Monika KRAWCZYK: The Ulmas could have 18 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren. So could the Goldmans, to whom they gave shelter

The Ulmas could have 18 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren. So could the Goldmans, to whom they gave shelter

Photo of Monika KRAWCZYK


Director of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute. From 2004 to 2019, she was the Managing Director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. She has run several projects on Polish-Jewish relations and the protection of Jewish heritage.


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The Germans proclaimed: ‘Jews who leave their assigned district without permission are subject to the death penalty. Anyone who knowingly gives shelter to escaped Jews will be subject to the same punishment.

.Emanuel Ringelblum, the creator of the underground Warsaw Ghetto Archive, wrote the following words in Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War while hiding with 38 other people in a hideout run by the Wolski family in the Ochota district of Warsaw: ‘The life of a Pole who is hiding Jews is not an easy one. Appalling terror reigns in the country (…) The noblest among the people and the most self-sacrificing individuals are sent en masse to concentration camps or prisons. Informing and denunciation flourish throughout the country, thanks largely to the Volksdeutsche. Arrests and round-ups at every step and constant searches for arms and smuggled goods are common in trains and the city streets. Every day the press, radio, etc. infect the masses with the venom of anti-Semitism. In this atmosphere of trouble and terror, passivity and indifference, it is very difficult to keep Jews in one’s home. A Jew living in the flat of an intellectual or a worker or in the hut of a peasant is dynamite that can explode at any moment and blow the whole place up (…) But is there enough money in the world to make up for the constant fear of exposure, fear of the neighbours, the porter and the manager of the block of flats? Idealists exist who devote their whole lives to their Jewish friends, who cause them a great deal of trouble! A Jew is a little child, incapable of taking a single step by itself! (…) Idealists from among both the educated and the working classes, who saved Jews at the risk of their lives and with boundless self-sacrifice – there are thousands such in Warsaw and the whole country. Every Jew snatched from the bloodthirsty clutches of the Nazi beast must have had such an idealist, a guardian angel, watching over his daily life. (…) The most beautiful novels could be written from this heroic gallery of the Poles, the noblest idealists, who did not fear the enemy’s threats looming from the red posters, nor the sinister folly and stupidity of the Polish fascists and anti-Semites, who regard the rescue of Jews as an anti-national act.

One chapter of this great novel about idealists tells of the sacrifice of the Ulma family from Markowa. A detailed reconstruction of their actions, methods, motivation and eventual martyrdom was made possible thanks to the detective work of historian Mateusz Szpytma. Coming from the same village, he not only took an interest in the fate of his relatives but led to the creation of the Museum of Poles Saving Jews, by involving the Institute of National Remembrance in the research and the Podkarpackie Voivodeship Office in organisational and technical matters. The revelations about the life of this humble but remarkable rural family have taken another turn, as the Catholic Church has recently decided that the family should be beatified and set as an example for the faithful.

It is impossible to think that Wiktoria and Józef Ulma were unaware of the announcement made by ‘their’ Kreishauptmann of Jaroslau (Jarosław) on October 15, 1941. ‘Jews who leave their assigned district without permission are subject to the death penalty. Anyone who knowingly gives shelter to escaped Jews will be subject to the same punishment.’ To understand how nightmarish the German rule was in and around Łańcut, it is worth reading the memorial book (Księga pamięci Łańcuta), written after the war by the Survivors. Almost every account mentions the name of Joseph Kokott and the gang of gendarmes he was associated with. He had the lowest rank and was the youngest among the members (he was 19 at the time of his appointment as a Czech Volksdeutscher), but he was notorious for his cruelty and sadism. He was the one who shot the Ulma’s youngest children. At the trial after the war (1958), Kokott was accused of murdering 150 people in 49 operations. This means that during the two years of his shameful service, he killed a person every four days. For his crimes, he was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. He died in 1980 in a Bytom prison. Joseph Knott was but one of a whole host of murderers in German uniforms.

Markowa is a village in the Łańcut poviat (Jarosław poviat in wartime), in the Kraków district. In 1939, there were about 120 Jews living there. Almost all of them lost their lives. The Germans regularly organised search raids in the area. After deporting the local Jews to the ghetto in Sieniawa and the death camp in Pełkinie near Jarosław, they proceeded to exterminate the Jewish population and the Poles who helped them – the murderous procedure continued until the end of 1943. The Ulma’s house overlooked a hill at the eastern end of Markowa called the Trench, where the Germans often executed Jews caught in the area. On December 13, 1942, the Germans ordered a search operation to be conducted with the participation of the local community. The village chief informed residents of the planned operation before midday, allowing those in hiding to better secure their shelters. 25 of the approximately 54 Jews in hiding were then uncovered. They were all shot on the Trench hill. Throughout the occupation, more than 30 Jews died there. Despite this terror, Wiktoria and Józef Ulma decided to take in the Goldman family. Both the spouses and their children paid for this with their lives.

