The Ulma Family: Symbol of Heroism in the Face of German Brutalities. They will be declared blessed on September 10, 2023, in Markowa, Southern Poland.
This Sunday, the Church will declare as blessed nine members of the Ulma family: Joseph and his wife Victoria, together with their seven children, including one unborn child. All of them were brutally killed by Germans in 1944 for helping Jews.
They were a happy, loving Polish family. Joseph worked hard to provide for his family; Victoria took care of the hearth and home and raised the children. With their unique bravery in the face of German brutalities, the Ulma family became the symbol of heroism in times of adversity. They epitomize all those Polish people who saved their Jewish neighbors.
The Ulma family lived in the village of Markowa in south-eastern Poland. Joseph, despite only finishing four years of primary education (the standard in those times) and a farming course, was a veritable jack of all trades. He tried his hand at tannery, at beekeeping, at silkworm farming, and volunteered his services in a library. Viktoria devoted all her time to raising six small children. They took a life-threatening risk to save two Jewish families (eight people in total) in mid-1942. The Ulma family was perfectly aware that if the Germans found out that they were helping Jews, they would face a firing squad as was stipulated by the brutal and inhumane law of German-occupied Poland. (Germans introduced this law only in Poland not in other occupied territories like France or Holland.)
It was a cold spring morning on March 24, 1944. The Ulma family home was approached by four horse-drawn carts carrying a squad of eight German soldiers and Blue-Police officers. The Germans were ruthless. They barged in and murdered three Jewish people in their sleep. As soon as they had killed the other Jewish people that were hidden by the Ulma family, they led Joseph and Viktoria, who was in the last weeks of her pregnancy, to the front of their house, and killed them while their children stood and watched. They had no mercy for the children either. Eight-year-old Stanislaw, six-year-old Barbara, five-year-old Wladyslaw, four-year-old Franciszek, three-year-old Antoni and eighteen-month-old Maria soon joined their parents. “Look and see how the Polish pigs die” – a German policeman, Joseph Kokott, was reported to have shouted. The entire action was led by a German commander, Eilert Dieken. He was never punished for the killings, and, after the war, he was a policeman in Esens in northern Germany, and died there in 1960 without being bothered by anyone.
What made the Ulma family risk their own lives to save others? Base motives, such as monetary gain, can easily be excluded, since quite a bit of money was found with the murdered Jewish families. Likely, the Ulma family did this out of compassion for their Jewish neighbors. Joseph Ulma was known to have taken a selfless risk to aid another Jewish family as well. He assisted them in building a dugout in the nearby forest and regularly brought them food supplies. Although the Germans found the shelter and killed four people, they were not able to find their helper.
The Bible discovered in the Ulma home seems to suggest what values guided the Ulma family in their lives. Two important passages were marked in their copy. The first to be highlighted was the “Commandment of Love” and the parable of “The Good Samaritan”. The second was on the passage defining Christian duties: “For if you love only those who love you, what reward have you earned?” (Matthew 5:46).
The beatification of the unborn child of the Ulma Family will be an unprecedented event in the history of the Church. This child – martyr for the faith in mother’s womb – could be a natural patron of all children who died before birth. By this the Church will powerfully remind us that an unborn child is a human being who should be respected and who has the same rights as an adult. During the beatification process theologians concluded that this child received the so named “baptism of blood”. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we read that “the Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.”
In 1995, Joseph and Viktoria Ulma were posthumously awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”. In 2010, they were decorated with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by the then President of Poland, Lech Kaczyński. In March 2016, the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in the Podkarpacie Region was established.
May the newly blessed Ulma family pray for us and for all unborn children.
Fr. Mark Jurzyk