Postulator opens up about Ulma family ahead of beatification

6 mins read
Postulator Ulma family
Father Witold Burda, postulator of the Ulma family's canonization cause, speaks at the conference "The Ulma family - testimony and heritage" in Warsaw, Poland, June 28, 2023. (OSV News photo/Slawomir Kasper, courtesy Institute of National Remembrance)

(OSV News) — For Father Witold Burda, the postulator of the canonization cause of the Ulma family, the last six years of his life have been a unique journey. In a conversation with OSV News, Father Burda shares the joys and challenges leading to the Sept. 10 beatification of these Polish martyrs in Markowa, Poland, the family’s home village. The process in many aspects has been unprecedented: For the first time in Church history, a child born during the murder of the mother will be beatified, along with the child’s six siblings and parents, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma. The interview was conducted in Polish and translated into English. It has been edited for clarity and length.

OSV News: Father, what has it been like to work on such a unique beatification process?

Father Witold Burda: Actually, I can’t really describe it. It is a mix of joy and gladness. There is also gratitude. There is also the feeling of bestowal. I feel that I am endowed with such an opportunity, a chance, the grace of meeting the Ulma family every day, talking to them, staying with them and learning about the beauty of their lives in such ordinary everyday life. Because this is such a special feature of their path to holiness, to later, to the pinnacle of holiness.

Risking the simple life

OSV News: What have you learned about the Ulma family during this process, which started in 2017? What surprised you?

Father Burda: It is the way they experienced their daily life. They were immersed in everyday life. They were not looking for some other reality, not running away from the world, but instead immersed in it. Through such a way of life, they all the more discovered the beauty and depth of their everyday life. I think of what kind of parents they were, how they loved their children in such a mature, responsible, beautiful way, how they raised them … in this very difficult period of World War II.

Wiktoria and Józef Ulma are pictured with three of their children in a photo taken in the village of Markowa, Poland, in 1939. Before World War II, the Ulmas wanted to move away from Markowa and this photo was taken before they planned to leave. On Sept. 1, 1939, the war broke out and the couple decided to stay in the village. (OSV News photo/courtesy Institute of National Remembrance)

It is sometimes said that they behaved downright irresponsibly by taking in all these Jews. After all, they risked their lives, the lives of their children. And Wiktoria was soon expecting the birth of this next, seventh child. Well, it’s precisely the opposite. In their lives you can see a deep desire to live. They very much wanted to live … constantly discovering the Lord God, the beauty of everyday life, the beauty of life.

And in this, I would like to emphasize three things. First of all, it is their kindness. Let’s look at the fact that each of us feels so comfortable with people we know to be good. We don’t have to describe them at all, we don’t have to explain, we don’t have to justify that we think this person is good. We just know that they are good, and we are so eager to spend time with them.

The Ulmas’ kindness is such an extremely endearing quality, but what makes it all the more endearing is that true kindness is also humble. She doesn’t make a noise around herself. A person is good because it is simply worth being a good person, because it is goodness that sculpts me, transforms me, shapes me. And I naturally share this goodness. Without imposing, without making some kind of publicity around myself. And finally, complementing these two qualities is selflessness. This is something absolutely unique. They did not seek retribution, they did not seek praise.

Their house was always open. I like to imagine knocking on their door. And the closer I get, the more I hear those children there. Laughter. The joy, a house full of life. And then there is this one aspect of the presence of one person who is absolutely special. This is Wiktoria. Always so very warm, as witnesses to her life recall. A gentle woman, very sensitive, very available. In a way, I love spending time with her. And then Józef, very serious in some of the photos, but at the same time a man with a kind sense of humor. But also never pushy, not imposing. As they made this decision to hide Jews, they made it together. No one forced it on anyone; they supported each other in this decision together.

A family of Samaritans

OSV News: It was a dramatic decision knowing they risked the lives of their children, yes?

Father Burda: Indeed — we have a family, we have such modest conditions and this rampant terror on the part of the German occupier with all the consequences associated with any help given to the Jews. And we also have one single motivation, that is flowing from faith in Christ and Christian love of neighbor. This is the answer and this is this true spiritual code of the Ulma family: a deep, living faith; a commitment to the Word of God. There are two underlined verses in the Bible found in their home, and they’re under the title of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is necessary to speak out about it and even more so about the fact that there is the word “yes” added in pencil next to it. We want to live this way. We want to follow this, this logic, the logic of mercy. We want, like this Samaritan, to stand precisely on the side of those who are denied the right to life by others. At the time human hatred won. But today, with amazement, with humility, we discover that nevertheless love is stronger than hate.

A baby martyr

OSV News: What do we know about the seventh baby of the Ulma family?

Father Burda: We don’t know the gender of the child. It was impossible to determine it during the exhumation (March 30-April 1, 2023). What we know is the account of the witnesses from the time of the murder. Several minutes after the execution, the Germans called Teofil Kielar, the leader of the village, to the place of the execution. His testimony is that when he arrived at the place of execution, he was most shocked by the sight of the executed children. He said he saw visibly that Wiktoria is pregnant. The second account is about four to five days after the execution, when, despite the strict prohibition of the Germans, relatives and friends of the Ulmas arrived at the execution site and brought four wooden coffins and one of them testified that “when we pulled out the body of Wiktoria, I became convinced that she was pregnant. I base my claim on the fact that from her reproductive organs protruded the head and breast of the baby.”

Wiktoria Ulma (holding a child) stands with her six children in front of their house in Markowa, Poland, in this undated photo. (The identity of the woman standing next to Wiktoria is not known.) The Ulma family and Jews they were sheltering were murdered by the Germans March 24, 1944, when the Nazi occupiers were informed that Jews are sheltered in their home. Wiktoria and her husband, Józef, their seven children (including the couple’s unborn baby) will be beatified Sept. 10, 2023, in Markowa. (OSV News photo/courtesy Institute of National Remembrance)

And let’s look at the fact that this is a child who was not even given the opportunity to say a single word. At the end of November 2018, when we were opening an exhibition at the (Pontifical) Urbaniana University in Rome, retired prefect of the Congregation of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Amato, told our archbishop poignantly described: “Look, this baby wanted to come to this world so much and had a right to it.”

We don’t know exactly whether labor started already in execution or maybe, as medicine says, it was a so-called coffin birth, that is, already after the death of the mother. The baby was trying to come into the world. And indeed these are such very moving details. And the first thing, and absolutely fundamental, is that the Church clearly, once again, bears witness to the defense of human dignity — the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception until natural death.

Another further argument (for the beatification of the seventh baby) is that of blood baptism. There is no shadow of a doubt that this child would also have been baptized for sure. Józef and Wiktoria were so concerned about this, about the transmission of faith.

During the exhumation, (the Church experts and the archbishop) unanimously stressed that it is necessary to lean in such deep reflection on the truth also about the martyrdom of this baby. And this mystery, which we will not know here in our lifetime, should also prompt us to even deeper reflection on the mystery and sanctity of life.

Paulina Guzik

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @Guzik_Paulina.