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma came from the four-and-a-half-thousand-strong village of Markowa in the pre-war Lviv Voivodeship. Józef (born in 1900) was a man of many talents: he was a farmer, a fruit grower, an award-winning breeder of bees and silkworms, a skilled bookbinder, and a builder of a domestic power station. He participated in Catholic organisations and the people’s movement (he ran a library) and for a time, he was a manager of a dairy cooperative. He was popular; the surviving photographs show him in a circle of laughing work colleagues. After marrying Victoria, 12 years his junior, and the birth of their two children, he decided to expand his land. As this was not possible within the neighbourhood, in 1938 the Ulmas bought 5 hectares in the eastern part of the Lviv Voivodeship, near Sokal. But the war broke out, and they never moved. In September 1939, Józef was drafted into the army and fought in the defence of his homeland. In 1944 the Ulmas had six children: Stanisława, Barbara, Władysław, Franciszek, Antoni and Maria. At two years old, Maria was the youngest of the siblings, and only two years old. To the German executioners, she too was guilty of the ‘crime’ of hiding persecuted Jews.

Jews were the first victims of the occupation terror. In the General Governorate – as the part of occupied Poland was called – an order came into force on November 23, 1939, requiring all Jews over the age of ten to wear an armband bearing the Star of David. This opened the door to direct harassment of Jews, humiliation and looting. Then came the obligation to work, the registration of property, a ban on using public transport or leaving one’s place of residence without permission. Jews were placed in ghettos or sent to labour camps. After that, the idea of total extermination emerged. It began in March 1942 as Operation Reinhardt. In Łańcut and its environs it was begun in late July and early August 1942. The Germans banned Jews from the Markowa area and started transporting them to the labour camp in Pełkin and from there to the extermination camp in Bełżec.

Several Markowa families hid Jews, but the largest group was taken in by the Ulmas, most likely in December 1942. They were Ulmas’ acquaintances from Łańcut: Saul Goldman with his sons Baruch, Mechel, Joachim and Moses, and the Ulmas’ neighbours from Markowa: Gołda Grünfeld and Lea Didner, daughters of Esther and Chaim Goldman, Saul Goldman’s relative. Lea was hiding with her little daughter named Reszla. Saul’s wife, Gołda, was shot in Łańcut in August 1942. It is possible that she was hiding with Aniela and Michał Nizioł. Aniela was arrested and killed for sheltering her.

It is not known who told the Germans that the Ulma family was hiding Jews. It might have been Włodzimierz Leś, a border policemen from Łańcut. According to the findings of the Peasant Battalions (BCh), he collaborated with the German occupiers. It is also likely that the Goldmans initially entrusted him to protect them for a fee, which he failed to do. Possibly, the family wanted to recover their assets in his custody.

On the night of March 23 to 24, 1944, five gendarmes (the entire staff of the post) arrived in Markowa under the command of the head of the Łańcut gendarmerie, Eilert Dieken. The gadnarmes were: Gustaw Unbehenden, Erich Wilde, Michael Dziewulski, Joseph Kokott. They were accompanied by 4 to 6 Blue Police officers (including Włodzimierz Leś and Eustachy Kolman). The Jews in hiding were shot first. Józef Ulma and his pregnant wife Wiktoria were led out in front of the house and killed there. Then Dieken ordered the children to be shot too (‘lest the people [in the village] have a problem with them’). A total of 17 people were murdered, including an unborn child whose birth had begun just before the mother was shot. After the crime, the killers vandalised the house and celebrated with a ‘breakfast feast.

The Ulma family were buried on the house grounds in one pit, and the Jews in another. In January 1945, the bodies of the Ulma family were exhumed and moved to the local parish cemetery. Two years later, the remains of the Jews were buried in the Jagiełła cemetery together with the victims of the December 1942 massacre.

Police officer Włodzimierz Leś was tried and punished by the Polish Underground State, and executed on September 11, 1944. Gendarme commander Eilert Dieken became a policeman after the war, in Esens in Lower Saxony. He died in 1960. His daughter insisted that he was a wonderful, kind man who, by his own account, had helped people in need during the war. As his actions were secret, he never told her anything specific. She sent Polish historians a photo of her father in the gala uniform of the German gendarmerie. Eternal dishonour to him and to the German justice system, which has effectively covered up war criminals.

.In 1995, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were awarded the Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations. In 2010, Polish President Lech Kaczyński posthumously awarded them the Commander’s Cross of Polonia Restituta. Schools, streets and a museum were named after the Ulmas. Their story has become a symbol of martyrdom in Poland. The Catholic Church is now planning their beatification. Today, they could potentially have 18 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren, just like the Goldmans to whom they gave shelter. Despite the murderous operation, 21 Jews managed to survive and continued to hide in Markowa. Emanuel Ringelblum and his family were killed in Warsaw on March 9, 1944, together with 38 fellow persecuted Jews and their Polish protectors, the Wolski family.

Monika Krawczyk

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 07/09/2023