On Sunday 10 September, an ‘unprecedented’ event took place in the history of beatification. In Poland, in the small village of Markowa, an entire family were beatified, including a child still in the womb around the time of death. The Ulma family story is a harrowing one, but it is also one of incredible courage in the face of evil and a witness to what it means to be a neighbour.
Over 32,000 people were registered to attend the event. The Beatification Mass was presided over by Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, and was concelebrated by seven cardinals and around 1,000 priests.
Speaking at the Vatican, Pope Francis held up the Ulma family as a ‘model’ for Catholics everywhere to serve those most in need.
In December 1942, during the Second World War, Józef Ulma and his pregnant wife, Wiktoria, opened their farmhouse to members of three Jewish families—the Goldmans, the Grünfelds, and the Didners. There were eight of them in total, and they found refuge in the Ulma home for around 15 months.
This heroic decision on the part of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma would eventually be discovered, with tragic consequences.
‘In response to the hatred and violence that characterised those times, they embraced evangelical love,’ Pope Francis said. They ‘represented a ray of light in the darkness of the Second World War’ and he called on everyone to follow their example, ‘opposing strength of arms with charity, and violent rhetoric with tenacious prayer.’
It was in March 1942 that Operation Reinhardt began, the Nazi program to round up and kill all Polish Jews in the General Government district of Nazi-occupied Poland. The implementation of this operation finally hit Markowa in August 1942 when a ban was imposed on Jews staying in the area. At the time there were 120 people of Jewish faith living in Markowa, a village of about 4,500.
On 13 December 1942, the mayor of Markowa was ordered to conduct a search operation, and by this point only 54 Jews were left in hiding. Almost half were discovered during the search.
The Ulma family had always been on good terms with their Jewish neighbours. They traded vegetables with each other and other items. It was in response to this search operation that the Ulma family opened their home eight people in need.
Living on a farm meant they were able to hide them for the amount of time they did. However, neighbours began to grow suspicious with the amount of food Wiktoria would purchase for the family. It is suspected that Włodzimierz Leś, a police constable and known Nazi collaborator, was the one to turn them in.
On the nights of 23 and 24 March 1944, Nazi soldiers came to Markowa. They shot the Jews hiding in the Ulma home, as well as the whole Ulma family, including their children: Stanisława, aged 7, Barbara (6), Władysław (5), Franciszek (4), Antoni (2), and Maria (1). Wiktoria was also in the advanced stages of pregnancy at the time with their seventh child.
The farm was looted, the house burned, and the bodies buried. Later, when the bodies were exhumed to provide a more dignified burial, Wiktoria was discovered to have been buried with a newborn child. The assumption was that, at the time of her execution, Wiktoria had gone into labour.
Because of the timing of the delivery, the child has been included in the beatification.
To this day in Markowa, and Poland more widely, each year people remember the Ulma family’s sacrifice.
In 1995, the Ulma family were recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel, a title honouring non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In attendance at the beatification ceremony was chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich.
The Ulma family were ordinary people. Józef was a gardener. He made a living off the sale of saplings from the first fruit tree nursery in Markowa, one he established. He kept bees, had an eclectic book collection, and his passion for photography meant that the small and beautiful moments of their family life have been captured in black and white.
Wiktoria was an active member of her community, performing in the village theatre and attending courses at the Folk University in the village of Gać. They were married in 1935 with 12 years between them.
According to Vatican News, inside their family Bible, the word ‘Samaritan’ in one of the Gospels was underlined, with the word ‘Yes’ written beside it. Although they were a simple family, they harboured a great desire to follow the example of the Good Samaritan put forward by Christ.
In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis identified the truly challenging message of the Good Samaritan parable. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Lk 10:29). In the first century, the question of who exactly their neighbours were was a debated question. It effectively amounted to, ‘And who should we care for?’
In telling the parable and saying, ‘Go, and do the same yourself,’ (10:37), Jesus was turning the question on its head.
‘I should no longer say that I have neighbours to help, but that I must myself be a neighbour to others,’ Pope Francis writes (FT §81). In fact, in the same paragraph the pope says that the Samaritan ‘became a neighbour’ in helping the wounded Judean.
We are all called to become neighbours to those in need. The Ulma family shows us that no matter who we are, we can all follow Christ’s command to ‘Go, and do the same’.
Catholic Mission27 September 2023
Bishop Shane Mackinlay26 September 2023