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. George888

    Great story indeed but really wondering why it took the survivor 68 years after the end of WW2 to find and meet the son of his saviors. And also it wasn't even him who invited him, a foundation helped and paid for all the trip. A bit more effort and support would have been a much better story.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • marco

      Poland was Eastern Europe for most of those years, and no one would reasonably try to cross the wall... – in either side – ...

      November 27, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • Jay

      George888: Learn to read, article says: Gersten himself WROTE to the Jewish Historical Society in Poland about what the Polziecs had done. In America, The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous HELPED Gersten find Czeslaw Polziec in Poland. The foundation is sponsoring (paying for) Polziec’s visit to New York, including a dinner honoring him and his family. WHY in the world would you have a problem with this Jewish Foundation helping and paying for the trip for Czeslaw Polziec to come to the States?? Gersten IS the one who contacted the Jewish Foundation to help him find Czeslaw Polziec! What more effort do you want? Take a chill pill, YOU don't sound like a very nice person.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • stooges999

      you obviously did not read the story very carefully..............

      November 27, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • glauber

      Poland wasn't an easy place to get into after the war, probably moreso for Jews.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • morovia

      Don't be facile George. The man was a boy at the time and his family was wiped out. Any memory of it was unbearable, and as the article explains, Czeslaw was not the same age, therefore, not a real contemporary. Where do you get the moral authority to question his decisions? Bravo bravo to the Polziec family, heroes everyone.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
      • George888

        Not questioning his decision, just commenting a bit on the timing. The Iron wall fell 26 years ago and no mention was made of any earlier attempts. It still is a good story and better late than never.

        November 27, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
  2. Miriam

    Thank God the Russians pulverized the Nazi's. Literally blasted them to sawdust. La Chaim!

    November 27, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  3. Rae

    There is always hope in the most desolate times. Human kindness can be found, if only by one family, when the masses fail you.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  4. sal Bernstein

    Oy vey, Vasent 6 million enough?

    November 27, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  5. NorCalMojo

    What a story.

    Stanislaw was an amazing man

    November 27, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  6. USNdevildocUSMC

    Simply amazing. Made this battled hard guy cry, especially how he wanted to show him his family. World war 2 had a lot of negatives but so many positives have come from such a negative event in our history.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
  7. bob

    I hope that in my life time I can help someone as much as this. If you don't feel the same, you are less than human.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • J. O'Leary

      I hope that, if you have to help someone that much, you will.

      I hope even more that our society won't degenerate to the point that anyone has to.

      God bless.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
  8. Raoul Duke, Jr.

    Definition of "miracle:" A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency." So, some "divine agency" allowed this person to survive. But millions were slaughtered. Was there some "divine agency" that caused that, too? I am so sick of hearing and seeing the word "miracle" thrown around when 1 out of many people survives some horrible tragedy, whether caused by man or the chaos of natural phenomena. Why does this "divine agency" get all the credit for 1 survivor, but none of the blame for all of those who did not survive? Stop it! Please!

    November 27, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  9. Darwin was right

    It should also not be forgotten that MOST POLES, who were 99% Catholic, were happy to GET RID of their Jews. The Christians in Poland have little to be proud of and much to be ashamed of.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • fred

      So would you like to get rid of Christians?

      November 27, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      Please read my posting on page 6.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
    • metzitzat b'peh is gross

      Considering what Judeo-Bolsheviks were doing to the Christians of Poland, who'd be surprised they weren't loved?

      November 27, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  10. Kevin

    He faced execution just as quickly as the Jews you sheltered for dong something like this if caught and it is what separates out the people of true character and incredible bravery during dark times.

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

      well said Kevin, he was obedient to a "higher law", if you will; that of looking out for our fellowman regardless of race or religion. Wonderful example of someone following their good conscience. What a contrast to all those Nazi's and Nazi supporters who were just "following orders".

      November 27, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
  11. The Historator

    "70 years after his village in Poland was liberated by the Soviet army"

    Uh, "liberated" is a bit of a stretch. The Soviets invaded, made Poland part of their own communist bloc, ignored the legitimate polish government-in-exile in London, and installed their own puppets, keeping Poland under the Soviet heel for 40 more years.

    Let's not forget the Katyn Forest Massacre of 4,500 Polish nationals by their Soviet "Liberators".

    Seriously, CNN, a little more fact checking by someone who paid attention in history class is called for in these articles.

