Mateusz SZPYTMA: The fate of the Ulma family. And the the hidden Jewish families the Goldmans, the Didners and the Grünfelds Jews concealed by them

The fate of the Ulma family. And the the hidden Jewish families the Goldmans, the Didners and the Grünfelds Jews concealed by them

Photo of Mateusz SZPYTMA


Historian. Deputy President of the Institute of National Remembrance. Co-founder and a former director of the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa. Member of the Programme Board of the Jewish Historical Institute.

other articles by this author

It would be difficult to determine the Ulmas’ motives for inviting Jews into their home. With all certainty, the resonance would have had the commandments of the Jewish and Christian churches to love thy neighbour, to show compassion, and the clear awareness that refusing help would be tantamount to a death sentence for these people deprived by the German occupiers of all civic rights and the protection of the law.

.Józef Ulma was born in Markowa on 2 March 1900. Józef graduated from a four-grade elementary school, and in 1921 he was conscripted to military service. At the age of 29 he enrolled at an agricultural college, from which he graduated with excellent grades. Subsequently, Józef became a fervent propagator of vegetable and fruit growing, which at the time was still not as widespread as today. With less than a hectare of land at his disposal, he used half of it for setting up a fruit tree nursery, the first of its kind in Markowa. Józef was a pioneer not only in gardening but also in beekeeping and silkworm breeding.

However, Józef Ulma’s greatest passion was photography. Benefiting from knowledge gained from books and periodicals, he was able to build his own camera (later on, he became the owner of professional equipment), and thus became the author of thousands of photographs. Ulma portrayed through his photography the daily life of the village. Work in the fields, weddings, first communions and christenings as well as special events such as choral, orchestral and also theatrical performances. He received commissions, but many of the works he made depict his family. Józef Ulma took photographs on numerous occasions, frequently at work, and of himself. As a result, we knew both what he, and his life, looked like. The likenesses show a man with a determined personality, interested in the world and in its people.

The preserved books from Ulma’s private collection include among others: Drainage, Electrical Engineering. A Textbook, A Photography Textbook, The Use of Wind on the Farm, Radio Engineering for All, Nature and Technology, The Savages of Australia, Geographical Atlas, Dictionary of Foreign Words, and The Biblical Story of the Old and New Covenant. This variety of titles in his possession portrays the image of a man with horizons beyond those typical of agrarian daily life, spanning from topical knowledge of possible innovations to improve life and productivity on a farm, to information about other countries and cultures. The contents and knowledge were put to practical use, apart from a photo camera Józef also built bookbinding equipment, a radio set, and a small electric windmill for, i.a. charging an accumulator; consequently, he was the first person in the village to replace kerosene lamps with electricity, renewable electricity.

Józef Ulma also found time for social work. He became closely affiliated with two youth groups active in inter-war Markowa: initially, he was a member of the Catholic Youth Association, and then the Peasant Youth Union “Wici” within which he acted as a librarian and a photographer. For some time, Józef Ulma also fulfilled the function of head of the Markowa Dairy Cooperative.

At the age of 35 Józef married Wiktoria Niemczak, a woman 12 years his junior. Wiktoria was born in Markowa on 10 December 1912. This loving and compatible couple soon had numerous offspring. In just seven years Wiktoria gave birth to Stanisława (18 VII 1936), Barbara (6 X 1937), Władysław (5 XII 1938), Franciszek (3 IV 1940), Antoni (6 VI 1941) i Maria (16 IX 1942), and only the tragedy
of 1944 prevented them from having a seventh child. Wiktoria kept house and brought up the children. She also attended courses at the Peasants’ University in Gać.

* * *

The circumstances under which just how the eight Jews appeared in the Ulma household remain unclear. The arrivals included five men named Goldman, a father Saul and four sons: Baruch, Mechel, Joachim, Mojżesz all of them from nearby from Łańcut, as well as Layka, her sister Gołda Goldman, and a little girl named Reszla Layka’s daughter. The most probable time of their reception by Józef Ulma is the end of 1942. Józef was celebrated for his kindness towards the Jews he had already helped some to find shelter and assisted a family known as the “Ryfkas” to build a hiding place in the local ravines naturally created by streams.

