Cedarhurst Holocaust survivor, rescuer meet after decades

Leon Gersten of Cedarhurst and Czeslaw Polziec of Poland are reunited by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous nearly 70 years after Polziec's family hid Gersten and his family from the Nazis. Videojournalist: Chuck Fadely (Nov. 27, 2013)

Facing forced relocation -- most likely to the death camps of the Holocaust -- 8-year-old Leon Gersten, his mother and three relatives hid for more than two years in a cramped, bleak attic in Nazi-occupied Poland.

They ate whenever and whatever they could. The Polish family living below who hid them, including 10-year-old Czeslaw Polziec, made sure of it.

Nearly 70 years later, Leon is now Leon Gersten of Cedarhurst. Czeslaw Polziec is a retired factory worker who raised a family in Poland. The two never saw each other again after time ran out on the Third Reich.

That changed Wednesday, on Thanksgiving eve. With millions poised to ponder and appreciate life's gifts, Gersten and Polziec got a head start.

They met Wednesday in an emotional face-to-face at Kennedy Airport -- the start of a weeklong reunion organized by the Manhattan-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

"I'm very glad to see you," Polziec said to Gersten in some of the only English he knows as the two embraced.

Gersten agreed.

"I am so delighted to see you," said Gersten, who then presented Polziec with a colorful bouquet of flowers.

In the next few days, the two old friends will reminisce and reflect on their story -- as frightening as it is familiar to Jews who survived the Holocaust: The Nazis were on the hunt for any Jews in Poland. Polziec's family, Roman Catholic, offered up the attic to Gersten and his mother, Frieda Tepper Gersten -- as well as his aunt Cecilia Wiesenfeld, her husband, Herman Wiesenfeld, and Gersten's cousin Moshe Wiesenfeld.

They stayed there for the war's duration, living on the rations of Polziec's family of seven.

"They were told nobody was to say anything to anyone," said Polziec, through a translator of family hidden above him. "We knew what we had to do. There was no discussion."

The Polziecs built an underground bunker that they would cover with a grain storage bin in the event of a raid. German gendarmes eventually did raid the farm and beat the father after suspecting the family of hiding Jews.

Somehow, the family in the attic was never found, a fact that Gersten, the director of a mental health clinic in Brooklyn, said he has thought about ever since.

"We never forgot the fact, that you and your parents, saved our lives and are the only reason we are alive," Gersten told Polziec. "I feel very honored and grateful that you made this effort to take this long trip . . . so we could have the opportunity to honor you and your family."

Despite their language barriers and religious differences, Polziec and Gersten said they look forward to celebrating an American Thanksgiving and lighting the menorah for the first night of Hanukkah -- this time under peaceful circumstances.

Gersten's grandson Mark Gersten, 24, said the anomaly of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlapping couldn't have been timed any better.

"Everything is kind of coming together very nicely with Hanukkah and Thanksgiving," said Gersten, a graduate student who lives with his grandfather. "We are giving thanks for being able to be here and being able to practice our own religion and be safe . . . For us, our way to give thanks is to show how many people there are and what we are doing with our lives."

As a result of the Polziecs' actions, there are 60 descendants who trace their lineage directly to the family members that were saved during the Holocaust, Gersten family members said.

"It is certainly overwhelming to see the family that gave their life for us," Leon Gersten's son Yomasan Gersten, 53, of Memphis, Tenn., said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who raided the home.

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