November 26th, 2013
08:49 PM ET

Giving thanks for the miracle of survival

By Moni Basu, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='MbasuCNN']

(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. Gant

    More. Stories. Like. This. please.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  2. Hadenuffyet

    It's far too sad that today's generations are lacking many of qualities of empathy towards fellow human beings. I guess that's really always been the case , it just seems with all the negative media coverage , things seem worse.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • karek40

      I could not agree more.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • stephen48739

      As long as those with empathy for others, outnumber the apathetic ones, I have hope for the survival of mankind, long after I'm dead and gone. The news coverage is deceptive. Happy, "feel good" stories, don't sell newspapers or generate internet traffic to websites. Sad, tragic deaths in the news, are like traveling past an accident on the highway, everyone slows down to look.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
      • YesOkBut

        I agree. But sometimes whilst driving by you can see people being the best that they can be to each other. Like these two gentlemen.

        November 27, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  3. Bribarian

    The Eternal victim strikes again.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Mike

      So obvious.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • Brian

      What does that even mean

      November 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
      • Zumbo

        It simply means that Mike is a hater.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
    • BeBoppin

      In this case the "victim" is recognizing his rescuer. Do you have a problem with that?

      November 27, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
  4. Mimi

    This is beautiful

    November 27, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  5. Sarah

    Potatoes is another AZTEC food. The same goes with tomatoes, peanuts, chocolate, tobacco, etc. All of them were discovered by the AZTECS. What would europe be today, without those AZTEC foods?, those poor jews survived eating potatoes. I can not imagine a italian pizza without tomatoes. LOL

    November 27, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      Better recheck your chocolate claim. But thanks for the info, and glad we didn't keep their practice of routinely tossing virgins into volcanoes or playing soccer with the heads of vanquished foes.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
  6. charlie

    I was so moved by this story. Both men are heroes. The will to live; the desire to do the right thing; and the spirit of the good are all present. I am not a "soft" guy, but I was really moved by this story. Just imagining myself in either of their positions is so humbling.

    The strength of these men is miraculous. Very happy for them to be reunited.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  7. Sarah

    The russians won World War Two.....!!! stop claiming the americans won that war.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • Sharkmann

      Ahh A student of history, that is a rare thing today,

      November 27, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      With what commodities did the Soviets build their weapons with? With what metal were the tanks built from, with whose metal did the bullets and guns get made from? With whose food did the Soviets feed their troops? With whose supplies did the Soviets build their aircraft?

      All the answers would be USA USA and USA. Without the US the Soviets would have been demolished. And it is a shame that the Soviets did not get demolished and it is a shame that this nation chose to support the Judeo-Bolshevikism who slaughtered far far more people than the Nazis did .

      November 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Zumbo

      Gee Sarah, you missed the point of the article.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  8. Gilbert Montemayor

    May God bless him and his entire family. A very moving story of courage and truth. May God have mercy on the people that hate. Judgment day will come to you.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      God doesn't like Communists.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
  9. jodi

    It's called the Golden Rule. I wish you all the best. Excited for you and the fun looking family waiting for you. Have fun folks.

    November 27, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
  10. a reasonable atheist

    Dziękują bardzo za wasz bohaterstwo!

    November 27, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
  11. jed

    Living memory of this time and place in history is nearly gone.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  12. Karl VonFrick

    What a shame

    November 27, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
  13. Richard

    A truly righteous gentile... May God bless him and his entire family. A very moving story of courage and truth.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  14. Simone

    Oh be quiet Erin! Robert and I can thank our God if we want to, just ignore it if you think it's crazy!

    November 27, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  15. Yuck

    In loving truth,there's light,and in evil there's darkness,and where there's darkness people can't see,but in "true loving" there's light and people can see.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
  16. Grey

    To the greatest generation that ever lived. How I wish our youth could see the honor of these people and those like them. How I wish we could pass on such values.. Bless each and every one of them

    November 27, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • Kate

      Amen. And this man doesn't even consider his parents or himself heroes. They just did what was right and never mentioned it for 70 years. How stupid twitter seems in comparison.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
      • Just a guy

        Not necessarily Twitter, but maybe all of the things that matter to us now. Many of us take for granted the simplest of liberties that we have now. Stories like this are good to hear because it reminds all of us of where many of our ancestors were just a lifetime away. I'm grateful for the freedoms that I have for sure.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
        • Kate

          I would pray that I would have the courage to do the same, even under penalty of death. By the way, please Google, "Jews, Albania and besa." Albania was the only country in Europe whose Jewish population increased during the H olocaust, with Israel confirming from the survivors that not a single Jew was betrayed in all of Albania. The story needs to be told.

          November 27, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
    • Foo Manchu

      Hear hear. Well said.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  17. lauren spiro

    I was moved to tears while reading this heart felt and deeply moving story. Please share more about your reunion and teach us more about the importance of standing in our dignity and courage even when it means risking our life.
    thank you.Having recently visited Auschwitz and reading memories – my life is changed; I am living at a deeper level. Ending war has becomes my life's priority one relationship and step at a time.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  18. Vic

    Sanctity Of Life

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

    God Bless America

    Happy Thanksgiving & Happy Hanukkah

    November 27, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • Tom

      I'm thankful for the separation of church and state. And that churches and religions are going down the tubes fast.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
      • BeBoppin

        So that's what you get out of this heartwarming story?

        November 27, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
        • Murphy13

          Don't pay any attention BeBoppin, Tom i's a true meatball.

          November 27, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
      • Tom

        No, that was my response to Vic's crazy response to the story.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
    • stringfellow573

      "... All men are created equal ...." These words need to be written upon our hearts. So many in so many lands near and far, long very much so, to have such freedom every American has. This is the way to win friends and influence people. More powerful, lasting, good and truthful.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
  19. Caspar Gomes

    There are millions of survivors and we should honor them. This should also be the top story tomorrow and the next day.

    November 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  20. Vic

    Sanctity Of Life

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

    God Bless America

    Happy Thanksgiving & Happy Hanukkah

    November 27, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Self-evident does not mean proven. There is no actual evidence for any god.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
    • Tom

      I'm thankful for separation of church and state. And that churches and religions are going down the tubes fast.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:39 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.