Information about the Goldman family, whose members included the women staying with the Ulmas, is relatively extensive. The head of the family was Chaim, a prosperous Jew. Together with his wife, Estera, he owned a large farm of several hectares and also a small shop in Markowa. The Goldmans had at least four daughters: Lea Didner, who together with her husband and one or two children, lived with her parents. Gołda Grünfeld, also married, stayed in her parents’ home alone since her husband, a commercial agent, traveled all over Poland; presumably, the couple was childless.

The head of the Goldman house who was related to the Goldmans of Markowa was the 60-year-old Saul. He was well known in Markowa, where he frequently conducted various transactions.

It would be difficult to determine the Ulmas’ motives for inviting Jews into their home. With all certainty, the resonance would have had the commandments of the Jewish and Christian churches to love thy neighbour, to show compassion, and the clear awareness that refusing help would be tantamount to a death sentence for these people deprived by the German occupiers of all civic rights and the protection of the law. In 1942 the Ulmas had numerous opportunities to witness how the Germans shot the local Jews in an adjoining lot, the animal graveyard. Could there have been other grounds, such as financial gain, in view of the fact that the large Ulma family was poor unable to relocate to their new recently purchased with all their savings, larger land holding? It appears that the Goldmans however, did not arrive with much in the way of funds, since earlier they had entrusted their property to someone else who had promised to help them. Gołda Grünfeld and Lea Didner probably did provide some level of funds, which were then used for sustaining all the members of the household.

By keeping the Jews in hiding, the Ulmas could, however, have counted on the fact that the joint efforts of several adults in the prime of their life would make it easier to endure this difficult wartime period. We know that together with the assistance of the Jews Józef tanned animal hides, which he later sold to earn a living.

Despite the considerable distance between houses, the concealment of the Jews did not go unnoticed for long. The increasingly large amounts of food bought by Wiktoria, the number of tanned hides, and the frequent visits of persons who came to have their photographs taken for forged kenkartas soon revealed the secret. On the other hand, the definitive identity of the person who told the Germans about hiding Jews, that person’s motives and awareness of the tragic consequences also for the Polish family, remain an unresolved puzzle. Discovered although unfortunately incomplete documents have made it possible to reconstruct the circumstances of the tragedy, which transpired on 24 March 1944.

Before the war and even during its onset the Goldman family lived in Łańcut. Increasingly conscious of the looming “Final Solution” they started to look for a hiding place. Initially, they were promised shelter by Włodzimierz Leś, a police constable in Łańcut, born in Biała near Rzeszów. Leś lived in the suburbs of Łańcut, near the Goldmans, with whom he maintained close contacts before the war, and whom he now helped to go into hiding in return for material rewards. However, once Leś realized that the Germans not only threatened all those helping the Jews with the death penalty but actually carried out such punishment, the Goldman family was forced to seek safety elsewhere. They turned to their acquaintances in Markowa, the Ulmas, who welcomed them. Even so, the Goldmans insisted that Leś continue helping them in return for the considerable part of their property they had left behind in his hands. Since for quite some time he refused to conform to their demands, they also tried to retrieve their belongings either by taking them back or by exchanging them for other possessions belonging to Leś. Precise documentation prepared at the time by the Polish Underground’s Peasant Security Guard suggest that fearing the loss of his Jewish spoils, Leś betrayed the Goldman’s hiding place to his colleagues from the German gendarmerie. He could have learned about the location of the shelter from the Jews themselves, with whom he still had good relations, or from informers. He could have achieved absolute certainty when he decided to visit Józef Ulma and have a photograph taken by him.

* * *

The course of the crime was determined upon the basis of verified court and investigation documents, preserved from the trial of Josef Kokott, one of the bloodier perpetrators. The court acts include a protocol with the interrogation of an eyewitness, the horse cart driver, Edward Nawojski, who transported the gendarmes to Markowa.

