Dr. Leon Gersten, a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor, and Mr. Czeslaw Polziec, a Polish citizen who, along with his family, hid Leon and his mother during the Holocaust, were reunited last week in an emotional and well-publicized get-together. Mr. Polziec and his nephew, Vladimir, were flown in to spend a week in the United States by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous for the express purpose of reuniting them with the Gerstens and honoring them at the Foundation’s annual dinner in Manhattan. During the week, the Polziecs were hosted at the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst and were honored by a gala kiddush on Shabbos.
On Tuesday, the sixth day of Chanukah, Dr. Gersten, his son, and the family of his rescuers spoke to the students of Rambam Mesivta. Rambam Mesivta has a longstanding history of activism and rallying on behalf of Jewish causes in general, with specific focus on bringing Nazi criminals to justice. According to Rabbi Zev Friedman, “Just as we are obligated to demonstrate against Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Latvian murderers of our people, we are obligated to pay tribute to and recognize the heroic efforts of families like the Polziecs who risked their own lives to save those they could. Standing with us today is an individual who saved the life of Dr. Leon Gersten, enabling him to raise children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”
The entire student body sat in rapt attention and heard Dr. Gersten speak about his family’s experience during the Shoah. “Our first encounter with the Nazis was on Rosh Hashanah, when they entered our village. They immediately started shooting at the beis medrash we were davening in, and many people were killed that day. Later on, they rounded up everyone in the village and separated the elderly and mothers with five children or more—that group was immediately shot. Approximately two-thirds of the Jews in the village were killed that day.” Dr. Gersten explained that his mother ran to a nearby village and asked a non-Jewish Polish family if they could hide in their house. The Polziecs agreed and provided a hiding place in the attic and shared the paltry food that they possessed. At one point, the Nazis, on one of their many routine inspections, barged in on the Polziecs and accused them of hiding Jews. Mr. Polziec was severely beaten, but nevertheless didn’t turn in the Gerstens.
Choking back emotion, Dr. Gersten turned to Mr. Polziec and said, “You saved my life!” Mr. Polziec, whose native tongue is Polish, spoke briefly in halting English about his family and said they felt that they’d done nothing special, because they simply did the right thing.
Dr. Gersten’s son, Rabbi Yonatan Gersten, spoke about the moral lessons that we can learn from the actions of the Polziecs. Rabbi Gersten, who serves as the mashgiach ruchani of the Cooper Yeshiva high school for boys in Memphis, said, “The Polziecs are a paradigm of those courageous individuals who do not go with the flow and instead stand up to do what is right in the face of tremendous pressure and threat of physical harm. It is because of them that the Gersten family has 60 offspring as of now. Our sages teach us that an individual who saves one life is considered to have saved an entire world.”
Rabbi Friedman presented the family with a framed certificate in English and Polish expressing the thanks of the Jewish community for their heroic efforts. The entire student body rose and gave a standing ovation to Dr. Gersten and Mr. Polziec for an assembly that they will never forget.
Immediately thereafter, Rambam’s annual Chanukah chagigah was held and Dr. Gersten and Mr. Polziec were the guests of honor, sitting in the middle of the circle as everyone danced around them in joyous celebration to the spirited music of Mr. Gary Wallin, on his keyboard, and Rambam’s ninth grade rebbe, Rabbi Ari Boiangiu, an internationally known guitarist. Even as the guests had to leave, the boys followed them out and escorted them to their car with joyous singing, dancing, and expressions of thanks. It truly was a memorable Chanukah for all assembled. v