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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. caonabo35

    Who wants to live in this f**cking world? Only if there's a truly a hell, and that's hasn't been confirmed.

    December 8, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  2. Ludwik Kowalski

    Science and theology conflicts are dangerous.

    http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/theo/atheist.html

    Ludwik Kowalski

    December 7, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
  3. Grand

    Regardless of the echo chamber voices posting here, this is a lovely story of grace, bravery, and survival.
    I was moved by this story.

    December 5, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  4. Angelina

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    https://www.facebook.com/RIPNelsonMandela6

    December 5, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
  5. u

    Grandma was old but youthful. Her eyes shone, clear and bright and she was plenty smart for someone who didn't have the chance to go to university (she did get her certificate and license to preach later in life).

    When her little one lay dying on her bed, suspended between heaven and earth, the child asked her if she could see the beautiful woman dressed in dazzling white? "O, she's so beautiful mother! Can you see her?" Grandma wasn't a grandmother then. She was a young, vibrant, strong Swedish mother with several small children. She didn't think she could live if her precious daughter died. She was heartsick.

    Why, she thought, the poor child is delusional from illness. She repeated the question and feebly, using all her strength, pointed to the corner of the room. "Right there mommy. She is so beautiful. Can't you see her?"

    Grandma suddenly realized what her precious little girl saw. Just then, she closed her eyes and grandma felt someone brush against the sleeve of her blouse. Crystal had seen an angel and when she died, grandma felt them leaving the room. She shouted with fear and then joy. God had used an angel to bring the child to heaven and she was comforted.

    December 5, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  6. Truth

    I wonder how many Israelis made similar sacrifices for Palestinians?

    December 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • togirl188

      I wonder how many Palestinians made sacrifices for Israelis?

      December 8, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  7. Positron

    Hmmm, seems that someone deleted my final comments to the poster who asked if I hated Jews.

    Sorry but I do not believe in censorship and allowing the dishonorable people of this world to manipulate the truth.

    So here it is again, and in the interest of closure, I will keep posting it if someone keeps deleting it:

    I am on my way out the door but I will comment on this subthread alone until it dies out.

    I do not hate Jews. I hate hate.

    War and oppression is hate put into action. I tried to say something about how critical religion is in human relations
    earlier but it got marked as abuse....I will try one more time in a condensed form. Religious differences are the most
    profound differences that humans can have....someone earlier in this thread mentioned "cognitive dissonance" well
    there is another concept called "cognitive interference" coined by Robert Anton Wilson. Nothing spawns cognitive interference more than religious differences...That is because our entire hierarchy of associations in our minds is built
    about the foundation of our spiritual beliefs. Jewish people are viewed by many as "the chosen people" which stems from
    the abrahmic religions. In everyday terms, they are special, everyone thinks that, it is for this reason that they have both been revered and reviled throughout history. I certainly believe that, unless the world one day decides to abandon the abrahmic religions, for the sake of World peace the Jews should have a special place. The urgency of the need for that was thrust upon the World after the horrors of the Holocaust. The world moved forward and hastily came up with what in my opinion is the worst possible solution. Jewish people were desperate and frightened and acted understandably hastily.
    There are about a million ways this could of been handled and I feel that the approach taken was down in like the bottom 2 perecentile. The ONLY thing I can see that warranted the emphasis on THAT geographic location is Jerusalem and an absolute fanatical obsession with archeological significance....and the world has had to endure 65 years of discord as a result of that obsession. Seems primitive to me. What if there were a way to find confluence among all of the worlds religions? What if there were a way to understand God at a higher level, in a deeper way such that the abrahmic religions become a dependent variable of that higher understanding?

    December 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • peanut butter chevy

      dodo, explain your hatred in hell cause its your ticket, honey

      December 5, 2013 at 10:55 am |
      • Huh??

        Every one of your posts expressed contempt for Jews. If that isn't hate, you need to revisit the definition.

        And by the way- you're distorting the truth yourself. It is just distortion that supports your particular bias.

        December 5, 2013 at 11:43 am |
        • uh huh

          Origen, to be entirely independent, sold his library for a sum which netted him a daily income of 4 obols, on which he lived by exercising the utmost frugality. Teaching throughout the day, he devoted the greater part of the night to the study of the Bible and lived a life of rigid asceticism.

          Eusebius reported that Origen, following Matthew 19:12 literally, castrated himself. This story was accepted during the Middle Ages and was cited by Peter Abelard in his letters to Heloise. Edward Gibbon, in his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, also accepts this story as true.
          Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica wiki

          December 5, 2013 at 11:51 am |
        • Positron

          Explain, precisely and explicitly where I have distorted the truth.

          December 5, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
        • Positron

          I will add that 99% of the comments here in response to my comments (which took me a great deal of research and
          time to formulate) employed the following tactics:

          1. Ignore the lengthy historical information I have posted, and skip to the ad hominem attacks on me
          2. Ignore the lengthy historical information I have posted, and skip to playing the victim
          3. Ignore the lengthy historical information I have posted, and make irrelevant comments

          December 5, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
        • igaftr

          Positron
          I would only note that your histroy does not go far enough back. Look into the zionist movement, which really started to gain traction in 1899, and through the world events up to and after wwII. led to the newly formed Jewish state...self -fulfilling prophecy at its finest.

          December 5, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
        • Positron

          "the newly formed Jewish state"

          Why do Jews always refer to what was done in 1948 using the passive tense?

          Such as "it was returned to us" or "it was the newly formed Jewish state" etc

          What are they trying to hide by explaining things in such an indirect way?

          December 5, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
      • Positron

        It's always amusing to see the way certain people in certain religions feel that they have power over God to the degree that they possess the authority to make judgements over another soul's eternal destiny. It's a clear indication that they feel that they have a special, privileged relationship with God that gives them the authority to do things like invade a Country, steal land from its people who are the rightful owners of it, and murder innocent children. It's the height of blasphemy to use God for such purposes, yet Jews and Christians do it all the time as if it was second nature. They wield God as if God were their personal cattle prod so that whenever someone disagrees with them, they invoke God's wrath as if they have control over it. Wouldn't it be ironic if the wrath, was directed right back at them for doing such things.

        December 5, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
        • billy

          eh shut up

          December 5, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
        • billy

          grace slick got old

          December 5, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
        • truthprevails1

          I am beyond a genius. I can't believe me! I am unreal.

          I pointed out you were a Jew hater immediately, w/o hesitation at all. U went on to post many more times, to try to hide your hatred, but I nailed u instantly dodo.

          December 6, 2013 at 2:07 am |
    • Explain, precisely and explicitly where I have distorted the truth

      okay

      December 5, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        What a complete horse's rear end. U r a sick dog, dodo. U truly r evil and vile.

        December 6, 2013 at 2:10 am |
  8. Dave & Buster

    Positron:

    "LOL, let me guess you are late for a UN Security Council meeting, or emmm a debate on Fox News? Yes you certainly have contributed quite a bit here and I can certainly understand your frustration at seeing all your efforts go to waste…must really be tough."

    This is why it is futile to keep talking to you; you seem more focused on scoring points in your mind than actually talking about issues anybody else raised in a constructive manner. Snark is not debate. Contempt is not debate. You have shown me both; your posts to me have been condescending. I don't have to address someone who obviously just wants people to agree with whatever you say to stroke your ego.
    Provocative? No. Deliberately condescending and contemptuous? Yes. I'll ignore completely from now on.
    Too bad, because you raised some decent points, but when questioned, deflected your answers.
    You "debate" dirty. It's not worth my time.

    December 1, 2013 at 3:25 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.