Pope Francis has frequently spoken of an “ecumenism of the blood.” Today, Christians are being persecuted and exterminated solely for professing belief in Christ in the Middle East and many parts of Africa and Asia, just as the faithful were in Nero’s Rome or during the Spanish Civil War. Today’s martyrs come from all Christian traditions: they are Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. This shared experience of suffering offers the opportunity for bringing Christians closer together. Similarly, the memory of the martyrdom of the Ulma family in Markowa, Poland is contributing to Christian-Jewish dialogue. Markowa is now a pilgrimage site where thousands of Christians and Jews from around the world come to pay their respects to the Ulmas, who, despite enormous risks, became their Jewish brothers’ keepers and paid the ultimate price.
On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and 16 days later the Soviet Union followed suit. The Polish Army bravely fought for five weeks, but was overwhelmed. The Nazis quickly began large-scale persecutions of both Poles and Jews. No other country suffered such a harsh occupation during World War II; Warsaw was razed to the ground after its people bravely rose up against their oppressors and six million Polish citizens—half of them Jews—perished. Millions of Poles were sent to Germany to work as slave laborers, or sent to gulags in Siberia.
Over the next two years, Jews were separated from the rest of the Polish population and isolated in ghettos. In 1942, they began to be deported to death camps. In the fall of 1941, the German authorities plastered posters across Poland warning that Jews who flew ghettos would be executed, as would anyone who assisted them. Nowhere else in Europe were punishments for helping Jews so harsh. In Western Europe, Gentiles aiding Jews were fined, sent to jail or sometimes to concentration camps; in Poland, they were executed, and sometimes their neighbors were as well. Even seemingly small gestures of aid or sympathy were punished with death. Shortly after the sealing of the Warsaw Ghetto, for example, a Pole was publicly shot after throwing a sack of flour across the ghetto wall.
A small minority of Jews managed to flee from the ghettos. Polish reactions to them varied widely. Most Poles were themselves simply trying to survive a horrific occupation. Some took the extraordinarily heroic risk of hiding Jews. The majority of historians believe that between 40,000 and 60,000 Jews survived the Holocaust thanks to Polish help, although Szymon Datner—a Holocaust survivor and onetime director of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw—gives an estimate of between 80,000 and 100,000. Naturally, this was only part of the story; other Poles made a living out of blackmailing fugitive Jews, killed them, or handed them over to the Germans. The number of Jews denounced or killed by Poles has not been established with any degree of precision. The Polish government-in-exile and resistance movement condemned these anti-Jewish activities, and issued a death penalty for collaboration with the occupier, informed the Western Allies of the Holocaust, and gave material aid to several thousand Jews in hiding.
Among those Poles who acted heroically were Wiktoria and Józef Ulma and their six children: Stanisława, Barbara, Władysław, Franciszek, Antoni, and Maria. Wiktoria and Józef Ulma were very pious simple farmers. Józef was a beekeeper and fruit grower who also raised silkworms. He was passionate about photography and took hundreds of pictures of his family and his village. Józef was also active in the Circle of Catholic Youths.
The Ulmas lived in Markowa, a village in the Subcarpathian province of southeastern Poland. Before the war, 4,500 people lived there, including 120 Jews. Quite a few inhabitants of Markowa were engaged in helping Jews; in the fall of 1942, 55 Jews were being hidden by Markowa’s residents. When the Germans decided to raid the village for Jews on December 13, the town’s mayor was able to warn the people in advance. During the search, the Germans succeeded in tracking down almost half of the hidden Jews, often tipped off by locals.
Despite the raid, at least eight families in Markowa continued to hide Jewish fugitives. In 1942, the Ulmas took eight Jews under their roof. Józef had built a dugout for eight other Jews; however, they were eventually found by the Germans and shot. This did not deter the Ulmas, however.
In rural areas, hiding Jews was much more difficult than, say, in Warsaw, Lodz, or Krakow. Villages lack the anonymity of big-city living, and people easily find out what happens to their neighbors. On March 24, 1944, a group of German gendarmes and Polish Blue Policemen came to the Ulmas’ house and shot Wiktoria, Józef, their six children (all between the ages of 2- and 8-years-old), and the eight hidden Jews. During the execution, Wiktoria—in her ninth month of pregnancy with her seventh child—went into labor. Josef Kokott, a gendarme from Czechoslovakia (there are questions as to whether he was of Czech or German ethnicity), killed three or four of the children. “Look at how Polish swine that hide Jews die,” he cackled during the act of murder.
