Wiktoria Niemczak Ulma with her children

Poland: The Ulmas and holiness next door

Polish friends attended the beatification of the family killed by the Nazis for hiding Jews: "They taught us that holiness is a possible path for everyone.”

Among the objects found in the Ulma house was a book entitled Biblical History of the Old and New Covenants, in which the parents had circled a passage in red, part of the chapter The Commandment of Love - The Good Samaritan, from the Gospel of Luke. Next to the text, the word "yes" is handwritten. It is an early testimony of their charitable openness to those in serious need. The Ulma family, in fact, hid Jews during the Second World War and were killed for it. This martyrdom, however, is only the culmination of their entire life.

Their father, Józef Ulma, born in 1900, was a man curious about the world with a great passion for photography. This is why photographs have come down to us that offer a vivid portrait of this family, how they lived, how they prayed, what they did. One of the photographs is stained with blood: the blood from when they were executed by the German occupiers on 24 March 1944.

Józef had met his future wife at a meeting of the ZMW Wici circle (Rural Youth Association) in Markowa. Wiktoria Niemczak, twelve years his junior, lived in a house not far from his, attended the local university, and was involved in local cultural life. They married in 1935 and their family soon began to grow. In their nine years of marriage they had six children: Stanisława in 1936, Barbara in 1937, Władysław in 1938, Franciszek in 1940, Antoni in 1941, and Maria in 1942. They attended the parish of St. Dorothy, Józef belonged to the Catholic Youth Association, and the couple belonged to the Fraternity of the Living Rosary. As the family grew, they planned to move to a bigger house but the outbreak of war stopped everything.

The Nazis entered Markowa on 9 September 1939, and from the first day established a regime of terror. The Jews in the area, about 30 families, were soon deprived of all rights and property. In order not to be killed or deported, they tried to flee or hide. Since anyone who helped them was punished with death, the local peasants only agreed to take them in for a few days, then dismissed them, only leaving them food. But not all of them. Some Polish families decided to take in the fugitives. Among them was the Ulma family, who hid members of the Goldman family in their attic. There were eight of them: Saul Goldman with his sons Baruch, Mechel, Joachim and Moses, and Chajm Goldman's daughters Gołda Grünfeld, Lea Didner and little Reszla. Although their house was on the edge of the village, it was soon noticed that the Ulmas were buying more food than usual and so they were discovered.

On 24 March 1944, German soldiers, under the command of Eilert Dieken, together with the so-called 'blue policemen' [the police force established during the Second World War in German-occupied Poland, the Governorate General], surrounded the Ulma house. First they killed the Jews who were hiding there, then Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were dragged out of the house and shot on the spot. After their parents, on Dieken's personal orders, the six children were also killed ¬– Stasia, Basia, Władziu, Franuś, Antoś, Marysia and the seventh child whose birth took place during the massacre. The inhabitants of Markowa were ordered by the Germans to take away the bodies and dig a large mass grave. News of the massacre spread very quickly. After the end of the German occupation, on 11 January 1945, their remains were buried in the parish cemetery. Since their beatification, whose process was supervised by Bishop Jamrozek and Fr. Witold Burda, their relics have been on display in the Markowa church.

"This beatification is a great gift. I absolutely wanted to be present at this ceremony, and I changed all my plans (even a holiday with my wife that we had been looking forward to for five years)," writes Pawel Kuglarz from the CL community in Krakow-Warsaw. "I knew it would be a very important event for the Church, but especially important for me.” During the beatification, in fact, we were also able to meet the people of Markowa and the mayor of Esens, where the German criminal, Eilert Dieken, who ordered the killings, came from.

Without a doubt, the Ulma family is a true model, and so I am happy that their liturgical memory falls on 7 July, their wedding day, and not on the anniversary of their martyrdom. There is a risk of fixing our gaze only on their martyrdom but, as Cardinal Semeraro said in his homily at the beatification Mass, "it would be misleading if the day of the beatification of the Ulma family served only to bring back to memory the terror of atrocities. Instead, we want today to be a day of joy, because the page of the Gospel written on paper has become for us a lived reality, which shines brightly in the Christian witness of the Ulma couple and in the martyrdom of the new Blessed. It is worth looking at their whole life because it can also be a model for our days".

For Izabela and Tomasz, from the CL community in Łodz, the beatification day was also precious. "There is no greater love than one who gives their life for another person. Despite the difficulties of the war, the Ulmas managed to create an authentically Christian family in work and daily life. In times of family crisis, of birth crisis, of education crisis, it is beautiful that a normal, ordinary family has walked the path of holiness. Everyone is called to holiness, which is a process, a journey in which the human falls and weaknesses are also contemplated. It was important for us to rediscover that saints are born in a certain context, to which they owe much, and at the same time they create it. Thus the normal gestures of a Christian become a reason for faith for the world.”

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Also present at the beatification were Barbara and Damian with their children, Jan and Maria, also from the CL community in Łódź. "We asked ourselves what enabled the Ulmas to remain confident in the circumstances in which they found themselves. Only a strong adherence to God, strengthened by love, trust and family upbringing, could have guided them to help those whose right to humanity had been taken away. Faced with the catastrophe of life, when evil seemed to have triumphed, the Ulmas emerged victorious. Crushed by hatred, condemned to be erased from memory, they became unequivocal and strong role models for the whole world. And this beatification is not only an event for the universal Church, but also for Poland: our country, victim of two totalitarianisms (German and Soviet), has often been accused of having 'helped too little'. The Polish family of Markowa, now beatified, redeemed the good name of Poland and helped the world understand that, even in the most furious storm, the Lord is present and acts.”

Pawel, Barbara, Damian, Izabela and Tomasz (CL Poland)