The Nawojski account reports that just after midnight on 23/24 March at least eight or nine functionaries: some five gendarmes and four to six Blue Police members, left Łańcut. Lieutenant Eilert Dieken, the commander of the outpost in Łańcut, led this group. Among the other gendarmes were Gustav Unbehend, Josef Kokott, Michael Dziewulski and Erich Wilde. The two identified policemen were Włodzimierz Leś and Eustachy Kolman.

The carts reached the buildings belonging to Józef Ulma before sunrise. The German gendarmes left the drivers and the horses at a slight distance from the dwelling and escorted by the Polish Blue police, approached the house. Soon several shots could be heard. The first victims, killed in their sleep, were the two Goldman brothers and Gołda Grünfeld. The remaining executions were witnessed by the drivers, specifically summoned by the Germans to see the sort of punishment to be meted to every Pole for hiding Jews. Nawojski recounts the murder of one of the Goldman men, followed by the deaths of Lea Didner and a small child, another male member of the Goldman family and, finally, the Saul Goldman. A while later Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were shot in front of their house. A witness recalled: “During the execution we could hear terrible shouts, wailing, and the children calling out for their parents who had been already killed. All this produced a shocking sight”. The gendarmes began deliberating what to do with the desperately crying children. After conferring with his colleagues, Lieutenant Dieken decided to shoot the children. Nawojski saw Kokott single-handedly killing three or four of them before he spoke with Nawojski and the others. That gendarme’s words, addressed to the Polish drivers, left a deep imprint on their memory: “See how Polish pigs die for concealing the Jews”. The victims were Stasia, Basia, Władzio, Franuś, Antoś, and Marysia. In several minutes 17 persons had perished at the hands of their executioners.

Teofil Kielar, the earlier summoned sołtys (mayor), arrived when the last victims were being killed. Acting in accordance with an order issued by the Germans, he brought with him several persons to bury the bodies. Since Kielar knew Dieken the head of the penal expedition from the latter’s frequent inspections in Markowa, he asked about the reason for shooting the children, and heard that the objective was the welfare of the inhabitants of Markowa: “So that they would have no further problems”.

Having committed the crime, the Germans now began to pillage the property. Kokott turned to Franciszek Szylar, one of the men ordered to dig a grave, telling him to thoroughly search the murdered Jews, while he watched and shone a flashlight. When he noticed a box, concealed on Gołda Grünfeld’s chest the one containing valuables, he declared: “This is what I needed” and put it in his pocket. Other Germans were busy plundering the Ulma property. They requisitioned coffers, mattresses, beds, some of the better vessels, and large supplies of tanned hides. Since all the loot did not fit into the carts from Łańcut, the Germans demanded that two additional ones be supplied from Markowa. The residents of Markowa, acting under coercion, were then ordered to dig a large hole in the ground.

While the graves were being made, Dieken, in the company of one of the gendarmes, went to the Blue Police station in Markowa, just several hundred meters away, where he reprimanded the chief of police for having permitted the presence of the Jews.

Despite a strict prohibition issued by the Germans, a week later five family members and friends of the Ulmas opened their grave, laid the bodies into coffins, and reburied them under the cover of the night. One of them stated: “Placing the body of Wiktoria Ulma into a coffin I discovered that she was pregnant. I base my finding on the fact that the infant child’s head and chest were protruding from her vagina”. Despite the death of its parents this, the youngest member of the Ulma family, now trapped in the womb of its dead mother, did not give up in its struggle for survival.

.Soon afterwards, in January 1945,  the Germans were driven out from Markowa by the advancing Soviet Red Army, the bodies of the Ulma family were then transferred to the local cemetery. Two years later, in October 1947, the bodies of the Jews were exhumed and reburied in the cemetery for victims of war in Jagiełła-Niechciałki.

Mateusz Szpytma

Excerpt from the book, The Righteous and the Merciful, ed. IPN [LINK]

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 08/09/2023