Manuela Tulli, a Vatican reporter for an Italian news agency, co-wrote a book on the Ulma family. Here she reflects on this "family that unites, in a world that divides."
The beatification of the Ulma family this Sunday, September 10, 2023, in Markowa, Poland, is an exceptional event in the history of the Church. It will be the first time that an entire family has been beatified and collectively recognized as martyrs. Hunted by the Nazis for sheltering Jews, Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children — including a baby who lost his life at birth — were executed on March 24, 1944, along with the Goldmanns, the Jewish family of eight they had been sheltering for a year and a half.
The Jewish family was made up of:
Saul Goldman with his four sons (all over 18) Baruch, Mechel, Joachim, and Moses. Then there were two sisters, Gołda Grünfell and Lea (Layka) Didner, who were daughters of a relative of Saul’s. Lea also had her daughter, named Reszla, with her
Manuela Tulli, a Vatican reporter with the Italian news agency ANSA, has co-written a book with Polish priest Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, head of the Polish section of Vatican Radio. The book is titled in Italian, Uccisero anche i bambini – Gli Ulma, la famiglia martire che aiutò gli ebrei. The book has been released in English by Our Sunday Visitor with the title Martyred and Blessed Together.
Tulli spoke to I.MEDIA about the significance of this atypical beatification.
How did you discover the tragic fate of the Ulma family?
Manuela Tulli: We journalists are often looking for stories to tell, but I didn’t look for this story: I often say that it was the Ulma family who looked for me. I was in Poland in December 2022, in their diocese, as part of a trip organized to visit the facilities for receiving Ukrainian refugees. The priest who interpreted for us in Italian happens to be the postulator of their cause [of beatification]. Before we left for Kiev, he gave us a book of photographs by Jozef Ulma, telling us that this family’s story deserved to be told by journalists.
At the time, I had never heard of them, and simply put the book in my suitcase as I left for Ukraine with other colleagues. But shortly after my return, on December 17, 2022, Pope Francis authorized the publication of the decree paving the way for the beatification of this family. So I re-opened this book, richly documented with photographs taken by the family’s father, who was a farmer but also the village photographer. Then I set out to find out more.
I was touched by the coincidences between these different situations: the war in Ukraine and the Second World War, the welcome given by Poles to Ukrainian refugees today and the welcome given by this family to this group of Jews at the time … So I decided to delve deeper into this subject to make this story known in Italy.
So, this martyrdom shared by Jews and Christians is a highly relevant testimony about the meaning of a life given up for others?
Tulli: Absolutely, yes, and that’s why this book was supported by the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue at the University of Lublin, where Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, was a professor. These Catholics and Jews had lived together, they had suffered together, but they had also experienced moments of joy.
Those who knew them directly bear witness to this, notably a friend of the Ulma family who died this year, aged 102. We know that the children of both families played together. And long before their beatification, the Ulmas were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Center in Israel. A family that unites, in a world that divides.
Your recounting of the story also shows that this family was modern and cultured, a notable fact in rural Poland at the time…
Tulli: In fact, both parents were well-educated, had many books and knew foreign languages. Wiktoria understood German, so she understood everything the Nazis said to each other before the execution. The couple knew they risked death by hiding Jews, but they didn’t give up. It was a choice inspired by the Gospel, which they put into practice. In the Bible found in their home, relatives noticed that they had underlined the parable of the Good Samaritan with a pencil. They lived their faith authentically.
Did a reputation for holiness continue to surround this family in the years following the massacre?
Tulli: Yes, there was a form of popular veneration around them, but the Church didn’t have the time to really study the case during the Communist period, because there were other urgent matters. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that their cause has been formally studied. But through the memory of those who loved them, popular devotion has helped to “hold this thread together” right up to the present day.
One of the things that moves me most, beyond this horrible massacre, is the beauty of this family who opened the door of their home. You can see from the photos that they are very simple people, barefoot, who demonstrate the “holiness of the person next door” that Pope Francis often speaks of.
They gave their lives heroically, but in ordinary life. The father, Jozef Ulma, had simply wanted to help some friends; he knew this Jewish family personally. So they simply organized themselves to prepare meals, do the laundry together… It was a happy household.
Is the fact that the seven children, including a stillborn baby, are also beatified a message for today’s families, to remind them of the value of all life?
Tulli: Indeed, this is the first time that an entire family has been beatified as one. The seventh child is a special case in that his head, which had emerged from his mother’s womb, was identified when the body was exhumed. He has no name, but is also considered a martyr by the Church, thanks to the “baptism of blood.”
The fact that this massacre took place on March 24, on the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation, is also a sign noted by the Positio (the report of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints which established the martyrdom of the Ulma family, editor’s note). In Poland, March 25 [the feast of the conception of Jesus, the Annunciation] is also the day dedicated to “new life.” This story of the Ulma family can also give great hope to families who have lost a child. It reminds us of the value of the lives of the smallest, of those who have had the shortest lives, whose sanctity the Church can thus recognize.