They gave up their lives

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Mateusz Szpytma, historian, employed at the Institute of National Remembrance.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: - Where is Markowa, the village the Ulmas came from?

Mateusz Szpytma: - Markowa is located in the Diocese of Przemysl. Before the war Markowa was one of the biggest Polish villages. In 1931 there were 931 houses with 4,442 inhabitants, the majority being Catholics, but there were about 120 Jews.

- What do we know about the Ulma family?

- We know a lot since Jozef, born in 1900, was well known in the whole village. He received a versatile education. He was the first to grow fruit trees in Markowa. He promoted cultivation of vegetables and fruit, which was not widely spread. He was involved in bee keeping and sericulture, which the whole village observed with curiosity. His diplomas in agriculture were preserved. He was active in social life. Among other things he worked in the Catholic Youth Association as a librarian and photographer. His biggest passion was photography. He took thousands of pictures that have been preserved. He took some beautiful pictures of his wife and children. We have his photographs, too. He fell in love with the youngest daughter of Jan and Franciszka Niemczak - Wiktoria, born in 1912. The marriage was perfectly matched and full of love. The Ulmas had children soon after their marriage. Within seven years of their marriage they had six children: Stasia, Basia, Wladzio, Franus, Antos and Marysia. Another child was to be born in the spring of 1944.

- What did the situation of Markowa look like during the Nazi occupation?

- After the Germans had seized Poland they created a new administrative division of the country. They also created military police to keep order in rural areas and small towns. During the Nazi occupation Jews had no rights. They were forced to do various jobs for the occupant and they could not follow their professions. Soon ghettos were created. In the summer and autumn of 1942 the Germans murdered most Jewish inhabitants of Markowa. Only those Jews that were hidden in peasants' houses survived. One of the families that made a heroic decision to hide Jews was the Ulmas. Eight Jews found shelter in their house: five men called Szall from Lancut: it was father and his sons who traded horses before the war, as well as Golda and Layka Goldman with a little daughter.

- What were the motives of the Ulmas' decision?

- Jozef Ulma was known for his kindness for Jews. Earlier he helped another Jewish family hide in the ravine. He must have been directed by love for people as well as compassion and awareness what fate Jews would face if they received no help.

- What happened in 1944?

- Most likely a constable of the so-called Navy-Blue Police informed his colleagues from the German military police about the place where the Jews were hidden. The commander of the patrol was the chief of the German police in Lancut Lieutenant Eilert Dieken. At dawn, 24 March, the policemen reached the house of Jozef Ulma, which was at the end on the village. The Germans left the cart drivers and walked to the house, accompanied by the Navy-Blue policemen. Then a few shot were heard. The Jews were killed first. The cart drivers were the eyewitnesses of the events. The Germans ordered them to look at the execution so that they would know what punishment was for all those who hid Jews. One of the cart drivers, Edward Nawojski, says that he saw the hosts, Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, being taken out of their house and shot. The witness says, 'During shooting one could hear terrible cries, lament, the children called their parents and they had already been killed. That was a horrible view.' After they had killed the parents they policemen wondered what to do with the kids. After having consulted the others Dieken ordered to shoot them. Nawojski saw Joseph Kokott killing three or four children himself. He remembered very well the words of that germanised Czech who spoke Polish to the cart drivers, 'Look how the Polish pigs that have hidden the Jews are dying.' Stasia, Basia, Wladzio, Franus, Antos, Marysia and the seventh child in the mother's womb (a few days before the delivery) were killed. Within several minutes 17 people were murdered.
After the last child had been shot the village leader Teofil Kielar was summoned and ordered to bring a few men to bury the victims. He asked the commander whom he had known from frequent inspections in Markowa, why the children were also killed. Dieken answered cynically, 'So that you would not have any problems with them.'

- What happened to the other Jews that were hidden in the village by Polish families?

- Thanks to the help of other Poles who hid the Jews in their houses till the end of the war, at least 17 Jews survived in Markowa (in 2004 seven of them lived in Israel, Canada and the USA). I want to give one name: Helena and Jan Cwynar hid as a cattleman a Jew called Radym Abraham Segal, who is living in the suburbs of Haifa and has 12 grandchildren. He maintains contacts with the inhabitants of Markowa and is interested in the problems of the village.

- Is the tragic and heroic story of the Ulma family vivid in the village?

- Yes, it is, and one can see a monument with the inscription: 'Saving the lives of others they laid down their lives: Jozef Ulma, his wife Wiktoria and their children: Stasia, Basia, Wladzio, Franus, Antos, Marysia, the Unborn One. Hiding eight elder brothers in the faith, the Jews of the Szall and Goldman families, they were killed with them in Markowa on 24 March 1944 by the German military police. May their sacrifice be a call to respect and love every human being! They were the sons and daughters of this land; they will remain in our hearts.'

63 years ago, on 24 March 1944, in Markowa, one of the thousand villages under the German occupation, there was an event that shook the inhabitants and the whole region. The Polish family Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma with their children were shot for having hidden Jews. 17 people, including eight children, were killed because they were Jewish or Polish people that had courage to offer help that was forbidden. The Ulmas were awarded the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations. Their beautification process on the diocesan level began in 2003. The community of Markowa honoured the memory of the Ulma family on 24 March 2004. They erected a monument, which was unveiled after a solemn Mass celebrated by Archbishop of Przemysl Jozef Michalik, who is the President of the Polish Bishops' Conference.
The Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone recalled the heroic Polish family in his speech delivered at the Roman Capitol on 24 January 2007 on the occasion of presenting the Italian edition of Martin Gilbert's book 'I giusti. Gli eroi sconosciuti dell'Olocausto' [ The Righteous. Unknown Heroes of the Holocaust].
On 24 March 2007, exactly 63 years after the families of Ulma, Szall and Goldman were killed, there were special celebrations in Markowa. In the parish Church of Saint Dorothy in Markowa Mass was celebrated and then followed the Way of the Cross in the intention of the Servant of God the Ulma family's beautification, along the streets of the village. The local authorities and invited guests (including the President of the Council of Krakow) put flowers at the monument to the Ulmas, which was unveiled three years before, on the 60th anniversary of the crime. The pupils of the local gymnasium presented the motives of the Ulms' decision to hide Jews in a short poetic performance entitled 'Eight Beatitudes'. There was also a special poetic evening dedicated to the memory of the murdered Ulma family. A few witnesses (neighbours and relatives) spoke about the life of the Ulmas. The historian from the Institute of National Remembrance presented the life of the family on the basis of the preserved documents and the diocesan postulator spoke about the characteristics of the beautification process.

"Niedziela" 16/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: