Blessed are the Righteous. Biography of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their family
Why did they decide to take such a heroic step, risking their own lives? It is difficult for a historian to answer this question because, understandably, they did not share their motivations. Some light is shed by passages from the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan and the love of the neighbour, underlined in a copy of the Bible belonging to the Ulmas.
Józef Ulma was born on 2 March 1900 in Markowa. Not counting his brother, who died shortly after his birth, he was the eldest son of Marcin and Franciszka (née Kluz). Until he got married, he lived with his parents, two brothers and a sister. Józef’s parents were not wealthy - they owned about three hectares of land. In 1911, still in the time of the Austrian partition, Józef graduated from a four-grade primary school in Markowa.
From his teenage years he was involved in the life of the parish and the village of Markowa. This is evidenced, among other things, by the documents that have been preserved - for example, the membership card issued to him in 1917 of the Mass Association of the Diocese of Przemyśl. Testimonies also indicate that as a young man he was involved with the rosary brotherhood and the Catholic Men’s Youth Association active in the parish. In 1921, he was called up for military service. From 1921 to 1922, he served in Vilnius and Grodno. At the age of 29, he began attending an agricultural school in Pilzno. A letter from his cousin and friend, Antoni Szpytma, shows that his abilities were noticed at this school:
“I heard about your ‘prestige’ in the school in Przeworsk, although it is not surprising, because without boasting I must admit that in general you have something to say about everything and a point of view on certain issues, which often gives you the opportunity to talk about many topics and to find out the view of your superiors on certain issues”.
Economic and social activity
After completing (with very good results) a five-month course, he became an ardent promoter of fruit and vegetable crops that were not yet widely grown at the time. With less than a hectare of land, he allocated part of it to what was probably the first fruit tree nursery in Markowa. Selling seedlings became one of his sources of income. It was probably thanks to him that many grafted apple trees appeared in Markowa, maybe even the first in the area. He was known as an innovator not only in this field. Two diplomas that he received at the Przeworsk District Agricultural Exhibition, organised in 1933 by the Local Agricultural Society, have survived. The former was awarded “for ingenious beehives and beekeeping tools of his own design”, while the latter “for exemplary breeding of silkworms and diagrams of their life”. The latter activity in particular, dating from 1930, aroused curiosity not only in Markowa, but also in the surrounding area, and even of the entailer of Przeworsk, Andrzej Lubomirski, who, together with the staroste, visited Józef to see the silkworms and mulberry trees.
In the 1930s, he also became involved in social activities. He was a member of many organisations, including the manager of the Dairy Co-operative. He was also involved in the folk movement, including the Union of Rural Youth of the Republic of Poland “Wici”, founded in 1928, in which he was a librarian and photographer, and chairman of the Agricultural Education Section at the Przeworsk District Board.
Józef Ulma’s greatest passion was photography. Learning from books and magazines, he assembled a windmill, used to generate electricity for him, and a bookbinding machine, he also learned professional photography. He took thousands of photographs, many of which are preserved in the private collections of relatives, neighbours and other residents of Markowa. Thanks to him, choir and orchestra performances, harvest festivals, theatre performances, weddings and first communions were documented. He also took commissioned photographs. Some touching photos of his wife and children have survived. Also noteworthy are the self-portraits.
His library of more than 300 volumes has also been preserved. Some of them bear an ex-libris:
“JÓZEF ULMA’S HOME LIBRARY”
Here are the titles of some of the books: On Drainage; A Handbook of Electrical Engineering; A Handbook of Photography, The Use of Wind in the Economy; Radio Engineering for All; Small Industry; Nature and Technology; Wild Inhabitants of Australia, Geographical Atlas; Dictionary of Foreign Words. He subscribed to magazines, including: Knowledge and Life and Garden Review.
Wiktoria and Józef Ulma’s family
Wiktoria Ulma was born on 10 December 1912 in Markowa as the youngest, fourteenth child of Jan Niemczak and Franciszka, née Homa, of whom (apart from herself) three brothers and two sisters lived to adulthood. Her parents and siblings, like Józef Ulma’s family, were involved in farming, but were a little wealthier. When Wiktoria was six years old, her mother died. Her father died in 1934 - a few months before she got married.
