There have been movies made and books written about Corrie Ten Boom, and a TV series was recently released about Miep Gies. But those two brave women were not the only ones who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, has recognized more than 27,000 men and women who tried to save Jews from extermination during that war. Established in 1953, this organization carefully studies evidence from survivors and witnesses, as well as the circumstances involved, to identify those who rescued Jews. For example, some people during World War II provided Jews with false identities or false papers, some smuggled them to safer locations, and some hid Jews on their own property. Those who are found to meet Yad Vashem’s criteria are recognized with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch watchmaker during the war, and she and her family were sent to prison camps because they hid Jews in their home. Miep Gies was one of four1 employees who knew that a Jewish family was hidden in the attic of their office in Amsterdam. Although the Frank family was ultimately found, Miep was able to rescue one of the most famous diaries in history from destruction after their arrest: the diary written by young Anne Frank. Both Ten Boom and Gies have been given the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
So have Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, a Polish married couple scheduled for beatification on September 10, 2023. But seventy-nine years have passed since the deaths of the Ulmas. Why should the Church choose to honor them as blesseds now?
Józef Ulma was born in 1900 in Markowa, Poland, and, after graduating from agricultural school, earned his living as a fruit-grower, beekeeper, and tanner of leather. He also enjoyed photography and served as librarian for his parish youth group. Wiktoria was born in 1912 in Markowa, and, after the two married in 1935, she cared for their home and children. She was also active in the theater group of her village. They were hard workers and, in time, were able to purchase a larger farm for their growing family. They were also faithful Catholics.
Both Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, each controlling part of the country. Jews were the largest minority group in Poland at the time, and Jews were particularly persecuted by both occupying armies.
In summer and fall of 1942, Nazi police came to the little village of Markowa to arrest and deport several Jewish families who lived there. Józef initially suggested to his Jewish neighbors that they build dugouts outside the village, hoping this would help them hide from the police. Many were found anyway. The Nazis had publicly stated that anyone who protected Jews would be executed, but Józef and Wiktoria made the brave decision to shelter eight Jews on their property: five men from the Szall family and three women from the Goldman family.
For more than a year, these eight people lived in the Ulma’s attic. They even helped with odd jobs on the farm, but they tried to stay out of sight as much as possible.
Unfortunately, even though the Ulmas lived on a farm at the outskirts of their village, it was not possible for eight people to remain completely hidden. A citizen of the village, Włodzimierz Leś,2 had taken possession of the Szall’s home after they disappeared, and he betrayed the Ulmas to the police to protect his rights to their property.
On March 24, 1944, the German police surrounded the Ulma home, captured the eight Jews who had been in hiding, and shot each of them in the back of the head. Then, forcing some of the villagers to watch, they shot and killed Józef and Wiktoria.
At the time of the shooting, the Ulmas had six children, ranging in age from eight to one, along with Wiktoria’s seventh, unborn child. When their parents were killed, the children quite naturally began screaming. For apparently no reason but to serve as an example of their willingness to kill anyone who disobeyed orders, the German officers and local police shot the six children too. Eyewitnesses said that the men joked and drank heavily after the murders, ordering the residents to remain silent about it.
Obviously, the entire village of Markowa was deeply affected by this slaughter of seventeen lives. Although the Germans initially forced the citizens to bury the bodies in nearby pits, citizens secretly exhumed them and reburied them in the village cemetery. That’s when they discovered that Wiktoria had gone into labor after the shooting and given birth to her seventh child.
During the war, other families in Markowa also protected and hid Jews, and at least seventeen of them survived the war. The witness of the Ulma family, who died while trying to protect others, inspired the citizens of Markowa to build a museum honoring all those Poles who protected Jews from the Nazis, and that museum opened in 2016.
The Catholic Church’s canonization process evaluates many factors in determining whether to declare someone a blessed. It was therefore important for the Church to determine why the Ulmas placed their lives and their children’s lives in danger for the sake of eight people.
Some suggested that the Ulmas, who were poor, received payment from those they sheltered. But one of the Goldmans was found with a box of jewelry when she was killed, indicating that the Ulmas did not risk their lives for money.
The Church also looks for evidence that devotion to the person (or persons) continues over time, which is typically called “evidence of longstanding cult”, as a sign of holiness. Clearly, the residents of Markowa have not forgotten about their martyred neighbors since that date in 1944.
The Ulmas died suddenly and did not leave a written or verbal explanation of their decision. The Church recognized that Józef and Wiktoria were motivated to make this sacrifice by their Catholic faith and that they were killed out of hatred for that faith. The investigation also discovered that their family Bible contained passages related to the parable of the Good Samaritan which had been underlined, perhaps to explain to the children why eight people were living in their attic. Their six young children had all been baptized, and the seventh, as the Discastery for the Causes of the Saints pointed out, received the baptism of blood when he or she was killed with Wiktoria.
But the most obvious reason that we should consider Józef, Wiktoria, Stanisława, Barbara, Władysław, Franciszek, Antoni, Maria, and the youngest Ulma as martyrs and blesseds is because no other passage of Scripture describes their deaths better than this one: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
1 The other three employees were Victor Kugler, Johannes Kleiman, and Bep Voskiujl. Kugler and Kleiman were imprisoned after the arrest of the Frank family, but they were released and survived the war. Voskiujl was able to hide from the authorities and escape arrest. She also rescued some of Anne’s writings and survived the war.
2 Leś was shot a year later by the Polish resistance.
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