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April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review

Applied Righteousness: The Rescue Heard 'Round the World

By Mordechai Schiller





They were the most unlikely of friends. As children, in another world, death brought them together. Now life brought them together once again


http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | It was a peculiar media event. Two men — one 79, the other 81 — met at JFK airport in New York.

Hardly what you'd call front-page news. But, side by side with Hamodia, there were crews from AP, CBS News, Fox News, News 12 Long Island — as well as Polish media — covering the event. Then, later that night, the story went viral; it reached as far as Israel, the UK, Bangkok and Singapore.

Who are these men? And why did their story become a shot heard round the world?

Czeslaw Polziec is a retired factory security worker from Mielec, Poland. Leon Gersten, of Cedarhurst, New York, was a clinical psychologist with Maimonides Medical Center and is now director of Interboro Developmental & Consultation Center in Brooklyn.

They aren't politicians. They aren't tycoons, celebrities or gangsters. They aren't even names you'd find on Google...at least they weren't until the day before Chanukah.

They certainly aren't world leaders.

Or, are they?

The Mishnah in tractate Sanhedrin says that Adam was created alone. This teaches us that each person is "an entire world." From this, the Jewish sages learn that if you save even one person, you save an entire world. And, Heaven forfend, anyone who destroys one person, destroys an entire world.

Leon Gersten and Czeslaw Polziec met before — in December, 1942. Leon (Leibel) Gersten was 8 1/2-years-old when he met 10-year-old Czeslaw Polziec. They could not have been less alike. Leibel was a bookish cheder yingel. Although he spoke some Polish, his primary language was Yiddish. Czeslaw was a Polish farm boy. But, over the next two years, the boys' lives would become intertwined.

And Czeslaw's family saved, not one, but five worlds: Leo Gersten, his mother — Frieda (Tepper) Gersten, her sister and brother-in-law — Celia and Herman Wiesenfeld and their son, Moshe.

THE RESCUE AND THE RISK

Czeslaw's parents, Stanislaw and Maria Polziec were farmers. And when Mrs. Gersten — a fabric peddler — begged for shelter, the Polziecs hid the five Jews from the Nazis.

The Polziec's home in Zawadka seemed to be an ideal location. A lone farmhouse near a large forest. Still, the Polziecs, with five children of their own, now had to share their own food during a war with five more people. Worse yet, hiding Jews was a crime punishable by death. The sword of Damocles hung over their heads. Eventually, the sword would fall....

The Gerstens had lived in the town of Rzeszow (Reisha). In 1918, the population of Rzeszow was 24,200 people; 10,200 of them were Jews — 42% of the population. Today there are no Jews in Rzeszow.

In 1941, the Germans, who had invaded Poland in 1939, began building a wall around Rzeszow. Mrs. Gersten said they must get out while they can. She and Leon, disguised as gentiles, left for the shtetl of Frysztak (Fristik), to live with her parents, Yitzchak and Necha Tepper. Leon's father, Yonasan Gersten, refused to leave his home and place where he had lived his entire life. So he remained in Rzeszow with Leon's sister and three brothers from a previous marriage. Leon and his mother would never see them again.

Frysztak — once the home of the great Chassidic master, Reb Menachem Mendel of Rimanov — seemed like safe haven. Since 1898, when local police put down a pogrom, Frysztak was relatively calm.

But the Nazis were the storm after the calm. In July 1942, the Germans rounded up the Jews of Frysztak into the marketplace for a selectzia. They separated the elderly and youngest and put them on special trucks. Leon's grandmother, Necha Tepper, had no illusions about what the roundup meant. Before she left her home, she dressed up for the occasion... in her shrouds. After the selectzia and slaughter, Mrs. Gersten knew that staying in Frysztak meant sure death. She went through her list of customers, peddling — not fabric this time, but her life and the lives of her family. One after another, no one was willing to risk taking in five Jews. To be caught harboring Jews meant a death sentence for themselves and their own families.

Finally, she found her way to Stanislaw and Maria Polziec. The Polziecs welcomed the five fugitives, and hid them in their attic. Czeslaw Polziec's father — "a big man with big hands" — solemnly warned his children never to say anything to anyone about their guests. "We knew what we had to do," said Czeslaw. "There was no discussion."

