Martyna GRĄDZKA-REJAK: Not just the Ulmas

Not just the Ulmas

Photo of Martyna GRĄDZKA-REJAK


Historian associated with the Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance.


other articles by this author

The Institute of National Remembrance has been conducting extensive archival research since 2009 for the project ‘Register of Facts of Repression against Polish Citizens for Aiding Jews in Occupied Polish Territory’

.The March 1944 massacre of the Ulma family from Markowa and the Jews they sheltered on their farm has become a symbol of the German oppression of Poles who helped Jewish people during World War II. Józef, Wiktoria and their children paid the highest price for their altruistic choice. This was but one of the many similar executions the Germans conducted in the General Governorate. The project ‘Register of Facts of Repression against Polish Citizens for Aiding Jews in Occupied Polish Territory’(abbreviated as ‘Index’) documents the experiences of the people who were punished for their acts of help. So far, sources have confirmed almost 560 cases of various forms of repression by the Germans against more than 1150 people.

The German plans for the Polish territories seized in September 1939 outlined special measures for the General Government (GG). It was to become a colony of the German state and a reservoir of cheap labour. The installing authorities resorted to terror and intimidation to ensure obedience. From the very first weeks of the war, the occupying forces began the extermination of the Polish intelligentsia and leadership (Operation AB and Intelligenzaktion). The elimination of the intellectual elite was intended to naturally culminate in the denationalisation of Poles.

After the establishment of the General Government, the Germans proceeded to introduce anti-Jewish ordinances. Successive laws regulated almost every aspect of Jewish life. They were deprived of their property, businesses and workshops, as well as their civil rights, freedom of worship and the right to education. A decree passed in December 1939 mandated Jews to wear armbands bearing the Star of David, which effectively stigmatised them and set them apart from the rest of society. Over time, they were confined to forced labour camps and isolated in ghettos. Alongside these measures, the Germans devised a propaganda campaign that exploited existing stereotypes to heighten animosity between Poles and Jews and to garner public approval for their actions.

In the spring of 1942, German policy towards the Jewish population of the GG entered a new phase, and mass deportations to death camps began. Operation Reinhardt was designed to exterminate all Jews still living in the GG.

The Germans efficiently and swiftly conducted the liquidation operations in multiple towns and cities across different districts. In response, Jews adopted a range of attitudes and strategies to ensure their survival. Some of them complied with the regulations and reported to the assembly points, from where they were then dispatched to the transport vehicles. A small percentage of ghetto residents who managed to escape deportation chose to seek shelter on the so-called Aryan side. Some had done their reconnaissance beforehand, while others narrowly escaped deportation. Still others jumped from speeding trains and, if successful, sought safety in unfamiliar surroundings.

The non-Jewish population had to choose how to respond to those seeking rescue from the Holocaust. Some people, usually aware of the consequences, decided to help the refugees, either temporarily or for a longer period. Others, for various reasons, did nothing at all; instead of reacting, they chose to ignore the problem and look away from those seeking help. Some sympathised with the Jewish population but took no action to help them. They were also people who found joy or satisfaction in the removal of Jews from cities and towns. Some even turned refugees and those helping them over to the authorities. They did so either of their own volition or were tempted by the ‘rewards’ promised by the Germans, such as money or rations of sugar. There were also individuals who, under various circumstances, carried out killings on their own farms, targeting those who were either hiding on their premises or outside, for example, in the nearby forests. They did so either to attain valuable goods or possessions or out of fear of the possible consequences of having helped these refugees earlier. The range of human attitudes and behaviours was extensive and influenced by various factors, such as individual traits or circumstances. Moreover, people did not always maintain a once-adopted stance. By analysing the source material, it is possible to trace the various motivations and backgrounds of those events. It is often a study of the nature and behaviour of a person in a borderline situation that defies clichés and generalisations. Two opposing attitudes are most often analysed and discussed: active assistance and active cooperation in the capture, extortion or murder of Jews.

One issue related to Polish-Jewish relations during the Second World War has not been addressed in depth by historians for many years – the consequences of aiding the Jews. In certain regions of occupied Europe, the Germans used the death penalty as the most severe punishment for those involved in such activities. The Holocaust researchers established that the General Government was the area where this specific type of punishment was introduced. In accordance with the Third Decree of General Governor Hans Frank issued on October 15, 1941, harbouring Jews was punishable by death in this region. This is probably also where this punishment was most often carried out. The death penalty for aiding Jews was also applied in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, the Reichskommissariat Ost and Serbia. Other forms of repression used by the Germans included criminal, civil and administrative sanctions, imprisonment, beatings, psychological abuse and the confiscation, damage or destruction of property.

