act decently when no one else around him/her is.

    November 27, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  3. BuckeyeBubba

    Inspiring and the true meaning of courage, bravery, and compassion.

    November 27, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
  4. Kevin in San Diego

    Good story, no criticism there. But people going way beyond the call to do the right thing, nor the holiday of thanksgiving in general, are not religious issues and ought not be on a "Religion Blog".

    November 27, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  5. yep

    bless him

    November 27, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  6. DianaLMN

    Thank God that there are still decent people in this world.

    November 27, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Bob

      Diana, shouldn't you also be fair and blame god for the jerks too? And if not, why not? Why only give your god credit for the good guys, if he really created it all?

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

      November 27, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  7. Momof2

    What a wonderful story. It goes to show that holidays, should be about realizing about the good in all of us and being thankful for those few human beings who do have a heart, conscience and mind to care about others.

    November 27, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  8. The Canadian

    A touching story.

    November 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  9. Nom de plume

    Here is a similar story in another article. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/war-bonds/Content?oid=895017

    November 27, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  10. My Dog is a jealous Dog

    I was also deeply moved by this story, and would like everyone to know that there are many, many families with stories like these, and not all of them have happy endings. My wife speaks about her father-in-law (from her first marriage) who was conscripted sequentially by the Polish army, the German army, and finally the Russian army. This poor man was tormented his entire life by the events of that time. In researching some of my family (my grandfather came from Poland as a young boy around the turn of the century – and later fought in the Pacific in WWII), I came across this testimony from one of the holocaust sites. I have redacted my family name to somewhat preserve the illusion of my anonymity:

    Shlomo ********* from Szczuczyn worked on the farm of a Polish peasant named Adamczyk to whom he gave all his possessions, including a cow. Daily, he brought milk to the ghetto for those who were ill. A maid working on the farm informed the Germans of Shlomo's activities. They ordered him, with his wife Tzvia to come to headquarters where they were killed immediately. That night, the Polish police came demanding their children, too. Neighbors summoned Chaim-Leib LIDSKI from the Judenrat to save the children, a boy of four and a girl of six. Lidski hid the children and said, "I will save them and give myself instead." The next day, the Germans killed the KOPELMAN family–man, wife, and two daughters. A son working in Rozanka survived. Still the police demanded the KOPELMAN and ******** children. Three Jewish policemen brought them to the Germans. They were sent away but summoned again after a few hours. Then, the Germans killed one of the policemen, two ******* children, and the KOPELMAN's son with his wife. The little ******* children later were found in the garbage can of the police yard, embracing one another.

    The image of this haunted me for quite some time when I first found it.

    November 27, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • pauljack

      Dearl lord that story brought me to tears. Amazing the hate people can have over religion, race and color. Ridiculous. Those poor children. I don't think I'll ever forget what I read.

      November 27, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
      • My Dog is a jealous Dog

        BTW – my family was Catholic.

        November 27, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
      • My Dog is a jealous Dog

        This was simply a single paragraph I found about my family in huge archives of testimonies like this. It was very difficult to read more than a screen or two before I literally felt ill and had to stop. In another account of this incident the children were described as being naked as well as embracing each other in the garbage can.

        November 27, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • Nom de plume

      Check out this story. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/war-bonds/Content?oid=895017

      November 27, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  11. Poland

    Russia didn't liberated Poland. They brought communism in. Out of the frying pan and into the fire i would say .

    November 27, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • LT Fang

      They also occupies a chunk of land that rightfully belongs to Poland to this day.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Chris

      Yes, but at the time they didn't know that. Freedom from the Nazi propaganda and murder machine was an improvement.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
      • Poland

        Yes it was but still we cannot say that Russia had good intentions. Communism is a Communism it also takes away the freedom, calling it liberation is just wrong due to the fact that a lot of people has died or was captivated in prison thanks to this "liberation".

        November 27, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
        • Tom Trainor

          Trust me not much freedom in the USA either. TOday all those socialist nations in Europe have got more freedom than the USA and they are safer too with nobody going around shooting at you with assault weapon. They also get better, FREE, medical care and better, FREE, education. They are healthier and live longer. ALso cops in Europe dont go around abusing, tazing or killing innocent people the way it happens each week in the USA.

          November 27, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
      • LT Fang

        They knew. Poland was sliced up by both Hitler and Stalin. The world only remembered Nazi's aggression, and did not emphasize Soviet's invasion because Soviet was a victor.

        November 27, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  12. annier

    A wonderful, uplifting story. Not surprising, are the few who need to post hateful, hate-filled comments. My father's observation of those would be "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise'. Best wishes to Mr Gersten, his family, and the Polziecs.

    November 27, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • V. Osborne

      Thank You for a wonderful story.

      November 27, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  13. Juan Ramirez

    I still can not believe this is the history of our world. I wish he would share his story in a book. Definitely touched by the kindness and braveness of Polziec family

    November 27, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • TexanWarrior

      Whenever socialism is allowed to take root - misery always ensues.

      November 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  14. Marek

    So would you then blame Christianity for the crimes of the communists too? When the bolsheviks/communits took the power Russia was a Christian nation so following your logic any wrong doings on its part were result of Christian and not communist ideology? Nazist ideology must have had its roots in Christianity then too and Nazi officials were practising Christians seeking endorsment of God in their actions is that what you are saying. Perhaps both ideologies were a product of a rational industrial societies that once released from shackels of religion didnt know how to otherwise express their love for humanity.

