New Yorker reunites with son of Polish couple who saved him from Holocaust

Sixty-nine years melted away in a moment of pure joy Friday as a New Yorker was reunited with the son of a Polish farmer who helped save him from the Holocaust.

Leon Gersten was grinning from ear to ear when Czeslaw Pólziec emerged in the waiting area at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

“Hi! Hi! Hi!” the beaming Pole said when he spotted Gersten, rattling off one of the few words in English he knows.

Then Pólziec and Gersten embraced like long-lost brothers.

Gersten and his family had remained in touch with Polziec's for years after the Holocaust, sending care packages out of gratitude, but the groups eventually lost contact.

Anthony DelMundo/New York Daily News

Gersten and his family had remained in touch with Polziec’s for years after the Holocaust, sending care packages out of gratitude, but the groups eventually lost contact.

“We never forget the fact that you and your parents saved our lives,” Gersten told Pólziec.

Whether or not Pólziec understood didn’t matter as the two men embraced again.

“They’ve not seen each other since the end of the war,” said Stanlee Stahl of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which arranged the reunion.

The 81-year-old former Polish soldier will be the guest of honor when Gersten and his grateful family light a Hanukkah candle and celebrate Thanksgiving.

Leon Gersten was taken in by the family along with his mother and other relatives after she had first fled the City of Rzeszow, leaving behind Leon’s father, sister and three brothers, who were never heard from again.

The Jewish Foundation For The Righteous

Leon Gersten was taken in by the family along with his mother and other relatives after she had first fled the City of Rzeszow, leaving behind Leon’s father, sister and three brothers, who were never heard from again.

“I am alive because of them,” Gersten, a 79-year-old retired psychologist from Long Island, said earlier.

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So are Gersten’s five kids, 34 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.

Gersten is from the City of Rzeszow. His fate became yoked with the Pólziec family’s after his mother, Frieda Tepper Gersten, fled with him to the town of Frystak, where her parents lived.

Polziec, just two years older, was a possible playmate for young Leon, but Gersten saw him only infrequently as he dropped off food to his family's hiding place.

Anthony DelMundo/New York Daily News

Polziec, just two years older, was a possible playmate for young Leon, but Gersten saw him only infrequently as he dropped off food to his family’s hiding place.

His father, sister and three brothers stayed behind … and were never heard from again.

In July 1942, when the Nazis began rounding up the Jews in Frysztak, Gersten’s mom disguised herself as a Catholic by donning a crucifix, grabbed her son and escaped with her sister, brother-in-law and their son.

Her parents stayed behind in Frysztak and were murdered.

Gersten’s mother had been a peddler, and although she had many customers in this part of southern Poland, they were too frightened to take in five Jewish strangers.

Refusing to admit sheltering their new friends, Stanislaw and Maria Polziec withstood a beating during a raid by Nazis who heard suspicious footsteps.

The Jewish Foundation For The Righteous

Refusing to admit sheltering their new friends, Stanislaw and Maria Polziec withstood a beating during a raid by Nazis who heard suspicious footsteps.

The escapees from Frysztak were desperate by they time they arrived at the humble farm of Stanislaw and Maria Pólziec, who barely had enough food to feed their five children.

They took pity on the Jews and carved out a hiding place for them in the dark attic above their barn. They also refused to take any money from the Gerstens.

“The punishment for aiding a Jew in this part of the world was death,” Stahl said. “They were taking a huge risk.”

RELATED: NAZI VICTIM AND HER RESCUER REUNITE IN NEW YORK

The long-lost friends address media.

Anthony DelMundo/New York Daily News

The long-lost friends address media.

Gersten, who was 8 when he went into hiding, remembers passing the time by watching spiders catch flies and picking lice from his cousin’s head.

Pólziec was two years older and a potential playmate. But Gersten saw him just once a week, when he brought them the big loaf of bread, potatoes and sometimes mushrooms that kept them alive.

Life consisted of long stretches of monotony interrupted by short bursts of terror when German raids forced them to flee to the gravelike bunker the farmer had dug for them.

During one raid, the invaders heard suspicious footsteps and didn’t believe Stanislaw Pólziec at first when he insisted the noise was from his kids playing in the attic.

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.

The Jewish Foundation For The Righteous

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.

They beat the farmer without mercy, and Gersten said they could hear him and his wife and kids screaming and pleading for them to stop.

But the brave Poles wouldn’t give up the Jews.

The Gerstens’ ordeal ended in August 1944 when Soviet soldiers liberated the area and they could finally emerge from their hiding place.

They eventually moved to New York City and started new lives, sending care packages when they could to their Polish rescuers.

But over time, they lost contact with the Pólziec family.

Gersten said that after his mother died, he decided it was time to tell the world about the family who saved them, planting the seeds for a happy reunion.

csiemaszko@nydailynews.com


Nation / World – NY Daily News

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