Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, killed in 1944 for hiding Jews, will be beatified this month with their seven children
By Robert Mixa
It was a long Lent for Catholics in Markowa, a town of 4,500 inhabitants in southeastern Poland. The year was 1944, four years into the German occupation. The villagers were looking forward to celebrating Easter, and the liberation from their occupiers that seemed near.
Like their neighbors, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were preparing for the Holy Week liturgies. But they were also preparing for the birth of their seventh child and the possibility that the eight Jews they sheltered could come out of hiding and live again without fear.
Such anticipations came to an end, however, in the early morning hours of March 24 when German police murdered the entire Ulma family, along with the Jews they had taken in. While they did not live long enough to partake in Holy Week, the Ulmas bore witness to Christ’s death and resurrection with their blood.
On Dec. 17, 2022, the Vatican approved a decree on the martyrdom of the family of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, paving the way for their beatification Sept. 10 in a ceremony in Markowa. This is the first time an entire family will be beatified together.
“In proclaiming the entire family ‘blessed’ and in the decision to beatify an unborn child, the Church wishes to confirm and emphasize the beauty, importance and sanctity of matrimony and family life,” said Father Witold Burda, the postulator of the Ulma family’s cause for canonization.
Devotion to the Ulmas is spreading around the world, especially among young parents looking for models in the faith. Their beatification — taking place less than 40 miles (63 kilometers) from the Ukraine border — is particularly meaningful to Polish and Ukrainian Knights serving refugees of the current war.
“The story of the Ulma family shows how, faced with a dramatic choice between love and hatred, one can remain faithful to the greatest commandment by sacrificing one’s own life,” said Supreme Warden Andrzej Anasiak, who served as Poland state deputy from 2014 to 2017. “It is a story of great love confronting evil and tremendous hatred. I think that they were aware that the final word does not belong to the executioners, but to God, who conquers death.”
A FAMILY FORMED IN LOVE
Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were simple yet cultured farmers, and holiness permeated their lives.
“Their sanctity was fulfilled in the simplicity of daily life,” said Maria Elżbieta Szulikowska, author of a newly published biography in Polish titled Wiktoria Ulma: A Love Story. “They lived in the sacraments, prayed often, cultivated many interests and showed each other and others sincere kindness and respect.”
Józef, born in Markowa in 1900, was a beekeeper and fruit farmer, as well as an amateur photographer. Active in the local parish, he had a sizable collection of books that he would often hand to other people to read. Though Józef received only a primary school education, he was known for his creativity and passion for learning. He taught himself and others how to grow exotic plants and also built an electric mill, making his family one of the first in the village to have electricity.
Wiktoria also grew up in Markowa, the seventh of 13 children in a very pious family. At the age of 6, she lost her mother, just months after Poland regained independence in November 1918.
“Wiktoria learned in her family that you do not have to have much in order to help someone in need,” noted Father Burda.
Unlike most women in her social position, Wiktoria attended some university classes; she also had a special interest in theater, and it was likely during her time performing in the Amateur Theater Company in Markowa that she met Józef, who also enjoyed acting.
Józef and Wiktoria married in 1935. By 1944, they had six children, ages 2 to 8, with a seventh baby on the way. They spent a lot of time together as a family and had a tradition of spending Sunday afternoons together in the garden or on outings. Józef left behind many photos of playful children laughing with their mother and other relatives.
But war changed everything, especially the situation of Jews in German-occupied territory.
Markowa had 120 Jewish inhabitants before the occupation, and “prior to the war, their relationships were good,” explained Father Burda. “Jewish people were part of the community life of the village.”
However, in the fall of 1941, senior Nazi leaders began implementing what they called the “Final Solution” — the elimination of Europe’s Jews. On Nov. 10, 1941, the death penalty was ordered for any Pole who provided aid or shelter to a Jew. The first of the Nazis’ extermination camps in Poland began operating that December in the village of Chełmno nad Nerem, and more were built in the months that followed.
