KRAKOW, Poland (OSV News) — Urszula Niemczak keeps a regular schedule. At least twice a week she carefully checks whether winter decorations or fresh flowers growing in the summer on a historical gravesite of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their children look good and are well watered. She and her granddaughters take care of the grave in Markowa, in southeastern Poland.
Niemczak’s husband is Wiktoria Ulma’s nephew.
“How could I not come here and take care of that grave?” Niemczak told OSV News. “This is my obligation to this family that I entered, to the sacrifice the Ulmas made for all of us.”
Józef and Wiktoria Ulma secretly gave shelter to eight Jews for almost two years in German-occupied Poland, hiding them from the Nazi regime during the Second World War. The Ulmas had seven children, including the unborn child in Wiktoria’s womb.
The Nazis, informed by a local policeman that Jews were being hidden in the household, came early in the morning March 24, 1944, right before Easter.
First, they killed all eight of the Jewish fugitives. Then they shot Wiktoria and Józef.
“Kids were watching as their parents and the Jewish people they cared for were being shot,” Mateusz Szpytma, vice president of Polish Institute of National Remembrance, told OSV News. He added that “after a short discussion among themselves,” the Nazi officers decided to shoot the children too.
The Vatican confirmed the martyrdom of the Ulma family, including their unborn child, on Dec. 17, 2022, clearing the way for all nine members of the Ulma family to be beatified. For the first time in history, an unborn child is on the path to sainthood.
“They were good people. The local community loved them very much,” Szpytma told OSV News of Józef and Wiktoria, who were local farmers in Markowa. “Józef was someone who would also bring new ideas to the local community, he would build the first wind-driven power station in the village and was the first one to have electricity in their house,” he added.
“He would have a collection of books that he would hand to other people to read, acting almost as a local librarian, he had two modern cameras with which he would take pictures of his family and local community,” Szpytma said.
Their family life was documented in a number of photographs taken by Józef. At the time of their death in 1944, the oldest, Stasia (Stanislawa) was 8; Barbara, 7; Wladyslaw, 6; Franciszek, 4; Antoni, 3; and Maria, under 2.
In 2016, the Museum of the Ulma Family, dedicated to the Poles who hid and protected Jews during the Nazi occupation, was opened in Markowa. Józef’s pictures are one of the most valuable parts of the exhibition.
“The remarkable family memorabilia is the Bible, opened to the parable of the good Samaritan,” Szpytma told OSV News. The museum also keeps Stasia’s blood-stained school notebook.
Szpytma was a founder of the museum and is himself a descendent of the Ulma family. He also was the one that discovered their story for the world.
“It was an obligation I had as a historian and as a family member — my grandmother was Wiktoria’s sister,” he said, adding that God helped him along the way to tell the story of the Polish martyrs.
In 1995, Israel gave the Ulmas the title of Righteous Among Nations, an honorific used by Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews. Their sainthood cause was begun in 2003. In the case of martyrs, the typical requirement of a miracle prior to beatification is waived, though one is required for canonization. Sources told OSV News their beatification will likely take place in the fall.
Regarding their recognition as martyrs, “There was a question about the child not being baptized but the notion throughout the process was that the little one was baptized not by water, but by blood,” Szpytma told OSV News. Sources in the village confirmed to historians that Wiktoria started to give birth to the seventh child upon her death.
“The land of the Ulmas has always been convinced that they are contemporary saints,” Niemczak told OSV News.
Poland was the only country in occupied Europe during the Second World War where the death penalty was imposed on anyone that decided to give shelter or in any way help Jews survive.
Six million Jews were exterminated by the German Nazi regime between 1939-45. Half of them died on the German-occupied Polish territory.
Despite the risk of the death penalty, an estimated 300,000 Polish people hid and helped Jews in their homes. Over 6,600 Poles hold the title of Righteous Among Nations. Around 1,000 Poles, including women and children, were executed for hiding and helping Jews.
There were 120 Jews in Markowa before the war. Twenty percent of the Jewish population of the town survived the war thanks to their mostly Catholic Polish neighbors. Twenty-nine Jews were helped and hidden by the inhabitants of the village; 21 of them survived.
The Szylar family were Ulma’s neighbors in Markowa. They hid the Weltz family, whose descendants still live in Brooklyn, New York, where they moved after the war.
Speaking to a group of students from Krakow, Eugeniusz Szylar said in 2016 that his father would repeat to the kids: “With God’s help, we will survive this.”
Szylar was 12 when the Ulmas were murdered. Szylar’s parents hid seven Jews for 18 months. Both families survived. He remembers the day the Ulmas were killed as the worst in his life.
“The Ulmas live in the dramatic time of history and they could be patron saints for people in such times, but also of big families,” Szpytma told OSV News.
“I’m proud of my teenage granddaughters. They come here willingly to help make the Ulma grave pretty,” Urszula Niemczak said.
“It’s important next generations remember about the Ulma family sacrifice, about Jews killed with them, so that we never forget that they all died because of lack of love in the hearts of the murderers.”
Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News.