After the German invasion of Poland, in September 1939, Leon’s mother moved to live with her parents in Frystak. Gerste’s father wasn’t able to find work in Frystak so he remained in Rzeszow with the rest of the children: Leon’s sister and his three brothers. He never saw them again after the move. When a group of about 1,600 Jews were marched outside town and killed by the Germans and their bodies left abandoned in a huge grave, Gerste’s mother took Leon, her sister, brother-in-law and little nephew, put a cross around her neck and went knocking on people’s doors to ask for shelter.
Many doors stayed closed but one. Maria and Stanislaw Polziec had five children and lived on a farm nearby Zawadka. They didn’t have much themselves but the thought of leaving a family in need, walking the streets in such circumstances was heartbreaking. They arranged a small place in their attic where the Gersten family could stay until things were going to get better. Gersten remembers getting one loaf of bread a week and potatoes from their hosts. The bread used to be divided into five and the kids were the first to have a go at it. Little Leon would sometimes give a potato to his uncle if he would come up with some good stories for him and his cousin, the CNN Belief Blog reports.
In the winter, when the room in the attic used to get very cold, the Polziec family would invite their guests to join them in the warmth of their front room. When the feared German inspection arrived, they heard footsteps coming out of the bunker where Gersten and his family were hiding. The Nazi group started interrogating Mr Polziecs who tried to fool them by blaming the kids in the attic.
Even though he was beaten without mercy, he didn’t give away any information about the Jews. Gersten didn’t leave the attic until 1944, when the Soviet soldiers arrived to liberate the area. Him and his mother kept in touch with the Polziecs family after they moved to New York. This year, The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, organized for Leon Gersten to finally meet with his rescuers’ son, Mr Czeslaw Polziec. The Holocaust survivor remembers Mr Polziec when he was very young, just like him.
He can’t take out of his mind the fact that although young Czeslaw went to school and church and spoke to many people, he never gave away anything about his staying on the farm. Lost in between the emotion and Mr Polziec’s poor English, the two men embraced, hold hands and shared memories.