Czeslaw Polziec and his nephew Vladimir joined Leon Gersten and his family for davening at the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst on Shabbos Chanukah.
Since they were not Jewish, Czeslaw and Vladimir weren’t called up for aliyos. Instead, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, called Czeslaw and Vladimir up to the dais, and the entire shul gave them a standing ovation.
Just a few days earlier, Czeslaw and Leon had met for the first time in 69 years. They first met each other in December 1942, when Leon (Leibel) Gersten was eight and Czeslaw was 10. Leibel was a cheder yingel who hardly spoke Polish.
Leon’s mother, Frieda Gersten, was running from the Nazis. She needed to hide with Leon, her sister and brother-in-law and their son. A Nazi aktion in Frystak left thousands dead, including Frieda’s father and mother, Yitzchak and Necha Tepper.
Czeslaw’s parents, Stanislaw and Maria Polziec, hid the five Jews in their attic. Czeslaw’s father warned his children never to say anything to anyone. “We knew what we had to do,” said Czeslaw. “There was no discussion.”
Even after Polish collaborators raided their home and brutally beat Czeslaw’s father, they still protected the Jews in their care.
Leon and his family stayed for two years, until 1944. Even after they saw Russian soldiers, they didn’t know if it was safe to leave. One night they heard huge explosions and were afraid the Germans were counterattacking. They ran out and headed for the Russian line, without even having the chance to say goodbye to the children, who were still sleeping.
Years later, Leon kept trying to contact the family. Finally, his son, Rabbi Yonason Gersten, connected with The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which provides monthly financial assistance to needy righteous gentiles. The foundation showed them how to make a formal application to Yad Vashem to have the Polziec family recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Miraculously, they tracked down Czeslaw Polziec. On Nov. 15 in Poland, Yad Vashem posthumously awarded Stanislaw and Maria Polziec the medal of Righteous Among the Nations.
Just before Chanukah, the foundation brought Leon Gersten and Czeslaw Polziec together again. Leon sat with his hands clasped warmly around Czeslaw’s arm.
“Because of his family,” he declared, “I am alive.”