In 1942, scores of Markowa’s Jews were deported or executed on the spot. The Germans, with the help of some locals, tracked down many of those who tried to hide.
“It was very hard to hide Jews in villages compared to bigger cities because Jews could not stay where they were known. Denunciation was a problem,” said Jan Grosfeld, emeritus professor of political ethics at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw and member of the Polish Bishops’ Committee on Dialogue with Judaism. “Nevertheless, people put themselves in great risk to help.”
Among them were Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, who around this time took in eight Jews: Saul Goldman and his four sons; Layca Didner and her daughter, and Layca’s sister, Gołda Grünfeld.
More than a year later, the Ulmas and the eight Jews were denounced by a member of the Blue Police, the police force of the occupying General Government. German officers arrived at the Ulma farm on the night of March 23-24, first killing the Jews and then Józef and Wiktoria in front of their children. According to eyewitnesses, Wiktoria went into labor and began to give birth to her seventh child right before her death.
After a brief conversation about what to do with the other six children, the officers summarily executed them: Stanisława, 8; Barbara, 7; Władysław, 6; Franciszek, 4; Antoni, 3; and Maria, 2.
Eyewitnesses also recalled the head officer laughing, “Look at how Polish swine who hide Jews die.” His brutality was a message to locals that anyone hiding Jews could expect no mercy. Yet, some continued to hide them, and the memory of the Ulma family lived on in Markowa.
The family’s story began to be more widely known as the 20th century drew to a close. In 1995, Józef and Wiktoria were recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, as “Righteous Among the Nations” for aiding Jews during the Holocaust. The family’s cause for beatification opened in 2003 as part of a group of 122 Polish martyrs of World War II. In 2016, the Museum of Poles Saving Jews During World War II was opened under their name in their hometown.
Urszula Niemczak, whose husband is Wiktoria’s nephew, has been tending to the family’s graves for many years, and she has personally witnessed the growing devotion to the Ulmas. During the 2016 World Youth Day in Kraków, Niemczak distributed 80,000 prayer cards to pilgrims, and she continues to hear from people interested in the family.
“The Ulmas are witnesses to families today that we are called to serve and not to be served,” said Niemczak. “God gave the Ulmas the gift to live in simplicity, poverty and service. They knew how to be human in little things.”
The story of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma is especially inspiring to Knights of Columbus and their families who are aiding refugees of war. Markowa is in the Archdiocese of Przemyśl, which spans Poland’s southeastern border with Ukraine.
“It is not an accident that Poland is the capital of the Divine Mercy devotion,” said Dr. Mateusz Szpytma, deputy director of the Institute of National Remembrance and founder of the museum in Markowa. “It is a Polish tradition to help people and to provide aid. The Ulmas are exemplars of that tradition.”
Przemysław Wręźlewicz, a member of St. Brother Albert Chmielowski Council 15128 in Kraków and producer of the movie Ulmas: A Blessed Family, believes Józef Ulma is a role model for modern men, especially fathers striving to be holy leaders of their domestic church.
“We know from witnesses, but also from countless photos that Józef took of his family, that the Ulma house must have been an extraordinary place, a house that was not created by walls, but by the love of the people living in it,” he said.
Wręźlewicz is hopeful that the beatification will ignite interest in the family and inspire many, including many Knights, to follow their example of sacrifice and love. “When we wonder if it is worth helping others, sacrificing time and resources, it is always worth remembering about the Ulma family and many others who, in a world filled with death and hatred, were not afraid to continue to love, were not afraid to put their lives and even their children’s lives at stake.”
The family’s Bible testifies to their motivation. Father Burda explained, “They followed the example of the Good Samaritan in caring for their Jewish neighbors, evidenced from the family Bible, in which the parable of the Good Samaritan had been underlined in red.”
Yet another passage underlined in the Ulma family Bible was Christ’s commandment of love: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
ROBERT MIXA writes from Kraków, Poland.