On October 12, 1939, Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland, issued a proclamation that all Poles caught assisting Jews would be summarily executed.
Poland’s Institute of National Memory (IPN) estimates that about one million Poles participated in saving Jews during the period of the Nazi occupation. For offering shelter to persons of Jewish nationality, tens of thousands of Poles were murdered by SS units in the most bestial manner. The main motive for such a heroic attitude was the Gospel’s call for love of neighbor. The Ulms were one of many families that took this call seriously.
A village like many others in Poland
Joseph Ulm was born and lived his entire forty-four years in Markowa, a village in the district of Przeworsk, located in the scenic, tradition-steeped territories of Przemysl. His photograph shows a man with handsome features that tell of years of hard work and privation. Raised on a meager three-hectare farm, Joseph had to strike out on his own for a better life. He finished four years of rural school and then, being a good student, went on for training at an agricultural college. He was intelligent, inventive, and enterprising. On his farm he brought in many innovations. He busied himself with nursery cultivation, raising silkworms, and received many prizes at agricultural shows. In addition, he was active in the community and took part in religious organizations for the youth. Always he was ready and willing to help his neighbors.
At the age of thirty-five, he married Victoria Niemczak, and together they raised a large, immensely loving family. Joseph was a gifted handyman. He built his own camera, thanks to which we have today a collection of photographs of his wife and their six children: Stanislawa, Barbara, Wladyslaw, Francis, Anthony, and Mary. From their round, healthy little faces we can see that the children were well cared for and raised in a warm and loving atmosphere. Thanks to the parents’ thrift and industry, the Ulms’ fortunes improved to the point that Joseph, mindful of the growing needs of his family, was able to purchase a larger, five-hectare farm in Wojslawice in the fertile Sokal valley. The family was just preparing to move there when World War II broke out.
The Nazi occupation of the Przeworsk district was no different than in other parts of the General Government. In the countryside this meant the hardships of severe rationing, constant control and inspection of farms, the prohibition of trade in farm products, the transportation of young people to Germany for forced labor, the recruitment of men for construction work (so-called baudienst) and “work beyond the San River” (i.e. labor serving the eastern front), roundups, terror, and summary executions for the slightest offenses. The Markowa region was the scene of numerous actions by underground units of the Home Army and Peasant Battalions.
“Jews for breakfast, Poles for supper”
The occupying forces also wasted no time in preparing for the extermination of the Jews. At first they were required to wear armbands bearing the Star of David. Then they were forced to perform all manner of menial and degrading labor without compensation. From 1941 on, they were forbidden to leave their place of residence. Before long, Jewish districts called “ghettoes” were created in the towns and cities. It was then that many Jewish families, fearing for their lives, began to leave the towns in the hope of finding shelter in the countryside. In July of 1942, the Nazis began systematically to “hunt out” the Jews. All Jews found outside the ghettoes were summarily shot. Markowa was not spared these hunts, for there were several Jewish families living in the village. In the summer of 1942, German police began arresting them. The writing on the wall was plain to see and all those who could, fled. Bidding her Polish neighbors goodbye, one Jewish woman, sensing the common fate they faced in the light of the Nazi appetite for extermination, said, “Us for breakfast, Poles for supper!”
Most fled into the forest, hiding in the thickets and ravines, which the local folk called “cataracts.” In just such a “cataract,” Joseph Ulm excavated a “dugout”—a shelter for a Jewish family by the name of “Ryfko.” Some Jewish families found shelter in Polish homes and homesteads. We know for certain that in Markowa seventeen Jews survived the Holocaust, although it is probable that this does not represent the full number.
No one knows exactly when Joseph and his wife Victoria took into their home two Jewish families, the Szalls and Goldmans (eight people in all). Most probably they lived in the attic. Their hosts would take no compensation. All the costs were borne by Joseph himself. The Jews helped the Ulms out, but only in those jobs that could be carried out in hiding, for example, tanning hides. With these hides Joseph was able to supplement his income. His three-hectare farm had to feed sixteen people. This required no little effort, but, as Victoria’s nephew, Stanislaw Niemczak, recalls, the Ulms “were Catholics not only in name but also in deed. Their whole life testified to their devotion to Christ. Despite enormous material hardships, they raised six children and never once considered giving them up. Despite the family’s poverty, the children were well cared for and never went hungry….They were able to muster the heroism to sacrifice the whole family in order to save others, thus attesting to their love of neighbor and their Christian values.”
Joseph Ulm was not naive. He was sober of mind and knew well that he was exposing himself and his whole family to danger, since in the General Government any form of assistance rendered to the Jews by the Poles was punishable by death; and the executions would be carried out mercilessly—to keep the rest of the population in line. To some extent, Ulm counted on the remoteness of his house from the other homesteads of Markowa, and also on the solidarity of his neighbors, who could not help but notice that the Ulms were not alone in their house.