    November 27, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Chris

      What article were you reading? This story was about a family that did what was right in the midst of mindless murder. It is a story of friendship, compassion, and honor.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
      • Marek

        It was meant to be a reply to an earlier comment and by itself looks out of place so my apologies for the confusion. Probably indirectly a sign that discussing history and giving in to anti-Christian conversations takes away from the story itself.

        November 27, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      Seriously? Your false logic is an insult to false logic. Judeo-Bolshevikism was born from Jews, led by Jews, and massacred trends of millions of Christians and attempted to remove Christianity from Eastern Europe. Your Jewish Lenin, who was more than Jewish enough to get into Israel if alive today, your Trotsky, your Marx.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
      • moses

        to metztnazi b'peh is gross:to maz nazi :all anti-Semites like you, should know that any crime against Jews will get proper punishment. Bolshevism was Jewish political movement to punish anti-Semites of 19 & 20 century. Remember who executed Russian czar and his children? No one can even imagine that ruler of biggest Emporium will be executed by few young Jews guys. Why Czar Nikolas was executed, because he initiated Jewish pogroms killing thousand innocent and helpless Jews!

        November 27, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
        • metzitzat b'peh is gross

          Come give me my proper punishment if you have the manhood...that hasn't been chopped off and sucked on by a filthy mohel.

          November 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      It isn't a matter of blaming Christianity.
      It is historical fact that the Third Reich frequently invoked Christian rhetoric to rally the German people.
      It is obvious to us that what happened during that regime was about as far away from teh teachings of Christ as is possible – and yet somehow the Bibilical rhetoric worked, just as Bolshevik polemics riled up the people of Communist Russia.
      The issue needs to be raised to believers and non-believers alike. How can a nation of people miss the outright hypocrisy of using a belief system ostensibly predicated on compassion, charity and humility to argue in favour of genocide?

      November 27, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
      • Tom Trainor

        Just like "christians" Bush and Cheney invading Iraq based on lies and killing over 200,000 innocent Iraqi babies, women and men. Like Nazis.

        November 27, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • generalnotsew

      What are you blathering about? Do you even understand what you are saying or are you just vomiting words? Go preach elsewhere and stop crapping all over this wonderful story.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  15. Swanand Rao

    This is an amazing article that I have read in a LONG TIME !!! Inspiring !! Touching !!! and all adjectives of righteousness that can be applied !!!

    November 27, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Swanand Rao

      It reminds me of the "Pregnant Deer Scenario" – http://lli.quora.com/Magic-of-Life-Stochastic-Probability-Theory-of-Life

      November 27, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  16. DaveNewYorkUSA

    A wonderful story of survival, morals, belief and LOVE.

    November 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  17. str8whtguy

    Wow. Just wow. I just looked at the picture of Gersten's tremendous extended family, and realized that they never would have been without the kindness and bravery of Polziec and his family. Even in the midst of the most horrible of human brutality and evil, there exist many acts of kindness, bravery, and heroism. Mazel Tov to both of you! (no, i'm not Jewish).

    November 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  18. SR

    Well written article

    November 27, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  19. skytag

    When the Nazis rose to power the population in Germany was overwhelmingly Christian and about a third of them were Catholics. It is a searing indictment of Christianity that a so heavily Christian nation could embrace Nazism and engage in so much outright aggression against other nations and peoples.

    November 27, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Tom Trainor

      ANd in 2003, long after WW2, a "Christian" nation like the USA invaded and attacked Iraq for not reason at all and all based on lies and over 200,000 innocent Iraqi babies, women and men were killed.

      November 27, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Marv44

      You need to read "Bonhoffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy" by Metaxas before you make such ill-informed accusations and correlations. You also need to read the New Testament to understand what Christianity is before claiming "Christians" embraced Naziism.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      And Bolsheviks were far more Jewish than Nazis were Christian.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • Terry

      It's easy to be a Monday Morning quarterback.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Martin Luther's teaching had an enormous influence on the German people, especially his anti-semitic polemics like "On The Jews and Their Lies".
      The Vatican's assistance to Nazi war criminals in providing them safe passage to South America via their "ratlines" is well docu/mented. Pius XII became known as "Hitler's Pope"
      Christian theology – both Catholic and Protestant – was used by the Nazis to legitimize their atrocities.
      Hence Third Reich uniforms were emblazoned with the slogan "Gott mit Uns" (God is with us).

      November 27, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
      • ChangingFate

        You can not blame the faith on the failings of it's followers. Well, maybe you can, but it is a misguided blame to say the least. Just like I would not blame all Muslims for the attack on 9/11, I do not blame all Christians for the acts done for personal gain they seek to attribute to God. If I were to punch someone in the face and tell them God told me to do it, it doesn't mean He actually did nor does it mean He endorses the actions I take. Free will is free will.

        November 27, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
        • Doc Vestibule

          As I mention above, the issue needs to be raised to believers and non-believers alike: How can a nation of people miss the outright hypocrisy of using a belief system ostensibly predicated on compassion, charity and humility to argue in favour of genocide?

          It isn't about blaming religion – it is about questioning groupthink and how I can go horribly wrong.

          November 27, 2013 at 3:31 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.