The Ulma family from Markowa,Heroism-overcame-fear.html
23.05.2024, 02:15

Heroism overcame fear

Mateusz Szpytma, Vice-President of the Institute of National Remembrance, interviewed by Jan M. Ruman

How did the situation of Jews change during the occupation? At the beginning there were times when Poles suffered more repression than Jews. I know of situations in which a female liaison officer of the Polish underground would wear an armband with the Star of David if she had to carry important information. Why? - Because Jews were not detained in the round-ups, only Poles who were deported to work.

It was not that simple. The situation of Jews changed a lot during the German occupation. From the very beginning, however, there were different plans for the Poles and different for the Jews, although - especially with regard to the latter - not yet fully specified. Initially, the Germans vented their hatred on the Jews: synagogues were burnt down, they were ridiculed and beaten, their beards were cut off in public. Soon decrees were introduced eliminating them from economic life, limiting their freedoms, e.g. Jews were forbidden to travel by rail or were not allowed to appear in certain parts of the city, e.g. in Kraków within the Planty and the Old Town area. However, Jews were not victims of round-ups intended for deportation to work in Germany. Jews were not deported, so if someone had an armband, they were dismissed because there were other plans for this nation that were going to be carried out on the spot. Round-ups for people of Jewish nationality were carried out with the aim of using Jewish labour locally. Initially, these actions were unorganised. As far as the Poles were concerned, from the moment the Germans entered our territory, they began a series of repressions which were aimed at the physical elimination of the leadership elite of our nation. As in Palmiry, which was part of the AB Aktion, which in turn was a continuation of the Intelligenzaktion. Of course, some of these victims were also assimilated Jews. Let us also remember that the first victims of Auschwitz, a camp for political prisoners organised in the spring of 1940 - were Poles. 

Coming back to the situation of the Jews, initially the Germans did not really know what to do with them. There were plans to create a Jewish reserve, but the idea was abandoned. One of its organisers was Adolf Eichmann. Another idea was to concentrate the Jews in the General Government, which resulted in a wave of their displacement from the areas incorporated into the Reich. It was not until 1941 that a fundamental change of action was decided upon. Henceforth, the aim of the German Reich authorities was the murder of all European Jews and this was implemented wherever its influence reached. 

As the repression of the Jewish population grew, so did the various forms of aid from the Poles. There seemed to be differences between forms of aid provided in rural and urban areas. It is easier to hide, find accommodation, move from one place to another in the city. Warsaw was a big city, one could remain anonymous. If a Jew had the so-called “good” appearance, it was much easier to hide him/her. The situation was different in the countryside, where communities are smaller and everyone knows each other. You could see what was going on at a farm if someone was hiding a group of Jews - there were cases like this, for example the Koźmiński family hid Jews. First in Warsaw, then, when the number of those in hiding reached 23, near Warsaw. This family, however, living next to a major urban centre like Warsaw, could take care of supplies. In the countryside it is different, if someone buys more food, it is clear that they need it not only for their family but for someone else. And that’s immediately conspicuous, because you don’t have the option to buy a bit in one place, a bit in another…

In fact, aid provided to Jews in the countryside and in the cities are two separate issues with their own specificities. And while I agree that the larger the locality, the greater the anonymity, which was of great importance for the aid, I would like to emphasise that, according to research, Jews were more likely to be hidden in the countryside, because in the end it turned out to be easier than in the city. In addition, Jewish people, driven by their instinct to live, fled to the countryside not only to take refuge with Poles, but simply to try and survive another day. Over time, they formed self-defence groups in the forests, sometimes with the support of the local population. Let us also recall that the largest number of Polish Righteous came from rural areas. This does not change the fact that hiding Jews in the countryside was a great challenge. Neighbourhood relations were more closely knit. In those days, people entered their neighbours’ houses without knocking at the door, they went into basements. What’s more, village children would visit their neighbours out of pure curiosity. It is said that in the countryside everyone knew almost everything about everyone, and this is true. It was still true when I was a child. All the more so during the occupation, when there had to be great discipline to hide Jews in the farmyard for even a few weeks, let alone months or two years. Let us also emphasise that both in rural areas and in towns, food was a problem. Most of the population lived in poverty. In the countryside, richer farmers tried to feed their families with what they had. Bread was rarely bought at the time, you baked it yourself, and preparing extra amounts of food was likely to attract attention. Since hiding Jews in small communities was extremely risky, some people tried to involve the entire community in the rescue. I know of such an exceptional example: in one village, the village head involved everyone in the hiding. It was a kind of corvee (compulsory service - editor’s note) - every few days a different family was responsible for hiding a Jew. In this way no one could say that they were clean and could not denounce the others.