Stanlislaw Polziec was a big man through and through. When Polish collaborators raided the house, they didn't find the Jews. The family had dug a bunker just large enough for the five Jews to hide in, and covered it with a grain storage bin. From their grave-like hiding place, Leon and his family could hear Stanislaw and his wife screaming as the Nazis beat them. The collaborators left the Polziecs bloodied and the entire family terrified. But they wouldn't turn over the Jews.

The Gerstens and Wiesenfelds were afraid that this was it. Surely the Polziecs would tell them they would have to leave now. But, despite the beating, the family still let them stay — until the Russian army would liberate the village in 1944.

Ironically, Leon says, in a way, the raid protected them. It helped remove some of the suspicion that the Polziecs were hiding Jews.

SEARCH AND DESTROY MISSIONS

Leon had no prayerbook or Bible in the attic. They couldn't have anything that might accidentally be left somewhere and give them away. "We had no toys, we had no books, we had nothing to play with." In the two years hiding in the attic, Leon would pass the time "watching spiders eat flies." They also went on "search and destroy missions" — finding and killing the lice in each other's hair. His uncle would tell him stories.

Leon's mother would pray with him by heart. And she constantly recited Psalms. Mrs. Gersten was a pillar of strength. She kept up their spirits and their faith. She always talked about the Messiah coming to redeem them. And she told Leon and the Wiesenfelds that her grandmother came to her in a dream and told her that they would survive.

Sometimes before dawn, under cover of darkness, Leon would come down the ladder to the stable and help the Polziec children with their chores, cleaning the stables from the animals. This was one way Leon had to show his appreciation for what they were doing for his family. In the wintertime, when there were long nights, it was safe to come down and the Polziecs invited the family to spend some time with them.


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Always alert to sounds, one day, Leon heard shelling in the distance. As the bombardment came closer, they knew the Russian soldiers must be advancing. Still, even when they were told that the Russians were in the village, they did not feel safe enough to come out of hiding. On the second or third night, they heard barrage fire all around them. They were afraid that the Germans were counterattacking.

Leon's mother roused her family and they ran out in middle of the night. They didn't even have the chance to say goodbye to Czeslaw and the other children, who were still sleeping. In the darkness, they ran toward the Russian line.

A NEW LIFE

After liberation and a stay in a DP camp, Leon and his mother headed for New York. His mother had to scramble to keep them fed. She certainly had no money for tuition. But there was no question that Leon had to go to yeshivah. That came before food. Soon, he was enrolled — with a full scholarship— at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn.

A year later, Leon's mother remarried. Her new husband was Meir Linchner, the father of Rabbi Alexander Linchner, who was the principal of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas' high school and, later, the founder of Boys Town Jerusalem.

Leon's son-in-law Rabbi Shaya Lebovits, a psychotherapist, describes Leon's mother as an "isha chashuva me'od — a great, noble woman, who recited Psalms all day... and lived to over 100."

It always bothered Leon that he never got a chance to say thank you and goodbye. But, as the Talmud says, "Baderech she'adam rotzeh lelech... — Heaven directs a person in the path he wants to go." One day, the Gerstens got a surprise call from Czeslaw's sister, Wanda Polziec, who was visiting in New York.

Leon was delighted to catch up on the family. And he was especially gratified to be able to help her find a job in New York. Wanda worked in America for about a year and then returned to Poland.

RIGHTEOUS AMONG THE NATIONS

After the older generation passed away, Leon lost contact with the Polziec family. Leon wanted to reestablish contact and have the family recognized for their heroism. He wrote to an organization in Poland asking their help to find the Polziecs. But they said they couldn't find anything based on the information provided.

'These were deeply religious people.' People who defied the prevailing winds and stood up to evil did so out of religious conviction


Leon's son Rabbi Yonason Gersten connected with the The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR), which provides monthly financial assistance to more than 600 aged and needy Righteous Gentiles in 21 countries who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. JFR provided guidance as to 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 and, on November 15th, in Poland, Yad Vashem awarded Stanislaw and Maria the medal of Righteous Among the Nations.

