Ordinary people, extraordinary acts

by Maura Kelly, MetroChicago Chicago Tribune on May 4, 2000

Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during WWII will be honored.

As a teenager in a small Polish village during World War II, Peter Twardzik stood watch daily at the edge of his family's farm looking for German soldiers.

If any approached, Twardzik ran inside his home to sound a warning. It would take just seconds for the four Jewish neighbors his family hid for five years to scramble up a ladder to the second-story hayloft, pulling the ladder after them to conceal their entry.

But the plan didn't always work. Twardzik, 72, still remembers one day when a German soldier stood at his home's door while one of his Jewish neighbors peeled potatoes in the kitchen. As Twardzik's father distracted the soldier, the Jewish woman slipped out through the side door.

"All of the hairs on my head stood up. I had to push them down," Twardzik recalled this week from his Chicago home, speaking in Polish that was translated by his daughter, Wanda Asad.

Twardzik is one of 5,000 people who will be recognized in Chicago Thursday by the Interfaith Coalition to Honor Polih Rescuers for risking their lives to save Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. About 10 groups of those non-Jewish rescuers are from the Chicago area; roughly half of them are expected to attend the 7:30 p.m. ceremoony at St. Hyacinth Parish Hall, 3650 W. Wolfram St.

Those who will be honored already have been recognized by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust authority, as "Righteous Among the Nations" for saving Jews during the Holocaust. More than 16,000 people have been honored as Righteous, and 5,000 of them were from Poland, coalition leaders said.

"The Righteous are ordinary people who did extraordinary things. They just had a heart for humanity. This is an opportunity to thank them," said Maurine Pyle, a Quaker who is co-chair of the coalition. "They're not seeking this. We feel we owe them this."

If caught, many of the rescuers would have been killed, along with their family and friends. For the Twardzik family, threats of being caught came even from other neighbors, who often stopped by the house out of suspicion. But Twardzik's parents never waivered from their belief that they should help the Jews.