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. Caroline

    This story moved me. Having spent my whole life listening to stories of German occupation I am full of warmth after reading this story- My grandparents and other relatives lived throught the war and some escaped the Nazi regime as well. I am the executive director of a theatre comapny and my husband and I are also playwrites and directors. I would love to tkae this story and put it on stage. Is it possible? I think it would be a powerful story- especially as the generation that lived through this is dwindeling, I feel it imprtnat to keep these stories alive so we shall never truly forget!!!!!! If anyone knows how I can further this story i would love to hear from you at costabeadle@gmail.com. Thanks

    November 27, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • The Awful Truth Hurts

      Executive-Director "playwrite" needs Beginners-Level "spell-check"

      November 28, 2013 at 12:25 am |
  2. Sherry

    A great story of treating others with decency. Everyone can do it despite your political views, ethnicity, current financial situation, background, or up bring. Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Problems solved.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  3. Friend of Brian H.

    I have often said - if I were single and had no family, I would hope I'd be courageous enough to do something like sheltering those Jews. But if that would put my parents and grandparents in jeopardy? Forget it, Jews (or any other endangered ethnic group) - you'd be on your own.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Alias

      Shouldn't you see what your parents and grandparents thought first?

      November 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
      • bostontola

        Good point. Children would be a tougher situation for me.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Daniela

      ...and that is simply the difference between you and the hero this article is about

      November 27, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • David

      I Thank the good Lord every day that there aren't many people like you.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
      • Alias

        Unfortunately most people are like him.
        You need to get out more.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        which good lord? Zeus? Hanuman? Allah? The local volcano god?

        November 27, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  4. LBW

    The "Righteous Gentiles" who risked their lives to assist Jews survive is one of the under shared stories of history. Check out "Diary of Ann Frank" "The Hiding Place", "Weapons of the Spirit" and "Au Revoir Les Infants" All true stories of real people doing the right thing in spite of great personal risk.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • John

      Also check out the book "Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed" about how the entire village of Le Chambon in France saved 5,000 Jews by hiding them in the forest surrounding their homes, with Nazis actively searching for them.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  5. boredofceleb

    What a heartwarming story. In this day with all the hatred and mass killings going on, it is great to read of courageous heroes who would risk their own lives to save a stranger's. It was very touching especially in light of the fact that the Polziecs were in dire straits themselves financially, and made sacrifices to feed five more people in addition to risking their own lives to save this family. In spite of all the news we have shoved in our faces daily, this is a reminder that there IS good in human nature! Something to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day!

    November 27, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  6. Marty in MA

    makes you wonder what "humans" are capable of, both good and bad.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      Humans are capable of good and bad. Mystery solved.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
      • dennisf255

        Not the time or place for sarcasm, friend.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
        • Apple Bush

          I disagree with you.

          November 27, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  7. Apple Bush

    Heartwarming and all that, but the exception not the rule. Reading a story like this does not make feel any better about life. It just makes me think about all of the people that were slaughtered. Just like the natives of North America and slavery in the U.S. and the world.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  8. Joseph

    He was saved by conservatives (most of the senior generals were Republicans and even the Democrats were more conservative than many of our modern day Republicans) and has probably been voting liberal ever since.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • Prime

      What an idiot to make this all about the partisan divide in the US.
      Go choke your turkey.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Prime

      And did you miss the part where it said he was liberated by RUSSIAN TROOPS?

      November 27, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • dennisf255

      Just an astonishingly wrong headed (and wrong) response. Pavlovian in it's lack of cognitive application.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  9. Swiggity-swaggin'

    God they should just remove the comment section from CNN. Ridiculous half of you people are allowed to even have an internet connection

    November 27, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      You are incorrect.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • Randy Ward

      You can always identify the liberals, they all want to shut down free speech. Speech does not have to be intelligent to be spoken and heard.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
      • Apple Bush

        Randy, I am a liberal and do not fit your description. Sorry. Fail.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
      • Prime

        You can always identify the morons who are partisan hacks by the tendency to politicize every post.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
      • boredofceleb

        Yes, your comments are proof of that.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
      • Bunny

        Free speech or stupid speech?

        November 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
      • Oy

        " Speech does not have to be intelligent to be spoken and heard."


        November 27, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • The Awful Truth Hurts

        Randy....liberals are OK with free speech...as long as your views and opinions are the same as theirs.
        If not, then they are intolerant...even though they claim to be the party of tolerance.

        November 28, 2013 at 12:31 am |
    • God

      I would if I could but sadly i'm just a figment of your imagination and have no real power over anything...