JFR conducts an annual dinner in which they bring together rescuers and rescued — celebrating beams of light in the deepest darkness. How appropriate that they organized this year's reunion event for the eve of Chanukah!

Just hours before the first night of Chanukah, Leon Gersten and Czeslaw Polziec met again — 4,000 miles, and 69 years after they parted. The moment was miraculous. All walls of language, culture and religion melted away. The glowing smiles — and their emotional embrace — said it all. They were the most unlikely of friends. As children, in another world, death brought them together. Now life brought them together once again.



BECAUSE OF YOU, WE ARE ALIVE

At the reunion, Leon sat in jubilant awe, his hands clasped warmly around Czeslaw's arm. He told Czeslaw he is still amazed that, with all the hardships his family brought upon the Polziecs, the children always treated their guests with the greatest respect. Czeslaw nodded solemnly and said that he and his siblings were taught to respect others. They always addressed adults as "Mr." or "Mrs." — never with the familiarity of a first name.

Leon always used to tell his children about these heroes: "Because of them, I am alive." At the reunion, in an emotional demonstration of gratitude, Leon's children — along with a sizable delegation of his, kenahora, 34 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren — filed by to shake Czeslaw's hand and pay tribute to the hero who saved Leon and his family.

This was a hands-on, dramatic testimony to the heroism of the Polziec family. It said, "Here we are — this miraculous dynasty, right before your eyes — all because of you and your family!" If the Polziecs saved worlds, those worlds went on to bring forth new worlds upon worlds, thank G0D... in a never-ending chain of creation.

Tzirel Zahava Gersten, a granddaughter of Leon's who was named for the sister killed by the Nazis, made a special trip from Jerusalem, where she is studying in seminary. She had already written two essays about the rescue of her family. She wouldn't miss this reunion for anything.

Leon's son Rabbi Yonason Gersten is Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual supervisor) of Cooper Yeshiva High School for Boys of The Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South. He traveled with his family from Memphis for the event. Rabbi Gersten said the reunion was an "overwhelming experience to have an opportunity to meet and honor someone to whom we owe a debt that can never be repaid." He added that the Torah tells us, "Lo sesa'ev Mitzri ki ger hayisa b'artzo — Do not despise an Egyptian, because you dwelled in his land...."

"We even have to be grateful to the Egyptians who enslaved us — because we lived in their land." Rabbi Gersten said. "How much more so do we have to be grateful to people who risked their lives to house and save us!"

BUT WHY?

I still had one question: Why?... And where did the Polziecs find the inner strength to go against the stream and risk their lives to save Jews?

I asked Czeslaw's nephew Vladimir, who accompanied his uncle from Poland. His take was that his grandparents had "respect for people." And he said this was his own opportunity for "payback" for the two years he lived in Czeslaw's home.

Czeslaw has his own view: "These were honest people who just wanted to do the right thing." The children were not consulted. "This was the decision of my father and my mother." And that was enough. Ultimately, it came down to one question: "Should we have let them die?!"

JFR Executive Vice President Stanlee Stahl added another dimension: "These were deeply religious people." She often finds that the people who defied the prevailing winds and stood up to evil did so out of religious conviction. Even if a local priest may have supported the Nazis, simple people of faith felt that refusing to save Jews from certain death was a contradiction to everything they were taught to believe. So they put faith above personal safety.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about the American Revolution:

"Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world."

Such farmers were Stanislaw and Maria Polziec.

As Leon Gersten put it, "Goodness won over at a time when evil seemed to be the dominant force in the world."

After the reunion, I saw the Fox 5 reporter wrapping up his equipment. I commented that he seemed moved by the event. He said, "We're always going to disasters. This is a wonderful human-interest story." Then he stopped winding his wire, thought for a moment, and added, "We need stories like this!"

After Minchah (afternoon prayers), one day, I heard one of the editors of Hamodia tell someone, "Bsiros tovos — Here's to good news."

I joked, "Good news doesn't sell newspapers."

I am now delighted to say that I was wrong.

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Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Mordechai Schiller is a copyeditor at Hamodia: The Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry, where this first appeared.




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