This story began on an icy January day 44 years ago. Hitler's army, sensing defeat, was retreating west before the Soviet advance.

Concentration camps, where Jews had been herded for extermination, were evacuated in chaos. The Jews had suddenly become bargaining cards for German commanders fearful of their future.Sara Matuson, a 16-year-old Lithuanian Jew, and her mother and older sister were among 1,200 women and girls force-marched across Poland from the Stutthoff death camp. By the time they reached the outskirts of Gross Golemkau, a German-speaking village of scattered farms and frosty fields 24 miles south of Danzig, only 300 were still alive.

"We had been on the march for a month and a half," she recalled in Jerusalem recently. "We walked the whole day. At night they put us in any barn they could find. We were packed so tight it was standing room only.

"Most of us wore thin rayon dresses with short sleeves and a big red Star of David painted on the back. I had a thin, spring coat, clogs and a blanket, which we tore up to make rags for our feet.

"We hardly got any food. We were so hungry we ate the snow on the road. If a farmer had cooked something, we would get food. A German guard once gave me a slice of bread. It was so valuable that my mother slept on it, but someone stole it during the night."

One by one, the women fell by the wayside. William Fisher, a British prisoner of war who watched them march through Gross Golemku, wrote in his diary: "They came straggling through the bitter cold, about 300 of them, limping, dragging footsteps, slipping and falling, to rise and stagger under the blows of the guards - SS swine. Crying loudly for bread, screaming for food, 300 matted-haired, filthy objects that had once been Jewesses."

According to Sara, women who couldn't walk any more were shot. "Others died from hunger. Others froze. It was very cold. My mother's fingers froze. She couldn't even pull down her pants anymore. We had flannel pants.

"Once we were fed with potato peel and manure a farmer had cooked for his pigs. People used to dig for roots. They were shot on the spot. You were so hungry you risked being shot."

Sara's mother, the wife of a once-prosperous factory owner, had managed to hold on to a diamond ring. On the way through the village, Sara asked for the ring and said she would try to swap it for bread. Her mother handed it over.

"I slipped out of the line," Sara told me. "Don't ask how - I don't know how. I slipped into a ditch, then ran into a barn.

"A man came in. I said: `Here's a ring, bring me bread.' He took it, but came back with the police. They said, `What are you doing?' I said, `I came to get bread.' I showed them that I came from the march.

"They shouted, `You are dirtying our Judenfrei (free of Jews) village!' A whole posse began chasing me. Before you knew, it was a mob chasing me back towards the march. I said to myself I didn't mind if they killed me, but not in front of my mother. People were standing by the roadside. I forced them aside and ran into a barn. It was animal instinct. I lay down in a feeding trough. There were cows in the barn. The police looked for me for two hours, but didn't find me."

It was at this point that Sara's luck changed.

A laborer came into the barn, and Sara asked him in German if he was Polish. "No," he replied, "I'm English."

The man was Stanley Wells, who had been taken prisoner five years earlier during the British Army's retreat from Dunkirk. He and nine other British prisoners were working on farms in Gross Golemkau.

Wells recognized Sara as the girl who had run away from the death march. He told her the search had been called off and gave her bread.

"I felt pity. I was sorry for her, she was in such a state," Wells, now a retired truck driver from Swaffham in Norfolk, said in Jerusalem. "She was in rags, very thin, crying. That's how I found her: I heard her sobbing."

He told her to lie still and keep quiet. He would talk to his friends and come back the next morning. "I made sure she was safe," he explained. "I had to leave her for the time being."

Locked in their camp that night, the 10 British POWs debated what to do. "It wasn't so much should we look after her, but how could we do it," said another of the veterans, Alan Edwards. "Where could we put her? Where would she be safe?"

The POWs were aware of the danger they faced if they were caught. On reflection, they agree that they might have underestimated it. Sara is convinced they would have been shot.

"We didn't debate it very long," said Edwards, who after the war was to run a rental car fleet in Morecambe, Lancashire. "We thought we were British, we were protected by the International Red Cross."

Wells added: "We knew that any indiscipline would be punished. We were aware of the chance we were taking, anything could have happened, but it didn't come into it. It came to me that we had a place to put her, and everybody was in agreement."

The next morning, one of the POWs came to fetch Sara. Edwards stole a coat, a sweater, shoes and stockings for her. They smuggled her into their camp and hid her in a hayloft. They washed her, treated her sores with red ointment, cleaned the lice from her hair and fed her so well from their POW rations and Red Cross food parcels that she vomited.

For nearly three weeks the British prisoners kept her in the loft, unnoticed by a Polish farmhand who came every day to feed the horses in the stable below.

"She was our little sister," said George Hammond, a wood machinist from Sheerness, Kent.

When their turn came to be evacuated west by the Germans, the POWs arranged a haven for Sara with a group of Russian women working as forced laborers. She found a job for herself with a local farmer, a German-speaker who had worked for the SS and wanted a piece of paper to prove he had helped Jews.

The British POWs were liberated by the Americans in May 1945. Sara made her way home to Lithuania, then to the United States. She is married to a New York judge, William Rigler, and lives in Brooklyn.

In 1964 Sara made contact with Edwards with the help of the British War Office. She was reunited with her 10 rescuers in London in 1972, and another reunion took place last autumn when BBC television told the story of these "unsung heroes."

Recently Sara and five of her rescuers came to Israel, where the old soldiers were honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in the Jerusalem hills. Four of the 10 had died, and a fifth was too ill to travel.

They planted a carob tree in the center's Avenue of the Righteous among the Nations. A bronze plaque commemorates their rare act of courage and lists the 10 names: John Buckley, Edwards, William Fisher, Bert Hambling, Hammond, Roger Letworth, William Keable, Thomas Noble, William Scruton and Wells.

The state of Israel presented them each with a medal inscribed with the Jewish proverb: "Whoever saves a single soul, it is as if he had saved the whole world."