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US Holocaust survivor meets Polish savior 70 years on

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A Jewish boy who hid from the Nazis in a hayloft reunited after 70 years in New York on Wednesday with the Polish son whose parents risked everything to save him.

Beaming American Holocaust survivor Leon Gersten, 79, embraced and clasped the hand of a visibly moved Czeslaw Polziec, 81, whose Polish parents saved five Jews during World War II.

Gersten welcomed Polziec after his exhausting trans-Atlantic flight before a battery of cameras at New York's JFK airport, supported by his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

It was an emotional moment for two elderly men, both smartly dressed in suits, who parted as 10 and 11 year olds in 1944 as the Russians liberated their village in rural Poland.

"It's like getting to know each other again," Gersten told reporters in anticipation. "To me and my children they're heros."

Gersten, his mother, aunt, uncle and cousin hid from 1942 to 1944 in the hayloft of the humble two-room home on the Polziec family farm in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Polziec, who went on to live under Soviet occupation and served in the Polish army, beamed and clasped the American educational psychologist, who presented him with a bouquet of flowers.

Polziec said he was told never speak about their Jewish guests. If discovered, it would have meant certain death for both families, but his parents were just honest people trying to do the right thing, he said.

"I am very happy after 69 years of being in Poland and finally meeting my friend," he said. "God saved us all."

The Nazis rounded up and killed many of the Jews in the Polish town of Frystak, including Gersten's grandparents, in July 1942.

Gersten's mother Frieda escaped the ghetto, disguising herself as a Catholic with a cross around her neck.

A pedler, she went door-to-door to her customers, asking to be taken in.

Many turned her away, but Maria and Stanislaw Polziec took her in despite being poor and already having five children.

The strict Catholic family crafted an underground bunker, just big enough for the five Jews should the Nazis ever raid. It was covered with a grain storage bin.

The Polziec children brought them a loaf of bread a week and collected mushrooms in the forest to make soup.

One terrifying day, Nazi collaborators raided the farm. Gersten and his family huddled in the bunker as Stanislaw was beaten mercilessly but never betrayed his guests.

For two years in hiding, there was little way of passing the time.

"We had no toys, we had no books, we had nothing to play with so all we could do was watch spiders catching flies," Gersten said.

They spent time picking the lice out of each other's hair, fantasizing about a better future and helping out in the stable.

"We lived with hope. As a kid I had this feeling of immortality. The idea being shot and killed didn't enter my mind."

After the war, Gersten emigrated to New York.

In 1998, he met one of Czeslaw's four sisters, who came to the United States to work as a domestic worker, but conversation was difficult because Gersten no longer speaks Polish.

After his mother died the two families lost contact.

He will now take Czeslaw home to Long Island, New York to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, as well as the American secular holiday of Thanksgiving on Thursday.

Gersten has five children, 34 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He earned a doctorate from Columbia University.

After the army, Polziec worked in security. He married and has two daughters.

The reunion was facilitated by The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which gives financial assistance to around 650 aged and needy Holocaust rescuers in Europe.

Six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis during World War II. More than half of them were Polish. Gersten's father, sister and three brothers were among those who perished.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131128/us-holocaust-survivor-meets-polish-savior-70-years