They came together like two close friends — almost like brothers. And the short walks they took toward one another in the John F. Kennedy Airport press room on Nov. 27 were the latest steps in a journey that began in Poland 64 years earlier at the end of World War II.
Entering from one side of the room was Joseph Bonder, an 81-year-old Polish Jew, who hid from the Nazis and survived the Holocaust by finding shelter in a barn.
From the other side of the room came Bronislaw Firuta, a Pole whose Catholic family owned that barn and risked everything by protecting the young Jewish man and his sister.
Bonder, of Monroe Township, enveloped Firuta in a long and grateful hug.
For nearly three minutes Firuta spoke in Polish in a stream of consciousness, his emotions transcending the flood of language unfamiliar to most people in attendance.
“Hello, my dear, beloved Joseph,” Firuta said, according to translator Agnieszas Percan. “I came here to see you after all that has been going on.”
Their reunion was arranged by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a Manhattan-based organization that locates gentile rescuers, provides them with lifelong stipends, and reunites them with the Jews they helped survive the Holocaust.
Minutes before Firuta’s plane was scheduled to land, foundation executive vice president Stanlee Stahl told the assembled press corps that the reunion was almost cancelled.
“Mr. Firuta’s wife passed away in the beginning of October. He turned 82 on Oct. 8, and about four days later his home burned,” Stahl explained. “He lost all of his clothes, so we gave him a one-time $500 grant to purchase new clothes. He was very sad. But he came to see the man he saved.”
Cameras clicked and reporters shouted questions at the two elderly men, who stood on the stage flanked by Bonder’s wife, Joan, their three sons, and their seven grandchildren.
Firuta “is really happy he is sharing this moment with the Bonders,” said translator Percan. “He has seen the children’s pictures. He said both Joseph and he were raised together, so it’s obvious there is that connection and he is happy that the children are here to see today happen.”
“Thank you for saving my father’s life,” said Alan Bonder of Caldwell, Joseph’s youngest son, as he hugged Firuta.
The airport reunion was the start of a weeklong celebration. The Bonders are hosting Firuta at their home. The two men made a joint appearance at Shabbat services on Nov. 29 at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, where Alan Bonder and his family are congregants.
Firuta was the guest of honor at a belated Bonder family Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 28 in a restaurant near Monroe.
Then, on Dec. 1, the two men were saluted at the annual fund-raising dinner of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
An hour before they were to meet, Bonder told NJ Jewish News, “It’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing him. I didn’t see him since 1945.”
Through the decades they had spoken by telephone on occasion, and corresponded in writing more frequently.
“But it’s different when you see somebody,” said Bonder. “This will only happen once in a lifetime.”
The Firuta family harbored Bonder and his sister in 1942, while other Jews in their hometown of Faszczowka, Poland, were shipped away to Nazi concentration camps. For two years, Bonder and his sister, also named Joan, shared space with the animals in the Firutas’ barn. Although there was never firm confirmation of their parents’ fate, they presumably were sent to their deaths in a Nazi concentration camp. After World War II, Bonder and his sister moved to New York. Joan Bonder, who died in 1991, also corresponded with Firuta, who remained in Europe.
Asked why he and his family risked their lives by hiding Jews, Firuta said through the interpreter, “From a young age I knew to respect all people, no matter which backgrounds they came from.”
Rabbi Eliezer Zakilovsky, director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe and a friend of Bonder’s, stood on the sidelines watching the reunion.
“This is something very exciting for me as well as the entire Monroe community,” he told NJJN. “There is a saying that one who saves one’s soul saves the entire world. That is sometimes difficult to fathom. Here, when we see after 60 years the next generation and the next generation, it is extremely touching.”