In 1927, she graduated from the seven-grade primary school in Markowa. During her teenage years, which ended quickly with marriage and parenthood at the age of 23, she was involved in the activities of the parish Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, and then became an actress in the Amateur Theatre Group in Markowa, where, among other things, she played the role of the Mother of God in nativity plays. In 1931, she was one of the wreath bearers, handing the harvest wreath to Wincenty Witos during the harvest festival accompanying the ceremonial opening of the Folk House in Markowa. In the mid-1930s she was a student at one of the courses at the People’s University in the neighbouring village of Gać.
Wiktoria Niemczak and Józef Ulma married in 1935. They married in the parish church in Markowa on 7 July. According to the testimonies of many residents of Markowa, the couple was well-matched and loved each other very much. Even in the photos we see Józef holding Wiktoria in his lap, hugging her.
They also quickly had offspring. After a year of living together, on 17 July 1936 Stasia was born; and then: Basia on 6 October 1937, Władzio on 5 December 1938, Franio on 3 April 1940, Antoś on 6 June 1941, Marysia on 16 September 1942, and if Wiktoria had not been murdered, she would have given birth to a seventh baby in the spring of 1944.
After 1935 Józef was not only involved in farming, but continued to be active in the community. Wiktoria, on the other hand, took care of the house - in the photos we see her drawing or writing in her children’s notebooks, or standing surrounded by her large and well-groomed group of offspring. It is worth mentioning that soon after they got married, the Ulmas moved into a small wooden house built by Józef on the outskirts of the village.
At the end of August 1939, Józef Ulma was mobilised. He defended his homeland against the Germans. He came back from the war severely ill.
The Righteous from Markowa
Operation Reinhardt was launched by the Germans in Markowa in early August 1942. As part of it, they murdered most of the Jewish inhabitants on the spot or deported them to extermination camps. Józef and Wiktoria, seeing the horrific fate of the Jews, first helped three Jewish women hide in ravines and streams. When this proved unsuccessful, they took eight people under their roof, probably in December 1942. They were Saul Goldman and his four sons (Baruch, Mechel, Joachim and Moses) and two daughters of Chaim Goldman, Saul’s relative: Gołda Grünfeld and Lea Didner. The latter was at the Ulma’s house with her little daughter named Reszla. The men previously lived in Łańcut, the women in Markowa. Gołda and Lea’s father, Chaim Goldman, was a farmer in Markowa.
Why did they decide to take such a heroic step, risking their own lives? It is difficult for a historian to answer this question because, understandably, they did not share their motivations. Some light is shed by passages from the parable of the Good Samaritan and the love of the neighbour, underlined in a copy of the Bible belonging to the Ulmas. We also know Józef’s response to a resident’s suggestion that he should not risk his family’s life:
“These are people too. I won’t throw them out”.
After several months, however, the Germans found out that the Ulmas were hiding Jews. They probably learned about it from one of the blue policemen.
On 24 March 1944, just before dawn, German officers burst into their house. First, they murdered the hiding Jews. Then they shot Józef and Wiktoria. A witness who saw the crime, said:
“During the shooting, terrible screams could be heard at the execution site, children were calling for their parents, but the parents were already shot. All of this made for a harrowing sight.”
In the midst of these cries, after the parents had been shot, the gendarmes began to wonder what to do with the six children. After deliberation, it was decided that they too should be shot. The gendarmes were shouting:
“Watch the Polish pigs die - those who are hiding Jews”.
Stasia, Basia, Władziu, Franuś, Antoś and Marysia were all killed. Along with Wiktoria, her seventh child died, then still in the womb shortly before its scheduled birth.
In one of the conversations, Władysław Ulma told me that his brother Józef had the following saying:
“Sometimes it’s harder to live one day well than to write a book”.
Józef, his wife Wiktoria and their children have lived their entire lives well. Today, we honour them not only to express appreciation and thanksgiving, but also with the intention that we should strive every day to be as good as the Good Samaritan.