March 24, 1944
To this day, despite the wealth of documentation on the wartime fate of Markowa, we do not know how and by whom the Ulms were denounced. An account by Matthew Szpytma, a member of one of the Jewish families in hiding, may offer some clues. “Before the war, and in its early days, the Szalls lived in the neighboring county town of Lancut. Anticipating the “final solution of the Jewish question,” they began to seek a hiding place. A police constable in Lancut, a man of Ukrainian origin named Alexander Les, promised to provide them refuge. In return they were to hand over to him their home and field. Shortly after the transaction, he drove them away. They went to Markowa and found shelter at the home of the Ulms. As the German occupation was nearing its inexorable end, Les realized that he might forfeit his stolen property. Consequently, he decided to make sure they never returned. It would not have been hard to find out where they were staying. Apparently, on learning that the Szalls were probably staying with the Ulms, he went to Markowa and, under the pretext of taking photographs, gained access to their house—to verify the information he had received.”
Spring had just begun. The end of the war was in sight. The eastern front was drawing near and Germans were stepping up their repression of the Polish population. The police headquarters in Lancut decided to liquidate the Jewish shelter at the Ulm house in Markowa. Euler Diken led the action.
The raid took place very early in the morning of March 24, 1944. Four Polish farmers were forced to accompany the police in their wagons to transport the goods of the Jews concealed in the house. Earlier, the Germans had ordered the village elder and several other villagers to dig a grave.
The German police broke into the still sleeping house and shot the hosts and their guests. (Victoria was expecting her seventh child any day). “I remember that night,” recounts a Markowa resident. “I did not see it, but I heard it. The most terrifying thing was when they shot the parents. No doubt the whole village heard it—and I hear it to this very day. The screams and cries of the children growing quieter and quieter. Yes, with every shot the sounds grew quieter, for one more voice had been stilled. Until finally all was silent.”
The executioners wanted their deed to serve as an example to all. “See how Polish swine die for offering shelter to the Jews!” said one of the gendarmes to the wagon drivers. After being summoned to the scene, the village elder asked the commanding officer why they had murdered the children. The officer cynically replied, “To save you the trouble of caring for them.”
Then the plundering began, starting with the goods of the murdered Jews. One of the henchmen found a box of valuables by the body of Golda Goldman. “Just what I wanted,” he said, thrusting it in his pocket. They also helped themselves to whatever they could of the Ulms’ belongings. Meanwhile, the bodies of the Ulms were buried along with those whom they had sought so hard to save. The murdering and plundering now over, there followed a wild drinking spree.
“There is no greater love…”
What was the good of the Ulms’ sacrifice, since they not only failed to save those whom they had sheltered, but also brought death upon themselves and their children? “In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction.” So says the Book of Wisdom (3:2-3). “Like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them” (Wisdom 3:6).
How much love and sacrifice must have been required of all involved—both the host family and those in hiding—during those months or years of living together under such harrowing conditions, in constant fear, yet constantly entrusting themselves to God! Unless prayer and trust had been present, there is no imagining it. How their characters must have grown! How much mutual kindness, patience, and understanding would have been needed to bear such hardship. How much vigilance and responsibility Joseph must have borne every day. How much hard work, solicitude, and trust must have been demanded of the pregnant Victoria in order to feed a household of sixteen people with the stores of their meager farm. In such an atmosphere the children must have matured beyond their years.
No doubt they all matured. The witness and example of the parents must have infected the others. Since God willed that all should be united not only in life but also in death, excepting no one, not even the children, we may see in this a sign of some mystical solidarity of fate, a holocaust offered up to heaven and accepted by God, for He desired to draw them to his paternal bosom all at once—in the same hour. “They are at peace,” the Book of Wisdom tells us (3:3).
But neither have they been forgotten on earth. In 1995, the Israeli Institute for the Remembrance of the Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, posthumously awarded Joseph and Victoria Ulm the medal of the “Righteous Ones among the Nations of the World.” In 2003 began the process of beatification of the entire Ulm family. On March 24, 2004, the sixtieth anniversary of their martyrdom, Markowa saw the unveiling of a monument to their honor.
The witness of the Ulm family represents not only a meritorious page in the history of Markowa, of the territories of Przemysl—of Poland; it is also a living witness that speaks to us all, now and everywhere. By their sacrifice they brought forgiveness to the Judas that gave them away (alas, there were too many Judases elsewhere—of all nationalities!) and the executioners who showed so much cruelty and cynicism. But, above all, their sacrifice teaches us to be heroically open to the needs of others—be they a newly conceived child, a neighbor threatened by evil, or a needy stranger knocking at our door.
It is not every day that God demands such a measure of sacrifice from us, but we never know what the future may hold; in the meantime, we must train ourselves in smaller sacrifices, for heroism does not come out of thin air. We must grow into it, throughout our youth, throughout the challenging years of our adulthood; indeed, throughout our whole life by remaining close to God and placing our trust in Him.
M. Szpytma, “Zydzi i ofiara rodziny Ulmow z Markowej podczas okupacji niemieckiej, “ in Gmina Markowa, vol. 2, Markowa, 2004, p. 35; M. Szpytma, J. Szark, Sprawiedliwi wsrod narodow swiata, Krakow, 2007.