      November 27, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  10. US #1

    70 million people died during WW2. Most were Russian civilians.

    November 27, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  11. Marco

    Some of these comments highlight the hatred that still exists within some of us. I think this should be looked as a joyful occassion celebrating life and the selfless act of a family towards complete strangers to save them from certain death regardless of who was who.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  12. LRM

    True heroism and true Christian faith in practice. A truly wonderful story.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  13. Bilgoraj

    10 years ago a group of people from Australia showed up at my grandparents home in a small town of Bilgoraj, Poland to say thank you for saving his father/grandfather's life during WWII. When Nazi's showed up, they kept him hidden in a shed until he could run away. At that time, entire families were executed for helping Jews but my grandparents put thier own lives to save a life. After so many years, his family came to visit them to show the appreciation of thier selfless act. These stories should be kept alive for the next generations.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  14. Evenstar

    In those terribly dark times, there were too few brave souls who stood for righteousness and did not waiver. God bless them all!

    November 27, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  15. Native American

    Lots of African-Americans toiled and died in slavery under the Stars-n-Stripes. Millions of Native Americans were
    sytematically killed under the American flag. Don't give me some BS about the Confederate flag.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Alias

      Somone really needed to say that.
      I was thinking it, but i'm Irish,and would not be taken seriously.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:39 am |
      • bostontola

        Irish adds credibility, your statement subtracts credibility. The same logic would say that the bad things done under the stars and stripes makes the US as bad as the Nazis. Saying; country 1 is imperfect so it is equivalent to country 2 is fallacious. Look at the full body of each then decide.

        November 27, 2013 at 11:49 am |
      • Pink Eagle

        Certainly not while sober, anyway.

        November 27, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • ME II

      While those atrocities did occur, the US flag stands for many other things as well, the vast majority of them good.
      The Confederate flag on the other hand, rightly or wrongly,mostly symbolizes one thing, slavery.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • 123elle

      Thank you for reminding me of that. I try not to judge people of the past by the more enlightened standards of today. It must be very easy to fall in with the commonly held beliefs of one's peers and neighbors at a certain time and lose the perspective of history and of a greater morality. I wonder what I am blind to, even today, while considering myself an ethical person; there are injustices right before my eyes that I do not recognize or acknowledge, but that I may be called on to answer for in years to come. The courage of this Polish family in putting their own lives and their children's lives (!) in danger from the most brutal killers, in the service of decency and goodness is truly awe-inspiring. I only wish those heroes had been internationally lauded during their lifetimes. But life goes on and saintliness often goes unrecognized amid life's daily routines and demands.

      November 27, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
      • Paperman

        Very, very well said...indeed!!!

        November 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • American

      What is your point?....that America is no better than Nazi Germany? Wars were fought, many American lives sacrificed, to eradicate slavery, fascism and liberate people from oppression. How do you read an inspirational story of human kindness and compassion like this and offer nothing but vile cynicism?

      November 27, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  16. thanks!

    Ugh, I'm crying! What a beautiful story. I would love to know more about what happens when this amazing reunion takes place.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • Katherine

      A very wonderful story at a time when only bad news seems to pervade our society.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:30 am |
      • tom jones

        Katherine, try not to get jaded by that - there's plenty of 'good news' out there; just blame the media for the constant "bad news" focus all the time.

        November 27, 2013 at 11:55 am |
      • Jerseygirl

        Mother In laws catholic cousins in Poland on a farm hid a Jewish family under their steps for about a year. Unfortunately Nazis found out and killed all in both families including a baby in the cousins family in a gruesome manner
        Very sad, my mother in law always remembered both families
        Father in laws brothers and father were put into concentration camp and killed, all catholic

        November 27, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  17. Old Foggy

    I feel that "Loyalty" is the most underrated virtue. How the protector's family brought up their children, not to utter a word
    was astounding enough given the mindset of most youth.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I disagree, depending on what you mean by "loyalty." A person should stop being loyal to someone if it involves an implication of agreement with evil deeds.

      November 27, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  18. Minerva from LA

    Very moving story, thank you CNN! I am grateful that integrity, loyalty, compassion, tenacity still exist as human traits. We become so selfish and cowardly the more we have. This was a great act of kindness, and look how much it reaped! What a wonderful story to share on T-Day.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  19. bostontola

    I am always moved by stories of courage ans selflessness, this one is extraordinary. Risking one's own life for another is unusual, but risking your family for another family is extraordinary. I really can't say if I would do that. Gut wrenching.

    November 27, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • austin

      walk by faith like Abraham

      November 27, 2013 at 6:42 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.