Thus far, researchers have primarily focused on one group of victims affected by these actions, namely those killed for aiding Jews. Szymon Datner, a Holocaust survivor from the Jewish Historical Institute, was the first to describe this issue. In his publication Las sprawiedliwych, he included 343 names of Poles murdered for helping Jews. He conducted his research in the 1960s. Twenty years later, prosecutor Wacław Bielawski, an employee of the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, significantly expanded this list. In 1981, Bielawski published the first results of his findings. In 1987, in the second edition of the book, he documented 872 names and 1,400 unnamed individuals. Today, we have a much broader knowledge of these people’s stories and the different ways they were repressed. The Institute of National Remembrance has been conducting extensive archival research since 2009 for the Index project.

The aim of this work is to identify the names of Polish citizens of various nationalities, not covered by the Nuremberg legislation, who lived in the territory of occupied Poland during the Second World War and faced repression for helping Jews.

Based on the research conducted so far, there was no clear rule for enforcing the ordinance. Sometimes all families were executed, other times only the adults and in some cases only one parent. In some instances, other punishments were imposed, such as deportation to a labour or concentration camp, detention, beatings or confiscation of property. The available documentation on oppressed individuals, including both published and pending notes, indicates that an alternative measure was more frequently used than the immediate death penalty.

The information collected as part of the ‘Index’ project also provides insight into the fate of the Jews in hiding. Often, however, it is difficult to establish their complete personal information – they remain identified solely by their first or last name, with many being entirely anonymous. In addition, the documentation reveals a broad spectrum of attitudes of local communities towards Jews seeking refuge. In many cases, the repressive measures were taken as a result of denunciations by other persons (Poles or representatives of other ethnic groups), but the identities of the informants and their motives remain largely unknown. There were even some instances where the person receiving aid has denounced the helpers, deceived by the promise of saving his or her own life.

One of the largest executions of Polish families aiding Jews in the General Government was carried out at the end of January 1943 in the villages of Wierzbica and Wolica in the then Miechów district. 15 Poles and at least five Jews were murdered in this one operation. Most of them are known only by their surnames, if at all. It is important to view this in a larger context. In 1941, the Germans set about creating a ghetto in Miechów, ordering Jews from the surrounding villages to move there. Rather than comply, a number of Jews, including the Wandersman family, decided to stay in the village and wait for this phase to pass. Some of them found shelter with the family of Jan and Władysława Gądek. Others moved around the area, aided by various residents. They stayed in the nearby woods until autumn and sought refuge in the farms owned by the Kucharskis, Książeks and Nowaks during the winter months. For fear of being denounced to the Germans, everyone involved kept their actions completely secret from neighbours and outsiders.

It is unclear how this was eventually discovered. Most likely, one of the Jews hiding with the Kucharski family left the shelter in January 1943, encountered a search party and was arrested. Panic broke out in the Kucharskis’ house. The family dreaded the repercussions. Other helpers were also filled with fear.

On Friday, January 29, 1943, a week after the incident, when the tension was beginning to subside, a punitive expedition of German police officers and the so-called Blue Police from the Miechów station arrived in the villages of Wierzbica and Wolica. They were accompanied by Paweł Wandersman, the captured Jew who had been sheltered with the Kucharskis in Wierzbica. He knew all the hiding places of his family members. In exchange for revealing them, the gendarmes promised to spare his life and the lives of those in hiding.

The operation began at the Gądek farm. The spouses, Jan and Władysława, were shot along with the wife’s mother, Balbina Bielawska, who was currently at the house. In Wierzbica, a punitive expedition arrived at the home of the Książek family and shot the parents, two teenage sons and the captured Jews. Nowak and his five-year-old daughter were murdered next. The Germans then moved on to the Kucharski family home, where Izydor and Anna Kucharski lived with their five children and Anna’s mother, Julianna Ostrowska. The gendarmes took them all out into the yard and shot them. Not even the children were spared. Bronisław (one of the children) and Izydor Kucharski survived the execution. Both of them were hit but neither suffered a fatal wound, which the gendarmes failed to realise. The news of that day’s events spread quickly throughout the area, intensifying fear within the local communities.

