News & Commentary

Polish village prepares for Ulma family’s beatification

Wiktoria Ulma is pictured writing at a table with her oldest daughter, Stasia. The Ulma family secretly hid eight Jews for almost two years in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. The Nazis killed the family and the Jews they were sheltering early in the morning March 24, 1944. The Vatican declared the Ulma family martyrs Dec. 17, 2022, and they will be beatified Sept. 10, 2023. (OSV News photo/courtesy Polish Institute of National Remembrance)

KRAKOW, Poland (OSV News) — A few years ago, people of the little village of Markowa, in southeastern Poland, would never have thought that in the summer of 2023, they would have dozens of guests coming to visit every day from all over the world.

With the Ulma family beatification coming up Sept. 10, the people of Markowa are busy telling the story of their ancestors and preparing for what is, for them, the event of the century.

“It is a bit overwhelming in a sense,” Urszula Niemczak told OSV News. Her husband is Wiktoria Ulma’s nephew. “We have media, pilgrims, people from all over Poland but also the United States coming to visit. Lots of renovations, preparation and a bit of stress, yes, that’s what it is at the moment.”

This type of event is unusual for a village of roughly 4,000 people — a mostly farming community whose residents peacefully raise their families in houses closely situated next to each other, with children and their parents living next to grandparents.

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, who lived in the village during the Second World War, gave shelter to eight Jews for almost two years in German-occupied Poland, hiding them from the Nazi regime. The Ulmas had seven children, including the unborn child in Wiktoria’s womb.

The Nazis, informed by a local policeman that Jews were being hidden in the household, came early in the morning March 24, 1944, right before Easter. First, they killed all eight of the Jewish fugitives. Then they shot Wiktoria and Józef.

The news they would be beatified Sept. 10 electrified not only Poland. The Ulmas’ life is a model of Christianity, Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, told Polish Catholic news agency KAI. Cardinal Semeraro will preside over a beatification Mass in a soccer field in Markowa, 1,300 feet from the grave of the Ulma family and about 1.2 miles from their house and the place they were killed.

“They have made heroic gestures of mercy. One of the tasks of parents is the Christian upbringing of children … not just to teach their children Christian doctrine. … It is not a matter of words. One must set a good example,” Cardinal Semeraro said. “The church fathers said that with words one teaches, and with the example of life, one bears witness, fostering the courage to follow by example,” he said.

Cardinal Semeraro admitted that it deeply affected him when he learned that the theological consultants of the beatification cause evaluated that the unborn child also can be beatified.

“Blood baptism happens very rarely. A baby barely born was immediately killed (Wiktoria started to give birth when she was shot). Its parents made an act of faith in the face of the love of the Lord Jesus,” he emphasized.

Father Witold Burda, postulator of the sainthood cause of the Ulma family, said at a press conference Aug. 10 in Markowa that the Ulma family are martyrs who were killed “because of hatred toward faith.”

The first reading planned for the beatification Mass, according to KAI, will be from 2 Maccabees, Chapter 7: “Martyrdom of a Mother and Her Seven Sons,” followed by Psalm 116 with the refrain, “Dear in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his devoted.” The second reading will be from Chapter 3 of the Letter to Colossians, in which St. Paul encourages mercy, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Finally, the Gospel reading will be from St. Luke — the parable of the good Samaritan.

The parable of the good Samaritan was highlighted with a pencil by Józef Ulma in the family Bible, which is displayed in the Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II, located in Markowa.

“Józef Ulma was impressed by the parable of the good Samaritan. … This confirms the disposition of this man’s soul in giving aid to the Jews. … We can certainly note that Wiktoria and Józef Ulma read the Scriptures together. The story of the abandoned man who was rescued by the good Samaritan must have firmly entered the hearts of both of them,” Cardinal Semeraro said.

The beatification Mass that will take place at 10 a.m. (local time) will be preceded by a diocesan Youth Day, which aims to encourage young people to follow the example of love of the Ulma family.

The postulator of the Ulmas’ sainthood cause confirmed that the liturgical feast of the Ulma family will be July 7, the anniversary of their wedding in 1935.

Niemczak said that when she goes to the family’s grave every day to water the plants, she takes prayer cards and booklets with her. “It became my habit,” she told OSV News, since more and more people pray at the grave every day.

“It was really touching to see a Polish-American family once. They said they’re expecting their seventh child, like the Ulmas. Three of their children are in heaven, and they asked to pray for their strength, as it’s not easy to have a big family these days,” Niemczak said.

It was only at the beginning of the 1950s when, after the terror of World War II, the Ulma and Niemczak families could put a proper tombstone for their loved ones at the local parish cemetery.

An inscription put at the family grave says: “Here rests the family of Ulma Józef murdered by Hitler’s thugs.”

“Many people come to the Ulma grave today with tragic intentions, and with faith that somehow peace will enter their hearts. I see the pain in their eyes when they pray, so it’s natural I come to comfort them. The only thing I can do is promise my prayer and then fulfill it,” Niemczak said.

Every night at the evening Mass in the parish Church of St. Dorothy in Markowa, Niemczak and other parishioners pray for a fruitful time of beatification and good preparation.

“People say that faith extinguishes in people’s hearts these days. But here in Markowa we see everyday people who have God in their hearts and come to the Ulma grave believing in the communion of saints,” Niemczak said.

Markowa is situated only 50 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border. When the war in Ukraine started in February 2022, people in the village did not hesitate to do what their ancestors taught them: They sheltered Ukrainians in their homes.

“They had to die,” Niemczak said of the Ulma family, “so that we can defend their principals in our families today. That we are able to show that flame of love to our kids, our youth. That flame needs to blaze in our hearts, please pray that it does,” she asked.

For the Polish state, the Ulma beatification will be an occasion to remind all that, despite the risk of the death penalty, an estimated 300,000 Polish people hid and helped Jews in their homes. Over 6,600 Poles hold the title of Righteous Among Nations. Around 1,000 Poles, including women and children, were executed for hiding and helping Jews.

“This remarkable family is not a single family. It is also a history of the attitudes of Poles. We want to tell Poland and the world about those Polish attitudes, to tell how Poles behaved during World War II,” minister Grazyna Ignczak-Bandych, head of the chancellery of President Andrzej Duda, told Polish public radio in July. State concerts and exhibitions will take place in conjunction with the beatification and Duda and other top state officials confirmed their presence during Mass.

The event also will have an interreligious component. At 4 p.m. (local time) at the cemetery in Jagiella, 15 miles from Markowa, where Jews killed with the Ulmas are buried, interreligious prayer is planned.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s head rabbi, plans to attend the beatification Mass.

He told KAI that “we should care that the Jewish world knows about the Ulmas. It is our responsibility and our duty.”

Rabbi Schudrich said that for him, “the Ulmas are a model of humanity.”

Paulina Guzik | OSV News