Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Wiktoria and Józef Ulma: Testimony of Love to the Point of Martyrdom 

by Mateusz Szpytma

Descriptive Title

Story of Polish Family Slain With Jews They Tried to Save


This speech was given at a conference at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Rome by Mateusz Szpytma, of the Krakow Branch of the Institute of the National Remembrance. It tells the story of the Ulma family – the couple and their seven children – who were killed along with eight Jews they were trying to save from the Nazis.

Publisher & Date

ZENIT, April 7, 2011

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself." Luke 10:27

“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him." Luke 10:33-34

"The Commandment of Love – The Good Samaritan” – under such a title these very words can be found in the Bible which Józef and Wiktoria Ulma owned. It’s one of the two fragments to be found in the Bible marked in red – most probably by Józef Ulma himself (the other one regards loving enemies). With their own life and death they proved these words did not remain an empty slogan for them. Both, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, together with their six children and eight Jews of the Szall and Goldman families they were hiding, were executed by the Germans on March 24, 1944.

The village of Markowa, where the tragic turn of events took place, is located in South-Eastern Poland, in the diocese of Przemyśl- about 300 km South from the capital city of Warsaw and about 200 km East from Krakow. The village dates back to the 2nd half of the 14th c. when it was founded. During the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939) Markowa was among the biggest villages in Poland. In 1931 it had 931 houses inhabited by nearly 4.500 inhabitants. The Markowa community in majority was Catholic, however about 120 citizens (nearly 30 families) were Jewish. The relations between Poles and Jews were satisfactory, they were living side by side and cooperated. The peasant movement had an important impact on a local community and thanks to its influence a local elite emerged: open-minded peasants, running their farms modernly, remaining – on the other hand – due to the Catholic faith, attached to the evangelical values. In such political and social atmosphere Józef Ulma and Wiktoria Niemczek were raised.

Józef, born in 1900, was well know in the village. Even though he graduated only from a four-grade elementary school and then an agricultural course, as a person of many talents, he was the first in Markowa to set up a fruit tree nursery. Soon he became a propagator of vegetable and fruit growing, which at that time was still not so popular. Yet, his innovative farming methods were known not only in that field. He was given awards during the County Agricultural Exhibition in Przeworsk in 1933 for the “ingenious beehives and apiarian tools of own construction and design” and for the “exemplary silkworm raising and their lifetime charts,” still being preserved with the family. Especially the latter had been arousing an interest not only of the fellow villagers, but also of Prince Andrzej Lubomirski, the entailer from Przeworsk, who paid a visit to the Ulma farm in order to examine silkworms and mulberry trees.

Józef didn’t shun social activities either. While still a teenager, at the age of 17, he was already a member of the Mass Union of the Przemyśl Diocese, which aimed at joint prayers and collecting funds for the construction and reconstruction of local churches and chapels.

He was also an active member of the Catholic Youth Association and then the Peasant Youth Union “Wici”, where he acted as a librarian and photographer, since photography with no doubts was his greatest passion. He made thousands of photos, in majority preserved until today in the family collection. Among the most appealing are the photos of his wife and children, however several self-portraits remain as well.

His chosen one was Wiktoria - twelve years his junior. Quite likely, they met during the rehearsals of the Amateur Theatre Company in Markowa, since both Wiktoria and Józef performed there; in one of the nativity plays Wiktoria performed a role of Mother of God. They got married in July 1935, in the Markowa parish church of St. Dorothy. The couple was well-matched and both husband and wife felt affection for each other. In one of the photos one can see Wiktoria sitting on Józef’s lap, cuddling each other closely. Soon, they had numerous offspring. In seven years Wiktoria gave birth to six children: Stasia, Basia, Władzio, Franuś, Antoś and Marysia and only the tragedy of spring 1944 prevented them from having a seventh child. We know very little about the spirituality of the Ulmas. Yet, for sure one can claim they enjoyed a wide recognition of the local community as virtuous and righteous people. They were practicing Catholics. The living member of the Ulma family – Stanisława Kuźniar – godmother of one of the Ulmas’ sons – Władzio, who was helping Wiktoria to take care of her children, testified seeing Józef kneeling to say his evening prayer, before going to sleep. Wiktoria kept house – one of the photos shows her writing or drawing in the children’s notebook, on the other – she’s portrayed standing encircled with quite a cluster of neat and trim children, holding the youngest child in her arms. Most probably, this very family would had developed wonderfully, if the outbreak of World War II didn’t take place on September 1, 1939. Since that moment, the tragedy of the Poles and especially the Jews living in Poland, had begun.

