The Ulma Family: Symbol of Polish Heroism in the Face of German Brutalities

They were a happy loving Polish family. He worked hard to provide for them. She took care of the hearth and home and raised the children. With their unique bravery in the face of German brutalities, the Ulma family became the symbol of heroism in times of adversity. They epitomise all those Polish people who saved their Jewish neighbours.

The Ulma family lived in the village of Markowa in south-eastern Poland. Józef, despite having only an education of only four years in primary school and a farming course, was a veritable jack of all trades. He tried his hand at a tannery, at bee-keeping, at silkworm farming, and as a fruit-tree grower. He also earned a living as a documentary photographer and volunteered his services in a library. Wiktoria devoted all her time to raising six small children. They lived a modest but happy life. They took a life-threatening risk to save two Jewish families (eight people in total) in mid-1942. They were perfectly aware that if the Germans found out, they would face a firing squad as was stipulated by the brutal and inhumane law of German-occupied Poland.

It was a cold spring morning on 24 March 1944. The Ulma family home was approached by four horse-drawn carts carrying a squad of eight German soldiers and Blue-Police officers (a Police formation consisting of pre-war Polish police officers, who were conscripted by the German administration). Blue-Police officers stayed outside. The Germans were ruthless. They barged in and murdered three people in their sleep. As soon as they had killed all the Jews, they led Józef and Wiktoria, who was in the last weeks of her pregnancy, to the front of their house, and unscrupulously killed them while their children stood and watched. They had no mercy for the children, either. Eight-year-old Stanisław, six-year-old Barbara, five-year-old Władysław, four-year-old Franciszek, three-year-old Antoni and eighteen-month-old Maria soon joined their parents. Look and see how the Polish pigs die, Joseph Kokott was reported to have shouted.

What made the Ulma family risk their own lives to save others? Base motives, such as monetary gain, can easily be excluded, since a lot of savings were found with the murdered Jewish families. In all likelihood, the Ulma family did this from compassion for their neighbours. Józef Ulma was known to have taken a selfless risk to aid another Jewish family. He assisted them in building a dugout in the nearby forest and regularly brought them food supplies. Although the Germans found the shelter and killed four people, they were not able to find their helper.

The Bible discovered in their home seems to suggest what values guided the Ulma family in their lives. Two important passages were marked in their copy. The first to be highlighted was the “Commandment of Love” and the parable of “The Good Samaritan”. The second was on the passage defining Christian duties: “For if you love only those who love you, what reward have you earned?” (Matthew 5:46, Weymouth New Testatment).

In 1995, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were posthumously awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”. In 2010, they were decorated with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by President Lech Kaczyński. Their beatification procedure is under way in the Vatican. In March 2016, the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in the Podkarpacie Region was established.

Photos by courtesy the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jewish People During World War II in Markowa.