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On the road to sainthood: Family of 9 murdered for hiding Jews in Poland

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The beatification process is underway for the entire Ulma family of nine.

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, along with all seven of their children, were murdered for hiding Jews during World War II. Earlier this year the Vatican allowed the cause for their beatification to be conducted separately from that of a group of Polish martyrs. The process, which should now be speeded up, is being carried out by the Archdiocese of Przemyśl in Poland.

German police forced their way into the house of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma at the break of dawn on March 24, 1944. A moment later, several shots were fired. The first to be killed were all eight Jews given shelter by the Ulma family. Then the Germans killed 44-year-old Józef and 32-year-old Wiktoria, who was with child. As one of the witnesses to the massacre recalled: “Horrible shrieks and lamentations were heard at the moment of the execution; the children called out to their parents, who had already been murdered. This was a heart-rending sight.”

A few minutes later, the commander of the squad, Lt. Eilert Dieken issued an order to shoot the children, too, so that “the community may have no problems.” The order was executed and all the children were killed on the spot: Stasia (age 8), Basia (age 6), Władzio (age 5), Franuś (age 4), Antoś (age 3), and Marysia (age 1.5).

A few days later, under cover of darkness, a few men from the village excavated the bodies of the Ulmas and buried them in caskets. One of the Poles recalled: “As I was laying the body of Wiktoria Ulma into the coffin, I saw that she was pregnant. I base my statement on the fact that a head and chest of an unborn child were visible.” In 1945 their bodies were interred at the parish cemetery.

Józef and Wiktoria

Józef Ulma was born in 1900 in Markowa. As a teenager, he was a member of the Holy Mass Association of the Diocese of Przemyśl. He was also active in the Catholic Youth Association, “Wici” Youth Union of Poland and the regional Section of Agricultural Education in Przeworsk. In 1929, he enrolled in the State School of Agriculture, where he cultivated one of his passions – horticulture and vegetable growing. He had a fruit tree nursery in Markowa and cultivated bees and silkworms. He received prizes for “innovative constructions of beehives and beekeeping tools” and an “exemplary silkworm farm and graphs illustrating the life cycles of the insects.”

Photography was Józef’s other (and in fact greatest) passion. His favorite camera is today on display at The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II. He took thousands of pictures with this camera and many survived the war. He loved to take pictures of his family members. Today we can look at photographs of carefree toddlers and young kids running barefoot in the grass, a young boy having a bath, or Wiktoria helping out with the homework or kneading dough. There are also pictures of Józef himself, an elegant man with a moustache. In one photograph his wife is sitting on his lap and we see that there is a deep emotional bond between them.

Józef married Wiktoria in 1935. Wiktoria Niemczak (b. 1912) also came from Markowa. She was very talented, acted in an amateur theater and attended courses at the Folk University in Gacia. During their 9 years of marriage, the couple had six children: Stanisława (b. 1936), Barbara (b. 1937), Władysław (b. 1938), Franciszek (b. 1940), Antoni (b. 1941), and Maria (b. 1942). Their seventh child was to have been born in the spring of 1944. In 1939, as the family grew bigger, the Ulmas bought 5 hectares of land in Wojsławice near Sokal. They were planning to move there, but the outbreak of World War II thwarted these plans.

Samaritans

Apart from the photographs, the Ulmas left books which are testament to their interests, e.g., on the use of wind in crop cultivation, on the Aborigines in Australia, a handbook of photography, and a geographical atlas. There was also a Bible lying on the shelf. Someone (Józef or Wiktoria) underlined a few verses with a red pencil: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10: 27-28) and: “A Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him: He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him” (Lk 10: 33-34).

The Ulmas were deeply religious and were active members of their parish. Władysław Ulma would later reminisce that his brother Józef often said that “It is oftentimes more difficult to live a day in a dignified way than to write a book.” We do not know, however, if the Ulmas decided to help the Jews precisely because of the commandment of love. They must have known many Jews as there were around 30 Jewish families in Markowa, at that time one of the largest villages in Poland. Most of the local Jews were exterminated. Only those who managed to hide in the homes of local farmers managed to survive.

It was probably in the latter half of 1942 that eight Jews found safe haven in the Ulma family house. These were the Szall family from the town of Łańcut (a cattle dealer and his four sons) as well as Golda Grünfeld and Layka Didner with her daughter. Perhaps the Ulmas were happy to gain a few pairs of farm hands (the Szalls helped them to tan animal hides). They were definitely not after money, as later on valuables were discovered on the body of one of the Jewish women.

There is no way of knowing how the hideout was discovered, but it is thought that they were betrayed by the policeman, Włodzimierz Leś. He had helped the Szalls earlier in nearby Łańcut. When the situation grew dangerous, the Jews hid in the Ulmas’ house, having left a sizable part of their property with Leś. The policeman would not return it to them, so the Jews tried to seize one of his estates instead.

Most likely Leś, shortly before turning in the Szalls, visted the Ulmas on the pretext of taking photographs for some documents. He himself died soon afterwards, shot dead by the underground army.

Beatification process

In 1995 Józef and Wiktoria were posthumously awarded the Righteous Among the Nations Medal. In 2003, they were included in the group of 122 Polish martyrs of World War II whose beatification process was started. The diocesan stage of the process concluded in May 2011 in the Diocese of Pelplin.

In March 2017, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints of the Holy See decided to honor the request of Archbishop Adam Szal of Przemyśl and excluded the Ulma family from the collective process, which means that the further steps of the process will be carried out independently. We will soon learn the name of the postulator, who will represent the Archdiocese of Przemyśl in the Roman dicastery. He will be entrusted with the preparation of a positio, or a file containing documents and testimonies confirming that the Ulmas died the death of martyrs.

At the diocesan stage of the process a decision was made to add the Ulmas’ six children, because of their parents’ faith. There is dilemma concerning the child who died in mother’s womb. Provisions applying to canonizations and beatifications clearly stipulate that a candidate to be declared saint or blessed in the Catholic Church should be known by first and second name. The Vatican congregation will ultimately decide whether the youngest member of Józef and Wiktoria’s family will be considered a martyr, too. A case of raising an entire family to the altars is unprecedented in the Church.

This article was first published in the Polish edition of Aleteia.

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