Polish historian grateful for the witness, beatification of Ulma family

“I feel great gratitude, joy, and satisfaction. This is, however, also a major obligation,” says Mateusz Szpytma. “To have saints in one’s own family is not just having bragging rights, but it entails a challenge to be a better person.”

Polish historian Mateusz Szpytma (left) is a relative of Wiktoria Ulma, wife of Józef Ulma, who is pictured (right) sometime in 1943 with her children. The Ulma family was killed by Germans on March 24, 1944 for hiding Polish Jews. (Images: Wikipedia)

On Sunday, September 10th, Wiktoria and Józef Ulma, their six children, and their unborn child (Wiktoria began to give birth during her execution) will be beatified in Markowa in southeastern Poland. On March 24, 1944, the Ulmas along with the eight Jews they had sheltered, the Goldmans, were shot by German police.

Mateusz Szpytma was born in 1975. He has a PhD in History from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He started his career in 2000. Since July 23, 2016, Szpytma has held the post of the Deputy President of the IPN. He is also the founder and creator of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews in World War II. He is the curator of the museum’s permanent exhibition and in 2015-2016 served as the museum’s director.

Szpytma is the author, co-author and editor of numerous historical books, including several about the rescue of Jews by Poles during German occupation, including The Risk of Survival: The Rescue of the Jews by the Poles and the Tragic Consequences for the Ulma Family from Markowa (2009).

In 2009, he was awarded the Bronze Cross of Merit by the late President Lech Kaczyński, and in 2016, he received the Silver Cross of Merit from President Andrzej Duda. In 2019, Mateusz Szpytma received the Medal of the Centenary of Regained Independence. He is also an honorary member of the Polish Society of the Righteous Among the Nations.

He recently spoke with CWR about the Ulma family, their lives and deaths, and their beatification.

CWR: What is your relationship to the Ulma family, who will be beatified as martyrs on September 10th?

Mateusz Szpytma: My father was the Ulmas’ nephew, which means that Wiktoria Ulma was my grandmother’s sister and my father’s godmother.

CWR: Growing up, did you hear about your relatives’ martyrdom?

Mateusz Szpytma: I heard not so much about their martyrdom as about the crime perpetrated against them because I had lived in Markowa [the village of the Ulmas] until I was nineteen and started university. I would visit the Ulmas’ grave, especially on All Saints Day. But I learned about them from family photo albums. When I asked my parents who these unfamiliar faces were, they responded that they were the Ulmas who had been murdered by the Germans during the war.

CWR: Did you or your family play a role in the beatification cause of the Ulmas?

Mateusz Szpytma: My father’s sister, Stanisława Kuźniar, was the most important witness because by the time she was almost an adult, she had helped Wiktoria when she was in labor with several of her children and thus spent several weeks living with them. Apart from the Jews the Ulmas harbored, Stanisława was the only person who had lived with them, so she made a major contribution to the cause. I was also a witness, but I could only relay oral testimony about the Ulmas I had heard over the years. In addition I helped gather historical documentation from archives including those on the criminals, which I was able to find in Germany.

The beatification cause was why I became involved with the Ulmas’ history in the first place. In the spring of 2003, I heard at Mass that there were preparations for a cause. This inspired me to form a committee to build a monument to the Ulmas and write my first scholarly articles on the matter. These articles turned into books, which included the English-language monograph The Righteous and the Merciful, and the Markowa Ulma Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews in World War II.

The beatification cause was launched on September 17, 2003, and will conclude on September 10, 2023, so we can say that it lasted twenty years minus one week.

CWR: How does it feel to be a relative of blesseds?

Mateusz Szpytma: I never thought I would experience such an honor, for the saints always seemed so distant and placed on pedestals and altars, depicted in statues and holy cards. But it turned out that there were heroes in my own family. I’d gotten used to this notion, but I was in utter shock in 2003 when I learned that this would be possible.

