WARSAW, Poland Wanda Bulik was only 18 when a conductor approached her on a train during the height of World War II and asked her to take care of an abandoned 3-year-old Jewish boy found traveling alone.
Without hesitation, the young Catholic Pole gave up her English studies, convinced a young police officer who was in love with her to pose with her as the boy's parents and devoted the next four years to sheltering him from the Nazi Holocaust.
On Sunday, Bulik and more than 60 other Christian Poles who saved Jews were honored at a luncheon in Warsaw by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York-based group devoted to helping such former rescuers in their old age.
Some 6,000 Poles have been honored by Israel's Yad Vashem memorial as Righteous Among the Nations more than from any other country and the foundation has been supporting them since 1986 with monthly stipends to pad their meager state pensions.
In recent years, it has also organized events like Sunday's to celebrate their heroism and remind them that they haven't been forgotten, despite the years of neglect during Poland's decades under communist rule.
Bulik is a vibrant 85-year-old, but many others shuffled on canes or clung tightly to their children as they entered a hotel ballroom where they were honored by representatives from the Polish state, the Jewish community and the U.S. and Israeli embassies.
The foundation called the meeting "historic," saying it might be the last of its kind because of the former rescuers' advanced age.
Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, said it was important to give them the moral recognition they deserve and help them live out their days in material comfort.
"I could stand here all day, every day, all week, even my whole life, but it still wouldn't be enough to thank you for what you did in saving the lives of Jews and the soul of Europe," he said.
Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, a representative for Polish President Lech Kaczynski, also acknowledged that "you were forgotten," but that "the free republic of Poland is trying to make up for this negligence."
After the ceremony, Bulik recalled the love that she felt for Tolek, the little boy thrust on her by the train conductor who singled her out because she was wearing a Red Cross badge.
"He was gorgeous. He had such hair, such beautiful eyes, such eyelashes," she said, pulling out a picture of him as a dark-haired 7-year-old. On the back was a dedication he wrote her in 1946 that read "dla mamusi" or "for mommy."
But after the war, he was adopted by a Jewish family, and Bulik was left brokenhearted. They lost contact for about 50 years, but reconnected in the late 1990s.
Since then, Tolek who went on to become a colonel in the Israeli army and who goes by the name Matti Greenberg has visited her several times with his family.
Though she expressed satisfaction at being honored by Sunday's event, she said that what gave her the most happiness was the full life that Greenberg went on to live.
"It was my greatest joy that he got married, he finished university, he has two daughters," she said.