“My family survived the war because someone helped them. They were refugees. That’s the reason why I’m here,” he said. “Thanks to that time, I can help other people.”
To not help others now is unthinkable to him, so he and his girlfriend repeatedly invite refugees to stay until they have somewhere more permanent. As a third family arrives, Gebert and his girlfriend inflate a mattress for themselves and give the bedroom of their 400-square-foot Warsaw apartment to their new guests.
“It is not a big apartment,” he told them, apologetically, though the refugees replied it was just the shelter they needed from the war.
Gebert said he hoped the woman from Kyiv and her young son would finally be able to rest.
“Everything which I own and have in my life is in this apartment,” Gebert told CNN. “I don’t know if it’s faith or tradition. But I have to.”
History repeating, and changing
A few city blocks from Gebert’s home is the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Nazis first imprisoned Jews behind a high wall topped with barbed wire and then deported them to death camps during World War II.
Almost daily, he walks past the building where his great-grandmother, Zofia Poznańska, lived before the war. He has a few photographs of her — as a toddler with a large bow holding back curly tendrils from her wide eyes; as a girl; a teenager, and finally as a mother with her own daughter, who would become Gebert’s grandmother.
With the Nazis in charge of the city, Zofia became separated from her husband Julian Poznański and Krystyna, their daughter. Krystyna was evacuated to Siberia, Gebert said. His great-grandfather was taken in and hidden by non-Jews in Poland. But Zofia was falsely told both were dead and, overcome with grief and believing she had nothing to live for, she handed herself to the Nazis, according to Gebert family history.
One great-grandparent was sheltered and survived. One had no help and died.
“My entire family is involved in helping refugees,” Gebert explained. His father has given up his apartment. His sisters have ferried Ukrainians from the Polish border into Warsaw. “We are living because my ancestors were in hiding in Poland,” said Gebert.
‘It’s our time’
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told CNN there was no comparison between the bravery of those who sheltered Jews against the Nazis and civilians supported by their government opening their doors to help Ukrainians. But it was still doing what needed to be done.
“We’re doing nothing compared to what these truly righteous people did during the war,” he said.
“It’s our time to do what we needed to have done for us 80 years ago … If we still have, somewhere in our hearts, a sadness that more people didn’t help, it needs then to push us to do more to help now, rather than becoming angry or turning inwards, it needs to motivate us to even do more.”
Even though he is surrounded by his family’s sometimes painful history, Gebert says he tries not to dwell on the past. But asked what life could have been like if more of his relatives had been saved from the Nazis, he sounds almost wistful.
“If someone had helped those, my ancestors, my cousins, during the Holocaust, I will have much greater family next to me,” he said.
“That would be wonderful — to have a great big family in Warsaw, a Jewish family which survived the war, that would be the most beautiful, beautiful thing.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jan Gebert’s last name.
CNN’s Kyung Lah and Sarah Boxer reported and wrote this story in Warsaw, and Rachel Clarke wrote in Atlanta.