In the German-occupied Poland massacres of Poles and Jews had increased, synagogues and prayer houses had been destroyed. To be able to fully understand how spectacular the Ulmas heroism was, we have to get a little bit more acquainted with the kind of fate people hiding Jews had to face.

Once the military actions had stopped, numerous legal restrictions were introduced, regarding in particular people recognized as being of Jewish origins. The most tragic chapter of the mass murder of Jews started with the outbreak of the German-Soviet war in June 1941. The Third Reich resolved to implement a solution which denoted the murder of the entire population of the European Jews (the same solution was to be applied in future in regard of the ethnic Poles). In order to discourage Poles from bringing help to Jews, Hans Frank – the General Governor of the occupied Polish territories - issued in October 1941 a regulation, according to which any citizen accused or suspected of supporting Jews was executed. Any similar regulation had never been introduced in any of the German-occupied West European countries. As a result of the realization of the mass murder plan, 6 million European Jews were killed, mostly in the extermination camps. Half of them were Polish citizens. During World War II approximately three million Poles were murdered as well.

The most tragic events in occupied Markowa took place in the second half of 1942. At that time, the majority of the Markowa Jews was exterminated. Most probably about the same time two Jewish families asked the Ulmas to hide them. These were the Goldmans – Gołda and Layka with their little daughter – who lived in proximity of the Jozef Ulma family house, and five men from Łańcut named Szall – a cattle merchant, well known in the pre-war period, with four grown-up sons. It’s rather hard to determine today by what kind of motives the Ulmas were driven to make a decision to hide them. Józef was well-known for his friendliness toward Jews. Some time before, he helped another Jewish family to build a ravine hideaway. Undoubtedly, the reasons included a (moral) obligation to love one’s neighbour, compassion as well as the awareness that refusing help would condemn these people to death. Through the window of the Ulmas house, one could see the place of execution, where in 1942 the Germans shot at least several dozen Jews from Markowa and around.

It remains rather uncertain how the hiding was discovered. Some of the Markowa citizens suspect that one of the villagers denounced the Ulmas to the Germans. Documents collected by the underground movement bring light to another trail and emphasizes that probably the scenario was the following: the Szall family hiding with the Ulmas, lived in Łańcut before the war. Conscious of the looming “final solution of the Jewish question” they started to seek for a hiding place. Initially, they were promised shelter by Włodzimierz Leś, a “Blue” Police constable in Łańcut, coming from Biała near Rzeszów. Włodzimierz Leś lived in the suburbs of Łańcut, near the Szalls, with whom he maintained close relations before the war. He also was helping them hide away from the Germans. Once the situation got worse, the Szalls had to seek safety elsewhere. They turned then to the Ulmas – farmers from Markowa they knew, who hid them. Even so, the Szalls insisted that Leś continue helping them, since most probably in return for his help, they left a considerable part of their possessions with him. Since for quite some time he refused to comply with their demand, they tried to recover their property or to take over goods belonging to Leś. Several signs reveal that at that point Leś gave away the hiding place of the Jewish family to his colleagues from the German gendarmerie.

