1944: in a year of atrocities, March 24 was an unremarkable day. In Rome, 335 civilians and political prisoners died in the Ardeatine massacre. A few thousand more were probably gassed in death camps. The murder of 17 people – eight Jews and a Polish family of nine in the small village of Markowa – was just a drop of blood in an ocean of savagery.
However, this particular event is being memorialised as a triumph of human nobility and Christian holiness. On September 10 the Catholic Church will beatify the whole Ulma family. The father and mother, Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, had already been included in Israel’s Vad Yeshem memorial of the “Righteous among the Nations” for protecting Jewish neighbours at the cost of their own lives.
It is the first time that the Catholic Church has officially recognised the holiness of a whole family: Jozef and Wiktoria, 8-year-old Stanisława, 6-year-old Barbara, 5-year-old Wladysław, 4-year-old Franciszek, 3-year-old Antoni, 1½ -year-old Maria and the unnamed child in Wiktoria’s womb.
The Ulma family
What little we know about their deaths is well-documented.
After the Nazis invaded Poland, helping a Jew was punishable with death, a policy which was enforced ruthlessly.
About 4500 people lived in Markowa, 120 of them Jews. The Ulma family lived on a small farm on the outskirts of the town. Jozef was a well-known local figure. He was a progressive farmer who kept bees and bred silkworms. He was also a photographer whose evocative images give some idea of life at that time. He was also the first in Markowa to have electricity, having built a windmill to power light globes. He and his wife were deeply religious.
In the summer of 1942, a number of local Jews were shot in Markowa. Some of the survivors asked Jozef to hide them – a man called Szall with his four sons, and Layka and Gołda Goldman, and a little girl, probably Layka’s daughter. The refugees lived in the attic and helped with the farm work.