A reunion with “Savior” 70 years on

Leon Gersten, Czeslaw Polziec

For Holocaust survivor Leon Gersten, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will have a special meaning this year. He was reunited on November 27 with the man whose family kept him hidden from the Nazis during World War II.

Beaming Gersten, 79, embraced a visibly moved Czeslaw Polziec, 81, whose parents risked everything to save 5 Jews. They met for the first time in 69 years at JFK International Airport. It was an emotional moment for two elderly men, who parted as 10- and 11-year-olds in 1944 as the Russians liberated their village. “It’s like getting to know each other again,” said Gersten, who emigrated to New York after the war. “To me and my children, they’re heroes.”

Gersten currently lives in New York, while Polziec lives in Mielec, Poland. Polziec’s trip and the meeting was organized by the non-profit group called The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

During World War II, Gersten, his parents and his mother’s sister and brother-in-law’s family – Celia, Herman and their son Moshe Wiesenfeld – were kept hidden from the Nazis for 2 years by Poleziec’s parents in their attic. Despite the risk and having 5 children of their own, the Poleziecs took the family in, enduring Nazi raids and beatings. Czeslaw Polziec was their eldest son.

“I cannot believe that I am here. I am very happy that after 69 years of separation I can finally meet my friend. God saved us all.” Said Polziec, who served in the Polish army and before worked in security, married and has two daughters. Polziec beamed and clasped the hand of Gersten, who presented him with a bouquet of flowers.

Gersten, a clinical psychologist with a doctorate from Columbia University, thanked Polziec : “We never forgot the fact that you, and of course your parents, are the ones who saved our lives. And the only reason that we are alive is because of you and your family”  Gersten has 5 children, 34 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren, most of whom came out to greet Polziec.

Gersten and his mother, aunt, uncle and cousin hid in the hayloft of the Polziec family’s two-room home on their farm in Nazi-occupied Poland from 1942 to 1944. Polziec said he was told never to speak about their Jewish guests. If discovered, it would have meant certain death, but he said his parents were just honest people trying to do the right thing. The Nazis rounded up and killed many of the Jews in the Polish town of Frystak, including Mr Gersten’s grandparents, in July 1942.

Mr Gersten’s mother Frieda escaped the ghetto, disguising herself as a Catholic with a cross around her neck. A peddler, she went door-to-door to her customers, asking to be taken in. Many turned her away, but Maria and Stanislaw Polziec took her in, despite being poor and already having five children.

The family built an underground bunker, just big enough for the Jewish family, and covered it with a grain storage bin, for use in the event of a raid. They gave them a loaf of bread a week, and the Polziec children collected mushrooms in the forest to make soup.

One terrifying day, Nazi collaborators raided the farm. The Jews huddled in the bunker as Stanislaw Polziec was beaten mercilessly but never betrayed their whereabouts.

For 2 years in hiding, there were few ways of passing the time. “We had no toys, we had no books, we had nothing to play with, so all we could do was watch spiders catching flies,” Mr Gersten said. They spent time picking the lice out of each other’s hair, fantasising about a better future and helping out in the stable. “We lived with hope. As a kid I had this feeling of immortality. The idea being shot and killed didn’t enter my mind,” said Gersten.

In 1998, he met one of Czeslaw’s sisters, who moved to the United States to become a domestic worker, but conversation was difficult because Gersten no longer speaks Polish. After his mother died, the two families lost contact. He has now taken  Polziec home to Long Island, New York to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah together as well as today’s US secular holiday of Thanksgiving.

Gersten said the reunion was even more special as 27th was the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights and Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. “Hanukkah which also represents the traditional Jewish victory over the Romans while the Romans were trying to repress us, and I think Thanksgiving day is also, it represents symbolic feeling of having freedom, justice, fairness and being able to be what you want to be. So I think it is a very appropriate day. In fact we are going to have a nice celebration on Thanksgiving Day with the family and together with Czeslaw and his nephew,” he said.

The reunion was facilitated by The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which gives financial assistance to around 650 aged or needy Holocaust rescuers in Europe. 6 million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. More than half of them were Polish. Mr Gersten’s father, sister and three brothers were among those who perished.

Watch Video : http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.560710; http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/1.560710

Source: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/jewish-boy-who-hid-from-nazis-in-haystack-meets-saviour-70-years-on/story-e6frg6so-1226770437404

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