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US Holocaust survivor meets Polish savior 70 years on
In emotional ceremony Leon Gersten reunites with the Polish son whose parents risked everything to save him
A Jewish boy who hid from the Nazis in a haystack was reunited in New York after 70 years Wednesday with the Polish son whose parents risked everything to save him.
Beaming American Holocaust survivor Leon Gersten, 79, embraced and clasped the hand of a visibly moved Czeslaw Polziec, 81, whose Polish parents saved five Jews during World War II.
Gersten, accompanied by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren welcomed Polziec after his exhausting trans-Atlantic flight before a battery of cameras at New York's JFK 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," Gersten told reporters earlier. "To me and my children they're heros."
Gersten hid with his mother, aunt, uncle and cousin from 1942 to 1944 in the hayloft of the humble two-room home on the Polziec family farm in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Polziec, who went on to live under Soviet occupation and served in the Polish army, beamed and clasped the American educational psychologist, who presented him with a bouquet of flowers.
Polziec said he was told never speak about their Jewish guests. If discovered, it would have meant certain death, but his parents were just honest people trying to do the right thing, he said. "I am very happy after 69 years of being in Poland and finally meeting my friend," he said. "God saved us all."
The Nazis rounded up and killed many of the Jews in the Polish town of Frystak, including Gersten?s grandparents, in July 1942.
Gersten's mother Frieda escaped the ghetto, disguising herself as a Catholic with a cross around her neck.
A pedler, 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 Jews and covered with a grain storage bin 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.
After the war, Gersten emigrated to New York.
For two years in hiding there was little way 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," Gersten said.
They spent time picking the lice out of each other's heads, fantasizing 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," Gersten said.
In 1998, he met one of Czeslaw's sisters, who came to the United States to work as a domestic worker, but conversation was difficult because Gersten no longer speaks Polish.
After his mother died the two families lost contact.
He will now take Czeslaw home to Long Island, New York to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah together as well as the American secular holiday of Thanksgiving on Thursday.
Gersten has five children, 34 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He got a doctorate from Columbia University.
After the army, Polziec worked in security for many years. He married and has two daughters.
The reunion was facilitated by The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which gives financial assistance to around 650 aged and needy Holocaust rescuers in Europe.
Six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. More than half of them were Polish. Gersten's father, sister and three brothers were among those who perished.