Now, I feel great gratitude, joy, and satisfaction. This is, however, also a major obligation. To have saints in one’s own family is not just having bragging rights, but it entails a challenge to be a better person.

CWR: How was the Ulmas’ decision to shelter a Jewish family, a capital offense in German-occupied Poland, influenced by their faith?

Mateusz Szpytma: This is difficult for me to say because a historian should ground his statements in facts and sources and not be swayed by emotions. In this case, answering this question is difficult because people who sheltered Jews did not disclose their motivations. However, there are reasons to believe that this was an act of love of neighbor. The Ulmas knew that other Poles had been shot for rescuing Jews. There are, however, other clues that they were motivated by their faith. In their family volume of stories from the New and Old Testaments, the fragments relating to love of neighbor and the parable of the Good Samaritan were highlighted, so it is likely that they were inspired by these fragments.

The Ulmas’ cousin also provided testimony that some of the people who knew that Józef Ulma was hiding Jews told him to not do so because this would endanger their entire family’s lives. Józef replied by saying that the Jews were people and so he could not throw them out. The German occupiers considered the Jews to be sub-humans, but the Ulmas instead took the Christian approach. In Catholic culture, human life was always sacred, so they tried to save that life.

CWR: The Markowa museum shows many more examples of families that aided Jews in Markowa and the Sub-Carpathian region of Poland. What can you say about the scale of rescue and, on the other hand, denunciation in these areas?

Mateusz Szpytma: At the Institute of National Remembrance, we have a program in which we study the scale of aid in various regions of Poland, but it is too early to make general conclusions about the frequency of either positive or negative attitudes.

However, I would like to point to another factor. For a full view of this complex situation, we should also note that Poland was under German occupation. The occupiers penalized positive behaviors towards Jews with death, while denouncing or killing them were rewarded. If Poland had not been destroyed in 1939, there would have been no Holocaust and therefore no need to save Jews. Poland was on the Allied side of the war from the first day of the war and was the first to resist the Third Reich’s aggression. Neither Czechoslovakia nor Austria offered military resistance. The Polish government-in-exile in London informed the Western Allies about the Holocaust and appealed for them to bomb the railroads leading to Auschwitz, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. The Polish Underground State also created the Żegota Council to Aid Jews, a structure without parallel in Axis-occupied Europe.

Once we realize this, we must admit that during the occupation the attitudes of Poles varied greatly. In any conquered and occupied nation, there were traitors, criminals, and snitches, and Poland was no exception. Not only Jews but also non-Jewish Poles were victims of Polish narks, and the Markowa museum showcases multiple examples of such behaviors. It would be useful to draw general conclusions on the pervasiveness of positive and negative responses, but we currently do not have enough data.

The Ulmas were probably killed after Włodzimierz Leś, a member of the German-created and controlled “Polish Police of the General Government” had tipped off the Germans. In retaliation, Leś was executed by the Home Army [the main branch of the Polish resistance movement], and the Polish carried out dozens such sentences. However, its resources were limited.

According to our research, before the war there were 107 Jews in prewar Markowa. Of them, twenty-one survived thanks to seven other families in the village. Although these families knew about the death penalty for sheltering Jews, they continued to hide them long after the Ulmas’ execution, up through the end of the war. One of the houses in Markowa, where a seven-member Jewish family, the Weltz had survived is now open to visitors, who can see their hiding place.

One of the Jews saved in the village, the late Abraham Isaac Segal, was a major supporter of the building of our museum. He frequently visited Markowa and worked tirelessly to popularize the Ulmas’ story in Israel.

CWR: For many decades, there has been an ongoing, often bitter debate about the reaction of the Catholic Church to the Holocaust. Much of the discussion focuses on the attitude of Pope Pius XII. Will the Ulmas’ beatification add something to this dispute?

