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The Tragic Story of the Ulma Family

On 24th March 1944, in a once-peacful Polish village, a massacre took place. The Nazis came in the middle of the night to the home of the Ulma family, where among the sleeping inhabitants were Jews whom the Ulmas were hiding. All were killed, adults and children, Catholics and Jews. The whole of the Ulma family having now been beatified, be inspired by their story in this blog.

This blog was originally given as a speech at a CTS event celebrating the beatification of the Blessed Ulma family.

It is a great honour to stand here and be able to say something about this new family of Blesseds. I am particularly happy to speak on behalf of the CTS which has been telling the stories of the great heroes of the faith for over 150 years among whom of course great figures such as St Stanislaw, St Faustina, Fr Jerzy Popieluszko and of course our beloved Pope John Paul II have figured prominently. But also as a direct descendent of the great post-war Polish diaspora. My maternal grandmother left her home town of Torun in 1945 and my adoptive Grandfather was from Przemyśl just a few miles from Markowa and whose great faith was nourished and passed on to my mother not only by the Polish chaplaincy in Balham but also here at the weekly Polish Mass in the Brompton Oratory.

As I reread the beautiful little book which we have just published by Jean Olwyn Maynard it was a great sadness to come across place names that have once again been plunged into war such as Lviv, Kharkiv and others. It was a reminder that we must constantly tell the story of moments in history that many would prefer to forget, when shameful things were done in the name of Godless ideologies, yet among these darkest moments the heroism of a few shone more brightly than ever.

Jozef Ulma was born in 1900 – he was a man of varied interests and deep faith – a farmer, photographer, librarian, cultivator of trees and silkworms and active in the rich cultural and religious life of the small town of Markowa in South Eastern Poland. He met his wife Wiktoria while they were both taking part in a theatrical production and their marriage was brief but fruitful. Wiktoria was a well-educated woman and an active Catholic – together with her husband, they continued their firm commitment to community organisations and Catholic associations such as the Association of the Living Rosary.

They were married in 1935 and began their married life in ordinary domestic happiness – praying, working hard and bringing up their rapidly growing family. Jozef’s sympathetic eye as a photographer lyrically documents everyday life in his home and in the village – the great powers of Europe and their aggressive ambitions seemed far away, yet by the time Wiktoria was expecting their fourth child in 1939, Poland had already been divided by its two rapacious neighbours. Markowa was just inside the area controlled by the Nazis and all too soon the antisemitic laws of the Third Reich began to make themselves felt even in little Markowa. Between 1939 and 1942 the 120 Jewish residents of Markowa were slowly pressured either into fleeing or moving to the ghetto in nearby Rzeszow. A number of Catholic families in Markowa decided to take their Jewish neighbours into their homes in an attempt to save them from the “final solution” – chief among these were the Ulmas who by 1942 had 6 children. They took in a total of 8 Jews, 6 members of the Szall family and two sisters, Golda and Layka Goldman. These were hidden in the attic of the Ulmas’ farmhouse and helped the family in their work when possible.

The Ulmas’ heroism and generosity were inspired by their deep faith in Christ and his teachings. In the family bible which can still be seen in the Ulma Museum in Markowa, the page containing the parable of the good Samaritan is underlined. On the page next to Jesus’s great parable on helping the stranger is one word written by Jozef or Wiktoria –  tak – or yes. They must have known that their yes could eventually lead them to have to live out Jesus’s words in the Gospel, “Greater love hath no man than to give up his life for his friend,” yet they put their yes into practice.

The Ulmas succeeded in hiding their guests for almost 2 years until the 24th March 1944 when they were betrayed to the authorities probably by a certain Wlodomierz Les who had swindled the Szall family out of their property and was probably looking to protect himself as the third reich appeared to be in its own death throes.

Eyewitness accounts of the massacre that took place are truly horrifying as the police raided the Ulma family home and forced its inhabitants out into the street. First, the members of the Szall family and the Goldmans were shot. Jozef and Wiktoria who was eight months pregnant with their seventh child were then shot in front of their children. As she died she went into premature labour. Their screaming children were then also killed. In a matter of minutes, 17 people lay dead. Jews and Catholics side by side.

Justice came swiftly for Les who within the year was tried and executed by the Polish Home Army.

In 1995 The Ulmas were recognized by the Yad Vashem Centre as righteous among the nations and in 2003 the cause for the Ulma family was opened in Przemysl.

On Sunday in Markowa Cardinal Semeraro on behalf of His Holiness Pope Francis conducted the ceremony to officially declare the whole family as Blessed including the partially born child who had received the baptism by blood of those killed in hatred of the faith. Cardinal Semeraro in his homily on Sunday said: “Without ever having uttered a word, today the little Blessed cries out to the modern world to welcome, love, and protect life, especially that of the defenseless and marginalized, from the moment of conception until natural death.”

As a father of seven myself I feel all families can pray through the intercession of the Ulmas for the strength to do what is right even when it is costly.

Jozef, Viktoria,

  • Stanisława (born 18 July 1936), aged 8
  • Barbara (born 6 October 1937), aged 7
  • Władysław (born 5 December 1938), aged 6
  • Franciszek (born 3 April 1940), aged 4
  • Antoni (born 6 June 1941), aged 3
  • Maria (born 16 September 1942), aged 2
  • Unnamed male child (born 24 March 1944), aged 8 months

Pray for us!

Continue Reading About the Ulmas in No Greater Love

Under the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II, Jews were indiscriminately arrested, imprisoned, and killed. Christians who helped them hide or escape placed themselves in the same peril. Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, who, guided by the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was underlined in red ink in the family Bible, sheltered a Jewish family in their village of Markowa. As a result, in 1944, Józef, Wiktoria, and their seven small children – one not yet born – were murdered by the Nazis. This biography tells the story of the heroic virtue and sacrifice that led to their beatification.

Order No Greater Love: The Martyrdom of the Ulma Family Today