Another demonstration execution was carried out by the Germans on March 15, 1943, in Siedliska near Miechów. Wincenty and Łucja Baranek, along with their sons Henryk and Tadeusz, were murdered on that day. The Jews of the Gottfried family, who were hiding on their farm, were also killed. The execution was carried out before the eyes of the local community to scare them. Wincenty Baranek had decided to shelter Jews at the request of Bronisław Falencki, a Home Army soldier and employee of the Miechów court. And it was likely because of him that this act was revealed.

On the day of the execution, at around five o’clock in the morning, a unit of the Sonderdienst members (German auxiliary police) arrived at the Baranek farm. The male villagers, including the village leader, were forced to join in. They were ordered to search the buildings and the whole area of the Baranek estate. The raid uncovered a Jew hideout between the family house and the pigsty. The Germans killed the hiding men on the spot.

Wincenty Baranek and his wife Lucja were shot in the barn. Their sons (aged 10 and 12) were also murdered there. While walking to the execution site, the boys held hands. The gathered villagers could not hold back their tears. According to witnesses, the boys were told to kneel and were shot in the backs of their heads.

The Germans commanded the burial of the Jews’ bodies close to the barn. They allowed the villagers to lay the Baranek family to rest in Miechów’s parish cemetery but prohibited any formal funeral.

The occupied Polish territories incorporated into the Reich were also subject to repression. In August 1943, the Germans liquidated the ghettos in Będzin and Sosnowiec, deporting most of the Jews to Auschwitz. Those who hid in the prepared bunkers survived the operation. One of the people who helped get the Jews out of the ghettos was a resident of Michałkowice, Roman Kołodziej. He escorted them to shelters set up mainly in towns in Upper Silesia. He paid for this with his life – he was shot on January 2, 1944, during one of such missions.

The largest hideout of the Będzin Jews was the house of the Kobylec family in Michalkowice. Over time, a bunker was built there, under the kitchen floor. The camouflaged entrance was concealed beneath the bed. The shelter was ventilated and equipped with electric lights, sleeping bunks and a signalling system to alert the refugees that someone was entering the house. Between autumn 1943 and January 1944, approximately 70 Jews found refuge in the Kobylec’s flat, including Fela Katz, Shmuel Ron and Chajka Klinger, who were part of the Jewish resistance. Last year, Karolina Kobylec, Mieczysław’s mother, said: “All the pain I endured, all the terror I felt. This bunker was there for two years. […] And we had to beware of other people’s prying eyes. […]. With time, I got used to living in constant fear”.

Mieczysław Kobylec also helped smuggle those who were hiding with them to Slovakia. Using forged documents, he rented rooms from highlanders and relocated Jews from the bunker to them. By January 1944, about 15 such transitions had taken place. The last crossing was carried out on January 10, 1944. While changing trains from Żywiec to Jeleśnia, the refugees were caught by the Gestapo, probably as a result of denunciation. The guides were arrested and released after a few days, but Mieczysław Kobylec was sent to Auschwitz and then transferred to Gross-Rosen, where he was liberated on May 5, 1945.

.The fate of the Ulma family, introduced at the beginning of this article, is exceptional for various reasons. One of the elements that stand out in their story is the surviving source documentation. Józef Ulma was a passionate photographer, hence, their family archive contains many photographs of him, his wife and their children. As local activists, the Ulma spouses were also recognisable. Trying to get a glimpse of their lives during the occupation, we can immerse ourselves in people’s memories of them, see their faces and observe, so to speak, what their daily routines were like. Most of the other stories of the repressed do not have such a variety of source material, including iconography. The efforts to reconstruct and estimate the fate of all these people and recall their names are, therefore, all the more valuable. Verified and source-confirmed stories of individuals and whole families repressed for aiding Jews can be found in the publication Repressions for Helping Jews on Occupied Polish Lands During World War II, published in Polish and English. The second volume of this publication will be available in print soon. To remind us of these ‘silent heroes’, the Institute of National Remembrance has just realised the first stage of the popularisation film series Not Just the Ulmas. The project led to the creation of online short films that portray the selected individuals’ stories.

Martyna Grądzka – Rejak

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