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

      Excuse me Historator... but the Red Army did what the Yanks on the western front couldn't do. They blasted the rotten Germans on the Eastern front and rubbed their filthy faces in the dirt. Blew up Berlin to pieces. That Mr. Historator is what you call winning the war. They liberated the Jews from concentration camps along with the Allies. They stopped the German killing of innocent people. So if Europe was divided for years, isn't it all back together again now? We just have to watch and monitor that Merkel lady. Good job on US intercepting her cell phone. Can't trust those krauts.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
      • The Historator

        They stopped the Germans killing innocent people? The Soviets under Stalin, with the support of the Red Army, killed more innocent people than the Nazis did. The Soviets had their own concentration camps, and plenty of Polish nationals as well as Russian civilians ended up in there, to be worked, starved, or frozen to death. The Red Army was also quite fond of r-a-p-e (this word is being censored for some reason) leaving victims in every "liberated" town.

        Their worst atrocities started when they got into German territory, like the Nemmersdorf Massacre, where they proceeded to r-a-p-e and murder nearly every German women and girl from age 8 years old and up, leaving many naked and nailed (crucified) to barn doors. The number of r-a-p-e-s committed by the Soviets in occupied Germany is estimated from hundreds of thousands to two million.

        November 27, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
        • metzitzat b'peh is gross

          Be careful, the Yiddish don't like anyone who says their "tragedy" want the greatest tragedy.

          November 27, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        The Judeo Bolsheviks were slaughtering Christians in Eastern Europe long before the Nazis even came on the scene. In fact in the winter of 1932 up to 6 million Ukrainians were forcibly starved to death by the Judeo Bolsheviks; Hitler doesn't come to power until 1933. This forced starvation, called the Holodomor, Slaughtered far more in that one winter alone than all the Jews who died in Germany in the 13 years of the Nazis in power.

        So we understand your nonsense is nonsense.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        In the winter of 1932 the Jewish Bolsheviks forcibly starved to death up to 6 million people in the Ukraine. Hitler does not come to power in till 1933. The Judeo Bolsheviks were slaughtering people in larger numbers then the Nazis ever did and were doing so before the Nazis even came on the scene.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • Oleg

      when bad guys shoot your neighbors on the spot and promised you to be shot too if you help those poor souls, and than somebody kicks bad guys out... well it's liberation, dude.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
      • The Historator

        Oleg, what you are describing was something the Soviets did as often as the Germans. So which were you referring to?

        November 27, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
      • metzitzat b'peh is gross

        You should not believe Hollywood version of history. The Judeo Bolsheviss slaughtered far more Polish than the Germans did.

        November 27, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  12. sierrabloom

    Love in the midst of unspeakable evil.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  13. malcat

    Stories such as this restores my soul's faith in my fellow humans.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  14. tk

    So this guy's parents saved his life. He sent them a few dollars and packages and then lost touch with the people that saved his life. Am I missing something? He doesn't sound very thankful.

    November 27, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
    • Joel Friedman

      The fact that you have to ask if you're missing something answers your question.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      You'd think they'd at least friend each other on Facebook.

      November 27, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • RJ

      Are you missing something, tk? Yes: magic and imagination. The reporter framed this one tiny sentence that offends you so in the context of the story of two long lives lived. It connotes the passage of time; the fleeting moments that make up our memories at the end of our lives; but most importantly, it conveys just how meaningless any gifts would be compared to the gift the Polziecs gave the Gerstens.

      Also remember, Gersten is 80 years old. He's relating stories from an old world in an old time. A "few dollars" may have been more.
      Also remember, Gersten might be being humble.
      Also remember, life goes on. Days, months, years pass. When's the last time you sent a real letter in the post, let alone took the time to write two negative sentences in the comment section of the internet?
      Also, remember, Gersten is the reason this article was written in the first place: because he wrote the Jewish Historical Society in Poland and told the story of the the Polziec family's heroic deeds.
      Also remember, Gersten became a doctor and opened a practice. Sounds like Gersten lived a full a life. Isn't that honor enough for the Polziec family?
      Finally, remember, you're never too old to rediscover the magic of your own life. All it takes is a little imagination. You can do it. I'm rooting for you.

      November 27, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  15. 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 |
  16. 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 |
  17. travismatthew

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

    November 27, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  18. 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 |
  19. Kim K

    Well said Harry Cline

    November 27, 2013 at 6:20 pm |
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