For Holocaust survivor Leon Gersten, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will have a special meaning this year. He was reunited on Wednesday November 27 with the man whose family kept him hidden from the Nazis during World War II.
Gersten saw his savior, Czeslaw Polziec, for the first time in 69 years at JFK International Airport.
Gersten currently lives in Cedarhurst, New York, while Polziec lives in Mielec, Poland. Polziec's trip and the meeting was organized by the non-profit group called The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
During World War II, Gersten, his parents and his mother's sister and brother-in-law's family – Celia, Herman and their son Moshe Wiesenfeld – were kept hidden from the Nazis for two years by Poleziec's parents in their attic.
Despite the risk and having five children of their own, the Poleziecs took the family in, enduring Nazi raids and beatings. Czeslaw Polziec was their eldest son.
"I cannot believe that I am here. I am very happy that after 69 years of separation I can finally meet my friend," the now 81-year-old Poleziec said.
Gersten who went on to become a clinical psychologist, thanked Polziec.
"We never forgot the fact that you, and of course your parents, are the ones who saved our lives. And the only reason that we are alive is because of you and your family," the 79-year-old said.
Gersten has five children, 34 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, most of whom came out to greet Polziec.
When asked how it felt to meet the family, Polziec said: "It's a huge satisfaction for him and for me and we are like comrades. Like war comrades and we met."
The Gersten family and the Wiesenfeld family lived with the Polziecs until July 1944 when the area was liberated by Soviet soldiers.
Gersten said that during that time he and his cousin had a hard time keeping themselves busy.
"We had no toys, we had no books, we had nothing to play with. So all we could do is watch spiders catching flies. Well, it might not be a pleasant thing to mention, but of course we all had lice. So we did search missions, spending time looking for lice on each other's heads," he recalled.
Gersten said the reunion was even more special as Wednesday was the first day of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights and Thursday is Thanksgiving Day.
"Hanukkah which also represents the traditional Jewish victory over the Romans while the Romans were trying to repress us, and I think Thanksgiving day is also, it represents symbolic feeling of having freedom, justice, fairness and being able to be what you want to be. So I think it is a very appropriate day. In fact we are going to have a nice celebration on Thanksgiving Day with the family and together with Czeslaw and his nephew," he said.