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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. brian

    "But now, almost 70 years after his village in Poland was liberated by the Soviet army,"

    At that date it was still the Red Army. It was renamed the Soviet Army in 1946.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • Rett

      It was still the army of the Soviet Union though, right?

      November 27, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
  2. John G.

    What an inspiring story of courage and love for one's fellow man. Well told and perfectly timed for the holiday season.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      It might have has even more impact if the behavior of the occupied Polish was compared to that of many western nations, run by christians, who turned away Jews, literally by the boatload.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:31 pm |
  3. travismatthew

    Best story I've read in a long time. Thank you CNN, you broke the mold.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  4. Gideon Asche

    וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • Gideon Asche

      that is a Hebrew promise from God,

      "I will bless those that Bless you, and curse those that curse you"

      November 27, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  5. Kim K

    Well said Harry Cline

    November 27, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
  6. Jeff6187

    In this age of "it's not my job" and "I couldn't be bothered"; when the current fad is the "knockout game" while rather than intervene friends just laugh; when the biggest political issue of the year boils down to how can we repeal healthcare so fewer people are covered; ... the most beautiful part of this story is the reminder that what real people do is go out of their way for each other. This brave family went far beyond that, not just housing, hiding and feeding strangers for 2 years ... they did it at the very real risk to their own lives.

    This is a look back and a reminder of the very best that people can and should aspire to today.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
    • Nope

      I know someone who was working for a farmer part-time and wanted to be paid in cash rather than check. Her reason was that if anyone were to look into the paper trail they'd see how much she was making and not get as much in food stamps. The guy old guy said he wasn't going to carry around that kind of cash and that he would rather keep giving her a personal check. She quit. I also know a hair stylist who asks her clients to pay in cash for the same reason. Don't try and demonize people who see this kind of garbage everyday and are sick of a huge chunk of their check going towards supporting lazy dead beats who are scamming the system. Saying that those "mean old Republicans" want to deny sick and poor people decent healthcare is simplistic, naive, and pure nonsense.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
      • My Dog is a jealous Dog

        Did you ever think that this person couldn't make ends meet – feed the family, pay the rent, pay the bills, .... unless some of their income is "under the table"? When I was young (I believe the statute of limitation has expired), I had to wait tables to pay the bills and was very much dependent on unclaimed tips to survive, and I wasn't trying to support a family.

        November 27, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
      • Eleanor Fitzgerald

        The food stamp cheats are breaking the law. However, their crime is small potatoes compared with what Morgan Stanley and other Wall Street mavens managed to do legally, such as bringing down the economy with their subprime mortgage scam, and instead of going to jail receive billions of taxpayer dollars to keep them afloat. The ceiling on income is very low for people to qualify for food stamps. I do not have that problem but wonder how those on food stamps manage to make ends meet. Too many look the other way on the scams and Ponzi schemes of the rich, but are sancitmoniously outraged when a poor person gets one food stamp too many! Walk awhile in their shoes and figure how you would cope.

        November 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
      • Jeff6187

        Thank you for taking this opportunity to spew your own bitterness ... you're simply one of those "I couldn't be bothered" types I mention, and like the others you go around citing every wrong and evil you can as an excuse to justify turning a blind eye. Guess what! I've seen many people who cheat the food stamp, county health, general relief and other services too. It happens. That in no way means that every person going through bad luck or trouble is one of them. We actually have to do some work here and discern which are the "bad people" and which are the "deserving people". It's not too hard. And sometimes we're wrong. Oh well. But it's better than the cold heartless society you seem to wallow in.

        November 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  7. Bribarian

    This Thanksgiving I want to give thanks to Germany.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:19 pm |
  8. brian

    Note how they keep using the word "Nazi" instead of German. Many of those people were rank and file Germans who had no connection with the Nazi party.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
    • Robert

      As were my grandparents, but they didn't shelter anyone. These people make liars of the Germans who claim they COULDN'T have don anything, Nazi or not.

