Body language was the only language Joseph Bonder needed to say “thank you” to Bronislaw Firuta, when the two met at JFK International Airport under the bright light of camera flashes in a media room here.
More than 60 years ago, Firuta’s family hid Bonder and his sister Joan in their dimly lit attic in the remote village of Ostra Mogila in Nazi-occupied Poland.
At 3:22 p.m. Wednesday, Firuta, a Christian, held Bonder, a Jew, in a long embrace.
Firuta, 82, kissed him and then — in his native Polish — said how remarkable it was that they had survived Hitler and Stalin, saying, according to a translator, “Here we are today.”
“I’m numb,” said the 81-year-old Bonder, seeing for the first time since 1944 the man who saved his life. Bonder called the embrace, “Indescribable. There are no words for it.”
Asked if Firuta looked different, Bonder laughed and said he did. “I don’t look the same, either,” he said.
Firuta exchanged hugs with Bonder’s three children and five of his seven grandchildren who attended the reunion. In the European custom, he kissed all the descendants of Bonder, who owe their lives to a man they were meeting for the first time.
This was the first time Firuta visited the United States. He came following twin tragedies in October, when his wife died and his house was destroyed in a fire.
The emotional meeting at the airport Wednesday was arranged by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that honors nonJews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.
The Firuta family allowed Bonder and his sister to sleep in their attic and in their barn, while lying to Nazi soldiers looking to capture and murder Jews.
Bonder recalled spending a cold winter in the Firutas’ barn, sleeping next to a cow for warmth, and hiding in hay when soldiers searched for him.
While his parents and scores of relatives and friends were killed in the Holocaust, Bonder and his sister survived.
“Their bravery is what allowed me to live,” said Bonder, now a resident of the Greenbrier adult community in Monroe, where his airy and bright home is a stark contrast to the life he left behind in Europe.
Firuta explained in his native Polish that his family faced risks “every day,” while hiding Jews. He said when families were discovered harboring Jews, they would have their house burned down.
Asked what motivated him and his family, he said that from an early age he was taught by his parents to “respect all people.”
“Amid all the evil of the Holocaust he and his family risked everything,” said Bonder’s son, Irvin, a doctor who lives in Randolph.
“People talk about heroes, about basketball players, football players. My father is a real hero. Mr. Firuta’s a hero. They’re the real heroes,” said Bonder’s son Alan, an attorney from West Caldwell.
Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky of the Chabad Jewish Center in Monroe heard on the radio Wednesday morning about the reunion between Firuta and Bonder, and drove to the press room at the airport, where media conferences are typically held for visiting dignitaries.
“If I’m there for a family in a time of need, I want to be at a time of great joy,” said the rabbi while a cluster of television cameramen prepared for the reunion.
When Bonder and Firuta engaged in their long embrace — with Firuta doing all the talking — the room was hushed, apart from cameras clicking.
Firuta’s arrival amid pomp and circumstances was a dramatic contrast to Bonder’s arrival in this country. He came came to the United States in 1950, without money, unable to understand English and with less than five years of formal education.
He and his sister were teenagers in the village of Faszczowka, Poland, when it was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939. It was during this time that Joan, six years his elder, became a teacher in Ostra Mogila. Firuta was one of her students and one of his aunts rented her a room.
In 1940 Faszczowka was captured by the Nazis. The Bonder family was rousted from their home and taken to the Skalat ghetto.
Bonder’s parents, Israel and Pesa, urged Joseph and Joan to go to Ostra Mogila and seek refuge with the extended Firuta family.
Once there, Bonder recalled that he had a fight with his sister while they were in hiding, and he ventured to the ghetto to look for his father. “A woman told me, “They took everybody yesterday,’ ” Bonder recalled.
He later learned his parents were among 6 million Jews exterminated in the war.
According to Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the foundation that sponsored the airport reunion, it is likely the Bonders’ parents were buried in a mass grave at a time when older Jews were not considered fit to work in concentration camps.
When it became too precarious for Bonder and his sister to remain with the Firuta family, Joseph and his sister took refuge in woods, where they met a group of 42 Jews, and a number of Russian partisans, all of whom were being hunted by the Nazis.
Bonder recalled surviving in the winter by sleeping in bunkers dug in the woods.
He also went back and forth to the village of Ostra Mogila to get supplies from sympathetic villagers.
Bonder recalled once being spotted by Nazi soldiers who were speaking with the mayor of the village. When the soldiers saw Bonder and his sister running to the woods, the mayor lied, and said they were children of a local peasant farmer.
Meanwhile, Bronislaw Firuta was continuing to assist the Jews by smuggling guns and supplies to the group hiding in the woods.
The ordeal, which lasted nearly three years, ended when Russian army advanced west, overtaking the area of Poland. After the war the land was severed and is now Ukraine.
Following the war Bonder went to a displaced persons camp in Germany, where he met his wife, the former Joan Kahane. It took five years before Bonder was allowed to come to the U.S., settling in the Bronx where his sister’s husband had family.
He had scores of jobs before opening a laundromat in a strip mall. Over time he purchased adjacent stores, and eventually owned the entire strip mall in Roxbury. “I have been blessed by God,” he said. “There is no other place I could have all this but in America.”
The reunion could have only taken place here.
Firuta will stay with Bonder in Monroe until Dec. 3 when he will return home to Poland. Plans include sightseeing in New York City and a dinner Sunday for the extended family at a Russian restaurant.
Though Bonder has the means to travel anywhere in the world and has made several trips to Israel, he will never return to Eastern Europe.
“The memories are too painful,” said his son, Alan.