WARSAW — Miriam Schmetterling remembers the day in 1944 when Mikolaj Tracz appeared at the top of the ladder to the attic where she had been hiding for 10 months with her husband, his parents and another Jewish family.
"You can come out now," she recalls Tracz saying. "The Germans are gone."
"I can live," was her first thought. "I can live now."
More than 60 years later, Schmetterling wept as she hugged Tracz's daughter, Jozefa Tracz-Czekaj, who as a teenager helped her parents hide the two Jewish families. It was their first reunion since the war, at a ceremony honoring Poles who saved their Jewish neighbors and friends from the Holocaust.
"I find no words to describe what I'm feeling now," said Schmetterling, now 82. "I did not even dare dream of this meeting."
Tracz-Czekaj was 15 in 1943, when her parents, Mikolaj and Maria Tracz, took the seven members of the Schmetterling and Teig families into hiding in the attic of their house -- right across from the Nazi police station in the town of Kopyczynce, then in eastern Poland, now Ukraine.
She said her family members were friends with the two Jewish families and decided they had to do something to help.
"The Germans were killing the Jews, and we could not stand and watch it," said Tracz-Czekaj, now 79.
She remembers helping bring food to the families and playing piano loudly so that the noise from the people living in the attic would not attract attention from strangers.
"Jozefa, her father and the whole family were the heroes of the war," an emotional Schmetterling told the gathering of some 140 elderly people at the Lauder-Morasha School, a Jewish institution in Warsaw.
Some 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland in 1939, when the Nazis invaded at the start of World War II. Most were killed in the Holocaust, but some were saved by their non-Jewish neighbors, despite a Nazi order to kill anyone helping the Jews.
Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved almost 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis, is believed to have been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany organized the meeting on the sidelines of its annual executive board meeting, held this year in Warsaw, to honor Tracz-Czekaj and dozens of others. They hold the title of Righteous Among the Nations; trees are planted in their honor at the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem.
"You in this room rescued hundreds of people during terrible times," Gideon Taylor, the Claims Conference executive vice president, told the gathering.
"You showed courage in a time of hatred. You showed morality in a time of killing."