      November 27, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  9. topi

    This is incredible. Love to see things like this.!

    -turn from sin and believe in the death for our sins burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and you shall have eternal life in heaven!

    November 27, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  10. IpseCogita

    Nice story. Poorly written, and of course the usual excessive bigotry in the comments as expected at CNN, but still a nice story.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  11. Jaimie

    Such a heart warming story. There is a time and place for everything and what this polish family did was above the call of duty. It is wonderful knowing there are people out there like that.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  12. Davester

    A wonderful story. Thanks for posting.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  13. Harry Cline

    What a wonderful beautiful inspiring story !
    Read it again young people over and over and realize that these two are among others that will not be with us in the years to come. Another time and generation.

    They are not of the greatest generation but far better then any of the last 50 years.
    Those who argue here about religion miss what that faith enabled the parents to do, and formed their core belief in righteousness and justice.

    Doesn't mean a non-believer or atheist would have not, just how many would have if they where poor. What's the motivation, to be a hero. Doubtful.

    Rejoice with these two. Be very thankful for what you have, what you have enjoyed in life. The world today is far different and while the evil is still out there the real friendships are few and far between.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Where do you get the notion that morals and ethics do not exist without religion? That is totally unfounded.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
      • Harry Cline

        Poverty doesn't know morals it's wired for survival.
        Without a belief in humanity it's highly doubtful they as poor people would have shield them.

        November 27, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          Another evidence-free assertion.

          November 27, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
  14. Ida Jane Heyser

    Thank you CNN for providing this wonderful account "Giving Thanks For The Miracle of Survival".
    We need to celebrate Goodness & Hope, which this brings to our hearts & minds.
    Let us continue to do so.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  15. Johnjon

    all I can say is................ oh my goodness.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
  16. BibiQ

    I have goosebumps. An amazing story, thank you.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • unpcpc

      Those aren't goosebumps, you're suffering from a case of "sob story-itis."

      November 27, 2013 at 6:21 pm |
  17. Jordan

    My mother's parent's hid American flyers during WW2 in their house. To make a long story short, they were part of the Belgian underground in Leige My grandparents were finally arrested after their neighbor turned them in. Both grand-parents were sent to different concentration camps while my mother and her sister as young teens were sent to their aunt's house until the war ended. Both grand-parents lived and my grand-mother was awarded the 'Congressional Medal Of Freedom' which I still have (they were re-located to the U.S. in 1946). I grew up hearing horrific stories all my life until my mother (who was the final member of that family to pass) passed a few years ago,

    November 27, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      One of my grandfathers was a paratrooper in the Battle of the Bulge. I only remember him talking about it a few times and then he focused mostly on the weather. That generation was very much haunted by those days, and most were very reticent to discuss it. PTSD was not treated in the same way, and the raw stories were mostly never heard. The fact that we have so many posting such insensitive comments, shows that the real horror of that time were never really shared down the generations.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • JJ

      I hope you were able to record some of those stories in audio or text, so that others can learn from them in the future.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
      • Robert

        Blessings to you. When you are ready, I hope that you will be able to record your story for your family and History. People need to remember and true stories gain the most attention and have the most effect on people.

        November 27, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
  18. brkic

    i was in concetration camp 1993 bosnia i can understand pain of jewish people brings tears to my eyes . Stanislaw and Marija thank you .

    November 27, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  19. Wow!

    Can't get enough of these true life stories. Thanks for writing and sharing it with the rest of us. Truly uplifting and heartwarming. So glad he gets to reunite with his rescuers.! Thanks to the Foundation for making this possible too!! Blessings to all involved!

    November 27, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  20. worknman24hours

    A profoundly moving story of simply very decent people refusing to change the scope of their humanity to fit the times they were living in.

    I wonder how many of us would risk killing ourselves and our entire family to help a family on the run from what was the law of the land at that time?

    God Bless the Polziec and Gersten familes and may we never allow such hatred to murder so many people again.

    November 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      And yet it is happening still.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:11 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.