AS Poles, we are proud that our compatriots— the Ulma family—will be added to the ranks of the “blessed” of the Catholic Church on September 10, 2023. The significance of this event goes beyond the religious dimension; it will also be a tribute to heroes embodying the highest ideals of humanity.
A heavily worn, yellowed Bible opened to the parable of the merciful Samaritan, with a red line marking its title and a handwritten “YES!” note on its side…this is the exhibit that comes to my mind whenever I think about the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, in the village of Markowa in southern Poland. This copy of the Scriptures belonged to Józef and Wiktoria Ulma—Polish farmers who sheltered eight fellow citizens of Jewish origin: Gołda Grünfeld, Lea Didner with her little daughter, and Saul Goldman with his four sons.
Just before dawn on March 24, 1944, German gendarmes burst into the farm in Markowa. The Jews in hiding and their protectors were shot on the spot. Victims included not only Józef and the pregnant Wiktoria, but also their six young kids.
The German Nazi occupation, the Holocaust and the mass crimes against Poles are profoundly important and still painful parts of the history of my homeland. Many of my compatriots shared the fate of the Ulma family. Yearly on March 24, we celebrate a public holiday: the National Day of Remembrance for Poles who rescued Jews during the German occupation.
Before the Second World War started, Poland was home to a huge Jewish community—one of the largest in the nation’s history. For centuries, Jews had sought to settle in our country, endowing it with the telling name “Polin,” which translates as “here, you will rest.” Poland provided them peace and chances to grow, making Warsaw the world’s second-largest Jewish center in the late 1930s.
For centuries, Poland was known as a tolerant country where Christian values shaped culture and social relations. And so, German occupation authorities expected resistance to their criminal actions. To minimize defiance, they threatened death to anyone in our lands who even attempted to help a Jew in hiding. Despite harsh sanctions, thousands of Polish Jews found life-saving aid. They were helped to escape the ghetto and given hiding places, food, money and false documents.
Historians are still reconstructing those years’ course of the dramatic events. So far, over 7,000 Poles, including Wiktoria and Józef Ulma, have been honored with the title of “Righteous Among the Nations,” awarded by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Institute. In the righteous’ venerable circle, Poles are the largest national group. Polish officials and state institutions continue their efforts to remember the silent, often anonymous heroes—especially those killed for their courage and sacrifice.
The story of the Ulmas’ martyrdom deserves global recognition. Although it is horrifying, it is also an empowering testament to loving one’s neighbor.
(Published in cooperation with the Polish monthly “Wszystko co najważniejsze” as part of a historical project run jointly with the Institute of National Remembrance and the Polish National Foundation.)