Mateusz Szpytma: We know from history that many priests – including those who had been previously hostile to Jews – helped them during the Holocaust. I’m not saying that this was the norm, but priests are well-represented among those who helped Jews. Likewise, the Holy See undertook many initiatives to help them.

CWR: The chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, has announced that he will attend the beatification ceremony. What is its significance to interreligious dialogue?

Mateusz Szpytma: The beatification will show the world that the Catholic Church promotes, to use secular language, an attitude of helping Jews as one to be emulated. The saints, after all, are supposed to be models and attract through their witness. Thus, a Catholic who reads about the Ulmas will know that he or she cannot be an antisemite.

The fact that Poland’s chief rabbi will be present is worth emphasizing because the beatification is a religious ceremony, not a state one, so he is in no way obliged to attend. Thus, I see this as a very positive step for interreligious dialogue.

CWR: The museum in Markowa has been functioning for seven years. Along with the Ulmas’ grave, it has become a major site for pilgrims and other visitors. Where do they come from? Do many Jews visit Markowa?

Mateusz Szpytma: Polish visitors are the most numerous. Before the pandemic, many Jews came to Markowa, and about 5,000 each year visited their grave. Although their numbers have recently decreased, they could rise again, as Markowa is on the common list that the Polish and Israeli governments recommend that youths to visit.

When I was the museum’s director, about 80 percent of the Jewish visitors’ responses were positive. Some entries in the guest book, however, protested that the museum did not offer enough information about Polish blackmailers of Jews. Although in fact there is not so little on the subject in this Museum

CWR: In recent years, there have been numerous disputes between the Polish and Israeli governments over wartime history. How can the Ulmas facilitate dialogue between them?

Mateusz Szpytma: Thanks to the Ulmas, many Israelis can learn about what the occupation was like in Poland and learn how tragic it was not only for Jews, but also for non-Jewish Poles. Naturally, the non-Jewish Poles were not condemned to complete annihilation, but their fate was also very harsh under German occupation. Awareness of another’s point of view is crucial to building understanding between nations.


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About Filip Mazurczak 79 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others. He teaches at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow.

4 Comments

  1. Well, to be fair, there are absolutely NO “bragging rights” accrued to anyone through people he or she never met who performed actions that he or she never participated in. However, that takes nothing away from Szpytma’s own fine accomplishments.

  2. We really need more beatifications and canonizations of lay people and put a moratorium of the same on clergy, religious, and bishops, especially Popes. Benedict XVI and Francis (and succeeding Popes) when his time comes should only be elevated to the altar centuries from now. We need married couples, whole families like the Ulmas, and single lay persons, elevated to not only be our heavenly intercessors but especially as models of holiness. It’s anomalous that we the laity who make up 99% of Catholics have as our models of living out the faith mostly in the 1% ordained or consecrated.

  3. Am blessed to attend Church with hundreds of wonderful families, many with more children than the Ulmas. All of us are edified by their heroic witness. Have been a loyal reader of CWR since the start. Before this papacy, I never left a comment. Why start now? What is the urgency? The Ulmas remind us of what is at stake should folks like me remain silent any longer.

    Consider this one fact: I do not use my name or even edify you by sharing my Parish name, filled with Ulma families. Why? I fear that this tree bearing such good fruit will be chopped down, and our ordained leaders further threatened or kicked out of their roles.

    Even if the 60’s agenda ideologies of this revolutionary papacy continue with the next pontificate of Francis II or John XXIV, I am praying that at a minimum a more mellow 70’s follows and the purges cease.

  4. “…some of the people who knew that Józef Ulma was hiding Jews told him to not do so because this would endanger their entire family’s lives. Józef replied by saying that the Jews were people and so he could not throw them out”.

    It sounds very heroic, and reckless at the same time. Being a good Samaritan doesn’t mean putting a family of six small children and a pregnant wife in danger. Charity to those entrusted to your care, and responsibility for their safety is a Christian obligation, especially during wartime.
    Let them all RIP.

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