A New York psychologist shared an emotional reunion Wednesday with the man whose family hid him for more than two years in a cramped attic in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Leon Gersten, 79, met with Czeslaw Polziec, a retired Polish factory worker, for the first time in nearly 70 years at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the New York Post reported.
Gersten, then 8, hid with his mother and three relatives in the southeastern Poland home of Polziec's Catholic family and remained there for the duration of the war, relying on food delivered by a 10-year-old Czeslaw.
"The last time I saw him was when I was around 10 ½," Gersten told the New York Post before the reunion. “After all these years, it’s wonderful to be able to re-establish a personal touch, and to see someone who went through a lot of these experiences together."
Gersten said Polziec and his family showed incredible resolve in keeping their presence a secret. The family even built an underground bunker that they could cover with a grain storage bin in the event of a Nazi raid, according to the report.
“They kept it a secret. Just a mention that there were Jews hiding in their house would have been catastrophic,” Gersten told the Post. “Even though they were kids, they certainly were part of it in terms of protecting us and keeping out survival a secret."
In a close call, Nazi collaborators raided the farm and beat Polziec's father after suspecting the family of hiding Jews. Still, the family did not give up Gersten and his relatives.
"They were told nobody was to say anything to anyone," Polziec told Newsday through a translator. "We knew what we had to do. There was no discussion."
Polziec and Gersten said they look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving together and lighting the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah during the week-long reunion sponsored by the New York City-based Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Newsday reported.
Gersten's grandson Mark Gersten told the newspaper that the reunion, which coincided with the Thanksgiving holiday and start of Hanukkah, could not have been timed better. Several members of Gersten's family attended Wednesday's event.
"We are giving thanks for being able to be here and being able to practice our own religion and be safe," he said. "For us, our way to give thanks is to show how many people there are and what we are doing with our lives."