The course of this brutal crime can be determined with a considerable accuracy based upon the records preserved from the trial against one of the perpetrators – Joseph Kokott. Lieutenant Eilert Dieken, the commander of the gendarmerie outpost Łańcut was given the command of the expeditionary troop. Three other police functionaries participating were: Joseph Kokott, Michael Dziewulski and Erich Wilde. Two other names of the Polish “Blue” Police officers have been identified as well: Eustachy Kolman and Włodzimierz Leś. Shortly before sunrise on March 24, 1944 functionaries arrived to the Józef Ulma household situated at the end of the village. The Germans left cart drivers and horses on the sidelines, and escorted by the police approached the house. Soon several shots could be heard – the first victims where Jews. The rest of the execution was eye witnessed by the cart drivers, summoned by an order to watch the punishment to be meted to every Pole for hiding Jews. One of the cart drivers – Edward Nawojski – testified that he saw Józef and Wiktora Ulma let out of their house and shot in front of it. As he recalls: “During the execution we could hear terrible shouts, wailing, children calling out for their parents who had been already killed. All this made a shocking sight”. After having killed parents, amid crying and shouting children, functionaries started to deliberate what to do with them. After conferring it with his colleagues, Dieken decided to shoot them. Nawojski saw Kokkot killing three of four children himself. The words this Germanized Czech addressed in Polish to the drivers, left a deep imprint on his memory: “Look, how Polish swines die – who hide the Jews”. The victims were: Stasia, Basia, Władzio, Franuś, Antoś and Marysia and the seventh child in the mother’s womb, few days before birth. In several minutes seventeen people died. After killing the last child, the leader of Markowa village arrived, called by the Germans. He brought over few persons to bury the bodies. He asked the commander whom he knew from the frequent inspections of Markowa why the children were killed. Dieken gave him a cynical answer” “not to trouble the village with them”.

Having committed the crime, the Germans began to plunder. One of the villagers brought over to dig a grave was ordered by Kokott to search precisely the murdered Jews. Himself, shining a torch, he was supervising it. Noticing a box containing valuables concealed on Gołda Goldman’s chest he declared: “This is what I needed” and put it into his pocket. After the burial Kokott assembled the Poles and announced: “No one dares to know how many people were shot, only you and I”. Despite a rigorous ban, in a week, under the cover of the night, five men opened the Ulmas grave, laid the bodied into coffins and reburied them. One of them testified: “Placing a body of Wiktoria Ulma to a coffin, I have realized that she was pregnant. I base my statement on the fact that half of the baby’s body with head was protruding from the mother’s genitals”. In January 1945 the Ulmas bodies were transferred to the local cemetery where they rest until nowadays.

These terrible and tragic moments, the citizens of Markowa were behaving different ways toward the Jews. It’s worthwhile to stress that at least twenty Jews survived hidden in the peasants houses in Markowa. Despite the tragic news of the Ulma family they could enjoy the hospitality of the local population until the end of the German occupation. For almost two years, Józef and Julia Bar together with their daughter Janina, were hiding a five-person Riesenbach family. The same did Antoni and Dorota Szylar living with their five children. Their barn gave refuge to the Weltz family escaping from the Germans. They begged the farmer to let them stay for few days. Subsequently, they didn’t move out but begged Antoni to let them stay longer. The whole family of seven members survived the war. Michał Bar gave shelter to the three-persons of the Lorbenfeld family. Jan and Weronika Przybylak rescued Jakub Einhorn and a three-person family of his friends. Young boy from Radymno, Abraham Segal, survived the war in hiding, staying with Helena and Jan Cwynar, pretending to be a cattleman. Today, he lives in the suburbs of Haifa in Israel, having three sons and a dozen grandchildren. He maintains relations with the citizens of Markowa and remains interested in the life of the village. Thanks to his engagement, numerous youth tours from Israel visit Markowa.

