Polish Rescuers of Jews in WWII Now Openly Hailed; Dozens Gather to Be Honored by Jewish Representatives Lauding Their Heroism

Article excerpt

WARSAW, POLAND - For decades, nobody really talked about them: the thousands of Poles, most of them Roman Catholics, who risked their lives in World War II to save Jewish friends, neighbors and even strangers.

Those discovered by the Germans were executed quickly, often with their entire families. And then, under communism, there was silence. The Jewish survivors would send letters and gifts in gratitude. But the Polish state ignored the rescuers. And they themselves kept quiet, out of modesty, or shame or fear of anti-Semitism. Sometimes they worried that gift packages from the West would arouse the jealousy of neighbors in a period of economic deprivation.

"It wasn't considered anything to be proud of," said Ewa Ligia Zdanowicz, 81, whose parents hid a Jewish teenage girl in their home during the war.

That era is over.

A moving gathering of dozens of the rescuers on Sunday in Warsaw shows just how much has changed in Poland in the 23 years since communism fell. Dozens of Polish rescuers were celebrated and dined over a kosher lunch in an upscale hotel where Jewish representatives took turns praising them for their heroism.

The rescuers themselves deny that they are exceptional. With each other, they discuss other things, often their failing health, avoiding memories of executions and other brutality that they witnessed and which still bring them to tears.

"We did what we had to do," said Halina Szaszkiewicz, 89. "There was nothing heroic about it."

But the Jewish officials honoring them see it differently. …