WARSAW, Poland — For decades, nobody really talked about them: the thousands of Poles, mostly Roman Catholics, who risked their lives during 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 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 , an 81-year-old 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 in speeches 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.
"You, the righteous of the world, think your behavior was ordinary, but we all know it was something more than that. It was truly extraordinary," Stanlee Stahl, the executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, the group that organized the luncheon, told them in a speech.
Those in attendance have all been recognized by Israel's Yad Vashem as "Righteous Among the Nations," non-Jews sometimes referred to colloquially as "righteous gentiles."
These days it isn't just grateful Jews who remember. The Polish state also honors and celebrates them, as appreciation grows for Poland's vanished Jewish community – the largest in the world before the Holocaust. It is treated as long overdue recognition befitting a democratic nation.
But it's also clear that officials seize with pride on this historical chapter to fight the stereotype of Poland as an anti-Semitic country – a label that is painful to many Poles and which carries some truth, but also masks a hugely complex reality.
Many Jews today still remember anti-Semitism that their families suffered in Poland, not just from Germans – who carried out the Holocaust – but also from Poles whom they had lived alongside for centuries. Yet Poland also produced the greatest number of rescuers. To date, more than 6,350 non-Jews in Poland have been recognized by Yad Vashem, more than any other country, Israeli Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner said.
Yad Vashem's statistics show that after Poland, the Netherlands has the most number of "righteous" – 5,204 – followed by France's 3,513.
Rav-Ner travels around Poland to bestow Yad Vashem's "Righteous Among the Nations" award on newly recognized rescuers, and he has observed how Poles have become less and less afraid of having their wartime actions being made public. In a handful of cases, people asked to have quiet ceremonies at the Israeli Embassy rather than public events in their communities. But this is increasingly a rare exception.
"Now most are proud to have it made public. That's the big change," Rav-Ner said. "Before, people did go to Israel and met the people they saved, but in a hushed way. I wouldn't say secretive, but they didn't make it public."
The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, based in New York, was founded in 1986 to provide financial help to those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Today, it sends money to more than 750 elderly and needy rescuers in 22 countries. The foundation also runs an educational program in the U.S. that works to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and the rescuers.
The gathering Sunday was tinged with a sad awareness that the number of the rescuers is dwindling. At the last such gathering, in 2010, 75 of them showed up, but on Sunday there were only about 55.
Stahl said that in the meantime, some have died, while others are now simply too weak to leave their homes.