Thursday, November 26, 2009

Holocaust Survivor Reunited with Rescuer

A Holocaust survivor and the Polish Christian who risked his life to save him are especially grateful this Thanksgiving season: The two men were reunited for the first time in 65 years.

Joseph Bonder, 81, went to John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday afternoon to welcome Bronislaw Firuta, 83, from Wroclaw, Poland.

"My dear, beloved Joseph, we both outlived Stalin and Hitler, and I can't believe we are here today," said Firuta as the two men embraced in an airport press room, recognizing each other from photos they had exchanged.

The two then chatted in their native Polish as Bonder's wife, three grown sons and seven grandchildren looked on.

The two men haven't seen each other since the Soviet Army liberated Ostra Mogila, Poland, in 1944, although they have been in touch by phone and letters since the 1950s.

Firuta was 15 when he and his family helped hide 13-year-old Bonder and his 18-year-old sister, Joan, for three years as the Nazis searched for Jews in the town. The two families knew each through Joan, a teacher who had Firuta as a student.

"I'm very excited to see him after all these years," Bonder said in a telephone interview from his home in Monroe Township, N.J., hours before Firuta arrived.

In the late summer of 1941, the Bonder family was living in a Jewish ghetto when Bonder's father sent the two children to stay with the Firutas, who lived about 1 1/2 hours away. Bonder's parents did not survive World War II.

The Firutas harbored the two teenagers in a barn loft and hay shed attic and later, when it became too dangerous, in woods behind their home.

"They would come about once a day to bring us food. They would put it in a bucket as if they were feeding the animals," in case authorities arrived, Bonder said.

If they were found out, Bonder said, the Firutas could use the excuse that the barn was an open structure that anyone could enter.

It wasn't easy hiding, Bonder said. The teenagers had no games or books and spent much of their time lying around.

There were two close calls when local police came searching, but they were never caught.

"Someone would come and tell us and we would run," he said. "Everything was luck. Not everybody hits the lottery. So we were lucky."

That first winter, the two teens stayed with different Christian families, but never more than a day or two so as not to jeopardize their safety.

In the spring and for the next year and a half, they sought shelter during the day deep in the woods behind the Firutas' home and at night in their barn or shed.

"We had no radio, so we came at night to stay with them to get the news of the world," Bonder said.

During the summer, they stayed in tents in the woods with a small group of other Jews. In the winter, they lived in underground bunkers that they dug.

But there were no luxuries, not even blankets. "If you had a few burlap bags, you were lucky," Bonder said.

Bonder and Firuta led busy lives and money concerns have kept them from meeting before now. Bonder's sister died 11 years ago.

Joseph Bonder hopes the reunion will make up for the long absence. Firuta will be a guest in Bonder's home for two weeks, and he hopes to show him tourist sites in New York City.

Firuta lost his wife about two months ago, and a fire damaged his house a few weeks after that.

"I'll try to entertain him as much as possible, but I don't think he's feeling so good. We'll do as much as he can do," Bonder said.

The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which finds and honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews, paid for their reunion

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