Joseph Bonder and Bronislaw Firuta are celebrating Thanksgiving a day early this year, and in a very special way.
The two men — one a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the other his Polish rescuer — were to be reunited Nov. 25 at John F. Kennedy Airport for the first time in 64 years.
Although they had not seen one another since the end of World War II, their connection has been a deep and abiding one.
From 1942 to 1944, Firuta and his family gave sanctuary to Bonder and his sister, Joan, while other Jews in their hometown of Faszczowka, Poland, were shipped away to Nazi concentration camps.
“The family were all nice and they all tried to help the Jews,” said Bonder, 81, in a telephone interview from his home in Monroe Township. “It wasn’t so easy. Why they did it I don’t know. They didn’t do it for money, and they could have been killed if they were caught.”
The reunion of the two men was made possible by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Shoa. The foundation, which has provided financial aid to Firuta, will honor the two men on Dec. 1 at its annual dinner in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
Bonder and Firuta are also scheduled to make a joint appearance at Shabbat services on Nov. 28 at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, where Bonder’s son Alan and his family are congregants. Before returning to Poland, Firuta will spend a week as a guest in the home of Joseph Bonder and his wife, Joan.
The Bonders have three children and seven grandchildren.
“There weren’t many such righteous rescuers,” said foundation executive vice president Stanlee Stahl of South Orange. “Less than one-half of one percent helped save a Jew. But we are telling the precious few that the Jewish people will never forget the Christians and the Muslims who helped us.”
Saying ‘thank you’
As he awaited contact with the man who provided him and his sister, who died in 1991, with a lifeline, Bonder reminisced about the connection with Firuta, who is a year older than him, which dated back to 1939.
That year, Bonder’s sister began teaching school in the town of Ostra Moglia, where she rented a room from the Firuta family.
After the Nazis invaded Faszczowka, the Bonders were herded into a ghetto, called Skalat.
“My father sent me and my sister out of the ghetto to the Firuta family,” Bonder told NJ Jewish News. Their mother and father stayed behind, while the brother and sister hid in the Firutas’ barn.
“The barn was not locked, and if we were ever caught, they could find the excuse that anybody could walk in there and stay. In the barn there was a cow and a pig and a chicken, and we lived between them,” he explained.
When the Firutas came there to tend their livestock, they smuggled food for the two teenagers in a bucket that contained feed for their animals.
After a few weeks at the Firutas, Bonder risked a trip back to the ghetto and made a sad discovery.
“My parents were gone,” he said. “Nobody knows exactly where they were taken, but one woman who jumped off the train said they were heading for Bergen-Belsen.”
He became, presumably, an orphan at the age of 13. His sister was five years older. Together they faced the constant fear of being discovered.
“One time a neighbor had a fight with the Firutas and told them, ‘I know you have Jews here and I’m going to report you.’ So we had to run out.”
On another occasion, when the police came searching for the Jews, the teenagers left the barn again. They hid in the woods by day and in other people’s barns at night.
At one point they met up with a group of partisans, 15 or 16 Jews who had run away from the ghetto and hid in the woods. When it came to engaging in armed conflict with Nazi soldiers and their Polish allies, “we did small things,” Bonder said.
When the Soviet Army liberated the area in 1944, Bonder headed for the United States. He arrived in New York in 1950 and got married soon afterward. Thirteen years later, he moved with his family to Rockaway, NJ.
Then he began corresponding with Firuta, who asked Bonder’s aid in having him become recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”
“It took me a little while. But when I was in Israel I stopped by there and talked to them and they put his name in,” Bonder said.
Once Firuta and his parents, Franciszek and Anna, gained that official designation in 2006, the foundation began assisting him and arranging for his reunion with Bonder. Firuta is one of more than 1,000 men and women in 23 nations who receive financial and medical aid from the foundation, said Stahl.
“I am looking forward to seeing him,” said Bonder. “I hope we enjoy each other. It will be nice to say ‘thank you’ to him. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here, that’s for sure.”