After the war, on September 10, 1944, the Underground forces carried out a death sentence on Włodzimierz Leś - an eager “Blue” policeman – he was shot dead in Łańcut. Lieutenant Eilert Dieken – the commander of the expedition evaded the punishment. In the 1960s, once the evidence against him had been collected in the Federal Republic of Germany, it turned out that he died shortly before the investigation was completed. As for the others, it’s rather hard to establish what happened to Dziewulski and Wilde. The only criminal to be tracked down and judged was Joseph Kokott. In 1957 he was captured in Czechoslovakia. In 1958 the court in Rzeszów adjudged him being guilty of numerous murders and sentenced him.

Upon the condemned’s appeal, the Council of State of the People’s Republic of Poland pardoned Kokott and changed sentence first to life imprisonment and then to 25 years detention. He died in prison in 1980.

Despite the fact that the capital punishment had been exercised by the Germans, several thousand Jews survived rescued by the Poles. Yet, it has to be clearly stated that in the occupied Poland lived also those who dishonoured themselves by getting adapted to the inhuman “law” introduced by the occupying forces and denounced or even murdered the Jews (no precise data how numerous they were is available so far – a detailed research on that issue is being currently carried out). The Polish Underground authorities attempted, as far as it was possible, to punish such deeds, going even that far as the capital punishment. The Polish Government in Exile based in London was trying in vain to alarm the member states of the anti-German coalition about the tragic fate of Jews. Since December 1942, the Council for Aid to Jews “Żegota” (Rada Pomocy Żydom “Żegota”) was operating as part of the Underground authority, depending on the above mentioned Polish Government in Exile. Enough to say that it was the only organization of this kind in the whole German-occupied Europe. Applying different means and ways, Żegota helped to rescue several thousands of Jews.

The Ulma family along with the Szylar and Bar families were awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal. Let me stress at this point that the Yad Vashem Institute awarded over six thousand Poles, which constitutes the biggest national group among over twenty thousand Righteous awarded so far.

In August 2003 a beatification process of the Ulma family was launched in the Diocese of Przemyśl and has already been completed. The required document will be delivered to Vatican on May 24, 2011. So far, two Catholic associations were created, choosing the Ulmas for their patron. The aim of both these organizations is to support the needful families. In Rzeszow there is the Ulmas Center for the Life of Family and in the parish church in Brzezinka near Oświęcim (known during the war as Auschwitz) one of the stained glass windows depicts the Ulma family. Their images are also placed among the Polish servants of God in the Licheń basilica, as well as on the front door of the Przemyśl cathedral.

Last but not least, let me say that personally I feel particularly happy and honoured to have this very opportunity to contribute towards paying homage to the Ulma family. I am more and more convinced that my vocation of being a historian that God granted me, was - above all - given me to transmit further, to Poland and the world, the knowledge and to bear testimony to the deeds of heroism of the Ulma family. In 2003 I have initiated building of the monument in Markowa, which finally had been erected among others thanks to the donations of the Markowa inhabitants. Solemn celebration of the 60th anniversary of the tragedy assembled several hundred people. Among others, the Archbishop Józef Michalik – the metropolitan bishop of Przemyśl and chairman of the Conference of the Episcopate of Poland was present. Abraham Segal, one of the Jews rescued in Markowa also attended the unveiling of the monument and thanked for help he was given in this village. The monument, visited by pilgrims, bears a notation: “Saving the lives of others, they sacrificed their own lives: Józef Ulma, his wife Wiktoria and children Stasia, Basia, Władzio, Franuś, Antoś, Marysia, an unborn infant. Concealing eight of our older brothers in faith, Jews of the Szall and Golman families, they died together with them in Markowa on March 24, 1944, at the hands of the German gendarmerie. May their sacrifice be an appeal for respect and love due to all! They were sons and daughters of this land, and remain in our hearts. Community of the Markowa district”.

I believe that soon we will be celebrating the beatification of the Servants of God the Ulmas, and God willing – the ceremony of the opening of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Rescuing Jews in the Subcarpathian Region will mark the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the crime.


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