November 26th, 2013
08:49 PM ET

Giving thanks for the miracle of survival

By Moni Basu, CNN
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(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. nucmedstrang

    I have a problem with all you snarky posters who have to remind us of all the millions of natives killed during the colonization of America; then writing "happy thanksgiving" in a feeble attempt to make us feel guilty or ashamed from a perspective of morality...EAD! Thanksgiving is about spending time with loved ones and collectively giving thanks and reflection on our blessings...not about cowboys (puritans) and Indians. I'm agnostic, don't believe in God or Jesus, does this mean i shouldn't celebrate Christmas?? If xmas is a celebration of the bday of Jesus, then all us non-believers should treat Dec 25 as just another working day? SMFH

    November 27, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      "don't believe in God or Jesus"

      So then you're really an Atheist or do you believe in other gods?

      November 27, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
  2. David

    Baruch Ha Shem, Eretz Israel

    November 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  3. David

    Baruch Ha Shem, Eretz Israel!

    November 27, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  4. Amy

    Such a beautiful story..I hope CNN publishes a follow up story on this special gathering.

    November 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  5. Jan Boe

    It was a different world at that time, not to be compared with today's world. Thankfully there were brave people like the Polziecs who risked their lives to save others and they're more than heroes, they were saints. We should all strive for that kind of compassion for our fellow man.

    November 27, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Heidi

      Genocide could happen at any time, anywhere. All it takes is for one part of the population to dehumanize another part of the population. It happened in Rwanda - and despite the fear and horror of human beings being mercilessly cut down by the hundreds of thousands, there were people who fought to protect the lives of others (read up on Carl Wilkins).

      November 27, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  6. DRJJ

    Modern Nazis party-Iran.

    November 27, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Anti-semitism and Nazi-esque sentiments are still alive in Germany.
      Around 20 years ago, I lived on the outskirts of Stuttgart – once every couple of months, it wasn't safe for me to go downtown for fear of being targeted in the latest "Auslanders Raus" rally (foreigners get out, Germany for Germans).

      November 27, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        Is Germany for Germans anything like Israel for Jews?

        November 27, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
  7. nucmedstrang

    Uplifting story

    November 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  8. Mike

    There's a special place in heaven for the Polziec family.

    November 27, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • str8whtguy

      I'm not religious, but you are absolutely right.

      November 27, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Cara H


      November 28, 2013 at 12:02 am |
  9. Kevin

    That's the true meaning of "HERO"; brave people who went against all odds to do the right things. A baseball player who hits a home run is not a hero, nor a football player who rushes 200 yards in a game. Heroes are for this brave family risking their own lives to save strangers just because it was the right thing to do. This sad world needs more of them . . . .

    November 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Allison Pauls

      Bravo! You have described 'HERO' correctly. All other uses of the word are fake.

      November 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • D. Clark

      I agree with Kevin 100%! These true heroes should be getting the millions instead of the Baseball and other sports figures. The true heroes are usually unsung and never paid for their services other that the deep rewards they have from such great feats of heroism. Many of these true heroes will never be known or rewarded or even written about. I am so rewarded to have read this hero's story.

      November 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • DEB


      November 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  10. Rob

    A Fantastic story! There truly were many unspoken heroes of the time. My brother-in-law was also saved by a heroic family. He and my family are forever grateful to Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau who hid them from the Nazis in occupied France. You can read more about his story at http://www.facebook.com/WesurvivedatlastIspeak?ref=hl

    November 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  11. 3rd Gen Vet

    Poorly armed and untrained Jewish men with their families could hardly have been expected to defend themselves against the mechanized war machine of Germany. Even the professional armies of Europe were helpless to defend themselves for much of the war. My grandfather came home from WWII with pictures of liberated concentration camps and their victims. Thank God for human beings that will fight to protect those who cannot fight for themselves.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  12. Doc Vestibule

    "It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics."

    – Robert Heinlein

    November 27, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  13. SearingTruth

    "Nothing is certain, except that humanity is good."

    A Future of the Brave

    November 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  14. Katrina Wogoman

    I couldn't get to the end without tears. I hope this reminds us to be thankful for all of the good things that we have. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  15. Just Somebody

    I couldn't read without shedding tears.. Amazing story. Happy thanksgiving to everybody!

    November 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  16. skytag

    Muslims in Albania sheltered Jews from the Nazis. Albania was the only Nazi-occupied country that had more Jews at the end of the war than when it started.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Rett

      Thanks for sharing....there is no one group with a monopoly on doing good for the sake of those less fortunate.

      November 27, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Kvin

      thanks for that stat – interesting.

      November 27, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  17. Emma Goldman

    A grand story of heroism and bravery against the evil and ugliness that keeps expressing itself. Unfortunately, evil does not see a problem with itself and so the nazis still live, just with other names.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  18. Jason

    Courage to do the right thing is admirable, given that they weren't rich or powerful makes it so much more difficult. What a great story, just wish I had half that courage.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  19. Maida

    Great Story! Once more we see that in all the bad in the world there is some good that drives some of us. This story really hits home for me and many of the Bosnians across the world as we went through the same horrors of a war but just in the 1990's. Happy Holidays to both families!

    November 27, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  20. Ted

    The sad reality is, that today Millions of Muslims wish all Jews dead, and in Middle East their hate is being taught early on.

    November 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Pink Eagle

      And how does that differ from millions of Americans wishing all Muslims were dead?

      November 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
      • bostontola

        There are lots of ignorant people in every group. The difference is, the official policy of the US does not advocate that, the official policy of multiple countries/organizations in the middle east is to obliterate Israel.

        November 27, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      Before Yiddish Europeans showed up in the Middle East and began slaughtering the people there, stealing their lands in their homes, and began ethnically cleansing the population I bet you those people had no opinion of Yiddish Europeans.

      November 27, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Kate

      Google "Albania Jews WWII." M uslim Albania is the only country in Europe where Jewish population INCREASED during the Holocaust. Because Albania was behind the Iron Curtain, their story isn't well known. But Israel has confirmed that of the 2000 Jews who sought refuge in Albania, not a SINGLE betrayal has been reported.

      November 27, 2013 at 8:50 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.