It is with great sadness that Matzav.com reports the passing of Dr. Leon (Leibel) Gersten z”l, a Holocaust survivor who possessed outstanding bitachon and emunah, and touched many people during his lifetime.
Dr. Gersten was the director of Interborough Development and Consultation Center, a chain of mental health clinics in Brooklyn, NY.
He had incredible middos tovos and was always smiling, even during the last few months, when he was in a lot of pain.
Leon grew up in the shtetel of Frysztak, Poland. His mother, Frieda Tepper Gersten, was a peddler who traveled throughout southern Poland to support her family. Her parents, Yitzchok and Necha Tepper, raised Leon.
Leon recalled how on Rosh Hashanah in 1939, all the Jews of his community were davening in the shtetel shul when the Germans surrounded the building and started shooting. “We all laid down on the floor and started praying Shema Yisroel,” he said in an interview published on Matzav some years ago. “After killing a few Jews, they let us out – that was our first introduction to the Germans.
“It’s one thing to kill a few people, it’s another to kill everybody, where every Jewish soul, every baby was on the most wanted list,” said Leon at the time.
On July 1942, the Germans ordered all of Frysztak’s Jews to gather in the animal marketplace. Around 1,600 Jews were rounded up – mostly elderly and children – and taken outside of town, where they were killed and buried in a mass grave. Leon’s grandparents, Yitzchok and Necha, were among those murdered.
After the mass killing, Leon’s mother, Frieda, went out to the countryside dressed up as a Polish Catholic woman to try and find someone to take in her family. She went to Polish families who had purchased goods from her, and although a number of homes turned her away, one couple, Maria and Stanislaw Polziec, agreed to provide shelter for her family. Maria, a seamstress, and Staninslaw, a farmer, had five children and barely enough food for their own family, but they were willing to house the five desperate Jews.
For more than two years, Leon, his mother, Frieda, her sister and brother-in-law, Celia and Herman Wiesenfeld, and their son Moshe were kept hidden from the Nazi occupiers in the Polziecs’ attic. The Polziecs also built an underground earthen bunker that they covered with a grain storage bin in case of a raid.
One night, German soldiers raided the farm. “We were very organized and ran down to the bunker, but the German soldiers heard us,” Leon remembered. “They suspected the Polziecs of hiding Jews and proceeded to beat Stanislaw who tried to tell them it was his children sleeping in the attic that had run down scared. We could hear Stanislaw screaming and the cries from the Polziec family but not one of them said a word about us.
Frieda, Leon, Herman, Celia and Moshe stayed with the Polziecs until the Soviet Army liberated the area in July 1944.
Leon passed away yesterday in Oceanside, New York. He was 83. The levayah is Boulevard Riverside Chapel in Hewlett, NY. Kevurah took place at New Montefiore Cemetery in Pinelawn, New York. The family is sitting shivah until Thursday morning at 447 Albemarle Road in Cedarhurst.