Catholic Church Beatifies Polish Family that Defied Nazis to Save Jews

Posted on Tuesday, September 12, 2023
by Ben Solis

AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma with Seven Children
Józef and Wiktoria Ulma with Children were a Polish Catholic family in Markowa, Poland, during the Nazi German occupation in World War II who attempted to rescue Polish Jewish families by hiding them in their own home during the The Holocaust in Poland.

This weekend, in an unprecedented move, the Vatican beatified an entire Polish family, the Ulmas, who were executed by the Nazis during World War II for sheltering Jews. The beatification Mass in the village of Markowa was attended by more than 30,000 pilgrims, including Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The lives of the Ulma family are a testimony to the strength of Christian faith. Until the moment of their deaths at the hands of Nazi soldiers, they demonstrated Christ-like assistance to those in need, exemplifying the virtues of the Good Samaritan.

Prior to the German invasion of Poland that touched off World War II, the Ulmas were, by all accounts, an ordinary family. Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, parents to six young children, were farmers in Markowa, struggling to make ends meet in an economy rocked by more than a century of almost constant occupation by foreign countries.

Contrary to the characterization of some media outlets, the Ulmas were far from the uneducated or unsophisticated country folk stereotype. Jozef was a senior member of the People’s Party, which represented agricultural interests. He was also an amateur photographer, radio technician, beekeeper instructor, and recipient of many awards for his achievements in gardening. Wiktoria and Jozef were both active in a local chapter of the Catholic association and were friendly with their Jewish neighbors.

But their lives changed forever following the German offensive that began on September 1, 1939. The Nazi occupation of the country throughout the course of the war was “one of the most brutal anywhere in Europe,” according to Jewish historian Robert Wistrich. “From the first day, the Germans’ unjust laws intruded into all aspects of Polish life.”

One restriction imposed by the German occupiers banned all assistance to Jews as the Nazis began implementing the first steps of Hitler’s “final solution.” The purpose of this rule was to fracture the relationships of Jews with their Polish neighbors with whom they had lived side by side for centuries.

In 1941, Governor Hans Frank, appointed by Hitler to oversee the German occupation, issued a decree instituting the death penalty for anyone who provided Jews shelter, food, or water – the most severe such law in all of German-occupied territory.

The decree struck fear into the hearts of many Poles. But many others, like the Ulmas, took a courageous moral stance. At the time World War II broke out, there were just 4,500 people in Markowa, including about 120 Jews.

In 1942, the Germans commenced the deportation of Jews from Markowa to camps, while also killing many in the forests outside town. In a defining moment, the Ulma family decided to risk their lives to save their Jewish neighbors.

Jozef helped one family of eight build a hiding place outside the village. But when the threat of them being discovered grew greater, Jozef invited the family into the Ulma home. In their small house, they protected the Jewish family from certain death.

In their family Bible, the Ulmas had marked and re-marked the parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the family’s neighbors said that, for Jozef and Wiktoria, their heroic actions were motivated by Christ’s command for believers to “take up their cross and follow Me.”

The Ulmas’ neighbors, fearing that they might suffer retribution for not turning in the family, urged Jozef and Wiktoria to find another asylum for the Jews they were harboring. But the family refused.

After two years, the Ulmas were betrayed at dawn on March 24, 1944. German gendarmes shot the Jews hiding in the attic, then executed Jozef and Wiktoria in the street outside in front of their children. Wiktoria was seven months pregnant at the time, and a witness later said she “saw the baby’s head and chest” emerging as Wiktoria died.

The children were then executed as well. They were all buried unceremoniously in an unmarked pit.

According to the files from the post-war court trials of the German murderers, one of the executioners said, “Look at how those Polish pigs are dying – those who were hiding Jews.”

The slain Catholic Ulma family and at least 2,900 Jews in the same region in southeast Poland who survived the German occupation thanks to their Christian neighbors are evidence of the life-saving power of faith inspired by Pope Pius XII, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church at that time. His efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust, which started immediately after he learned about the Nazi plan, are unquestionable.

In addition, to their deeply held Christian beliefs, the Ulmas also studied the Papal encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge” (With Burning Thoughts) published in 1937 condemning Nazism. Although the work was promulgated by Pius XI, historical evidence has shown that it was co-written with then-Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pius XII. “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State… is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds,” it reads.

The story of the Ulmas is a testimony to the moral strength of families who have Christian faith as their foundation. Their beatification, which was initiated by Pope John Paul II, was intended to reflect the role of the family unit as a spiritual incubator. The Ulma parents lived according to God’s commands and then taught that perspective to their children. All had their faith tested, and all passed with the highest marks, even if their earthly lives ended in tragedy.

The power of the Christian family will be reflected in the Ulmas’ beatification picture, which will include both the six born children and Wiktoria’s yet unborn baby, symbolically ingrained without a face.

At a time when the very concept of the nuclear family is under attack in America today as the country sinks into moral confusion, the story of the Ulmas is more important than ever. Though thankfully most families do not face the sort of extreme choices that the Ulmas faced, we can continue to be inspired by their conviction and do our best to model their acts of faith.

Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.

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