Despite the shocking murders of the Ulmas and the Jewish fugitives they were sheltering, several families in Markowa continued to hide Jews. A total of 21 Jews survived the Holocaust by hiding in the town. Seven members of the Weltz family survived thanks to the help of the Szylars; Michał and Maria Bar along with their five children saved Chaim and Rózia Lorbenfeld with their daughter; the five-member Riesenbach family was hidden by another family named Bar (no relation); Michał and Katarzyna Cwynar rescued a Jew named Władysław; Jakub Einhorn, along with two other Jews, was hidden by Michał Drewniak and the Przybylak family. Abraham Segel survived the war herding cattle at the Cwynars’ farm. After the war, Mr. Segel moved to Israel and since has been in contact with the family of his saviors. Until recently (he is now 86 and suffers from a number of ailments), he regularly visited the town. He has worked tirelessly to bring Poles and Jews closer together, fighting against stereotypes and making the story of the Polish rescuers of Jews better known in his adopted homeland.
The Ulmas were probably denounced by Włodzimierz Leś, a member of the Polish Blue Police. Having complete disdain for Poland and the Poles, the Nazis did not create a Polish puppet-style government as they did in most other occupied countries, nor were there any Polish SS divisions. However, the Germans did keep the Polish police, purging it of its leadership and threatening those who refused to obey German orders with death. The police were commonly called the “Blue Police,” a reference to the color of their uniforms; Emanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto, writes that they were universally hated by Polish society. The role of the Blue Police is hotly debated among historians; on the one hand, they were often complicit in the deaths of fugitive Jews and of members of the Polish resistance, but on the other, a high proportion—perhaps a third—were agents of the Polish underground. In any case, the Polish resistance (the largest anti-Nazi group in occupied Europe; only the resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece came close in size) punished collaboration with the enemy by execution, and the Polish Home Army shot Leś a few months after the Ulmas’ martyrdom.
In recent years, the story of the Ulmas has become increasingly known in both Catholic and Jewish circles, in Poland and around the world. The cause for their beatification, along with more than 80 other Polish martyrs of World War II, was opened in 2003, and in 2011 the Roman phase of the cause began. A couple weeks ago, the Vatican allowed the Ulmas’ cause to be conducted separately from that of the other Polish martyrs, which is likely to speed up their cause. It is said that, as a German pope, Benedict XVI wanted personally to beatify the Ulmas as a sign of Polish-German, German-Jewish, and Catholic-Jewish friendship, but he resigned before that was possible. Pope Francis has taken an interest in the Ulmas, however; in 2013, he blessed the cornerstone to a museum commemorating the family, and during the Polish bishops’ ad limina visit in 2014 asked many questions about them. During his visit to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp last year, Pope Francis met with the Ulmas’ relatives.
Last year, the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II was opened in Markowa. Since then, 48,000 people—Poles, Jews, and others—have visited the museum. Some Hassidic Jews come to the museum because Markowa is located close to Leżajsk, one of the most popular Jewish pilgrimage sites in Poland and home to the tomb of the great Tzhaddik Elimelech of Lizhensk, one of the founders of Hassidism. Currently, the museum deals only with Poles who aided Jews in the Subcarpathian region, although there are plans to expand it to include stories of rescuers of Jews from across Poland. The museum is interactive and makes generous use of multimedia. Outside of it, one can see a wall with the names of Poles in Subcarpathia who aided Jews. On the ground in the square in front of the museum are tiles bearing the names of 200 Poles in Subcarpathia executed for aiding Jews.
Some articles in Poland’s leftist media have criticized the museum for whitewashing dark chapters in Polish-Jewish relations. Having visited the museum, one can only wonder if the authors of these articles have actually been there. The exhibit makes it clear that, given the extreme risks, only a minority of Poles sheltered Jews. Furthermore, the display includes documentation from the post-war trials of Poles who informed on Jews. The fact that the Ulmas were probably denounced by a local Polish Blue policeman is highlighted.
The opening of the Markowa museum and the subsequent growth in visitors has led to many tangible expressions of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. Archbishop Józef Michalik, then archbishop of Przemyśl, and Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, have led Catholic and Jewish prayers for the Ulmas. Cantor Joseph Malovany, hazzan of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue, traveled to Markowa to say the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for the Ulmas. This was only the second time he said this prayer for non-Jews.
When visiting Markowa, one must pay a visit to the Ulma family’s tomb. In a beautiful gesture of interreligious friendship, one can see that the surface of the Ulmas’ tomb—at a Catholic parish cemetery—is fully lined with pebbles, an ancient Jewish tradition of remembering the dead.
“Each year, about 5,000 Jews from around the world visit the Ulma family’s graves,” says Dr. Mateusz Szpytma, one of the co-creators and the former director of the Markowa museum, now deputy chief of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance. “They leave prayers on their graves. Most of these groups are secular, but groups of Jewish visitors led by rabbis have also visited and have been very moved. The Ulma family can definitely bring the Christian and Jewish religions closer together.”
During the German occupation of Poland, Polish Christians who encountered Jewish refugees fleeing the ghettos were faced with an extremely difficult moral dilemma. Essentially, they had to be ready to hold the palm of martyrdom in the likely case their noble actions were uncovered. Yet people like Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their six children willingly acted like the Good Samaritan from Jesus’ parable. And to this day their inspiring story is bringing Christians and Jews—born of the same God yet so often torn apart by history—closer together.