An interesting method.

But risky. If a village had a few hundred people, even by the calculus of probability there would always be a madman who, without realising what he was doing, would report this to the blue police or the Germans.

I once edited a publication related to the index of Poles repressed for helping Jews. I learned of cases where even Jews themselves couldn’t stand being locked up, couldn’t stand having to hide. I remember the case of a woman who had an argument with other Jews: she went to the Gestapo to report that they were bad to her. She was convinced that she would survive. The Germans shot all those in hiding and the family hiding them. At the end they killed the woman who reported the case.

There were sometimes cases of insanity among those in hiding. Mental illnesses were increasing and new ones were emerging. When someone sits in a basement without sunshine for several months, what could one expect. However, those providing the hiding place were also affected - they could not cope with the constant stress. But this is hardly surprising when there is a widespread awareness of the death penalty for those in hiding and those providing the shelter. 

What were the most common forms of help for Jews?

At an earlier stage - ghettoisation - it was mainly securing a false identity. At that time people didn’t realise that there would be a Holocaust. Jews were to be placed in ghettos, but it was not yet known that these areas would be closed off. When the districts were walled off, as in Warsaw or Krakow, the Jews began to fear that this might not be the final stage, but a temporary one. And they tried to avoid going to the ghetto, looking for various places for themselves to take refuge. They needed the help of Poles to do this, because they had to change their identity. And it was at this time that the Polish Underground State produced large numbers of false documents for them. 

The church also helped with this by issuing fictitious baptismal certificates. The organist at the All Saints parish in Warsaw, to which I belong, used to make such certificates.

This was certainly the case when the deportations from the ghettos to the extermination camps began, although some priests also helped earlier. An extremely important date for the Jews of the General Government was March 1942, when the implementation of what had been decided in 1941 and further specified at Wannsee on 20 January 1942 began. It was not there that the decision to exterminate the Jews was made, only how to organise an efficient murder machine. Two months later, the liquidation of the ghettos in Lublin and Mielec began. Let us emphasise that the Holocaust in the General Government was preceded by an extermination campaign in the lands incorporated into the Reich. It began as a test method as early as December 1941. The first extermination camp, Kulmhof, began operating at Chełmno-on-the-Ner at that time. In the Eastern Borderlands, on the other hand, the Holocaust was carried out by the Einsatzgruppen immediately after 22 June 1941. 

Coming back to the situation in the General Government, the Germans liquidated the ghettos methodically, district by district, one administrative unit (starosty) after another, everything was planned like in a well-organised enterprise. A death camp was to be organised in each region. It is not possible to exactly assign a particular camp to a given area, as this changed, however, broadly speaking the western areas were served by Kulmhof and Auschwitz, the Krakow and Galicia districts mainly by Bełżec, the Lublin district by Sobibór and Majdanek, which was a concentration and extermination camp at the same time, the northern areas by Treblinka. The latter is the largest cemetery of Polish citizens in over 1,000-year history of our nation. The Germans killed at least 800,000 people there, including most of Warsaw Jews. From the German point of view, everything was going according to plan. It was not until 1942 that almost all Jews realised that their end was near. That this was not work-related forced migration or another stage of ghettoisation. A large part of them had only now realised that they were not needed as workers. It was widely understood that the Holocaust was being carried out, which meant that everyone was destined for extermination. Some Jews and Poles, however, were still deluded that the Germans could not exterminate such a multitude of people. It seemed completely unreasonable to them, even in economic terms. But in this matter, the Germans were not rational.

Even today this seems an unimaginable idea…

Any murder is irrational, and even more so the extermination of an entire nation, especially as in February 1942 the Germans began to lose in the East. So at the time it was very irrational. After all, they needed the Jews in the armaments plants as a workforce. But Nazi ideology was stronger than the hard realities that might have facilitated their victory. Let us give another example, unrelated to Jewish topics. When the Germans entered the Soviet Union in 1941, they largely rejected offers of mass collaborators because they thought they could deal with communism and its supporters on their own. Nationalist ideas, such as those to create new - nationalist - states, e.g. Bandera’s state or the Belarusian state - were not used. The ideology of hatred of the “inferior race” - i.e. the Slavs - prevailed. Thus, only little use was made of the support of potential allies - and Ukrainians and representatives of other nations after the experience of communism, often came forward and volunteered to collaborate. As regards Jews, the Germans did not want to continue to use cheap labour to the same extent as before, because the Holocaust, i.e. their total annihilation was more important. The Germans were not rational about it all.

Many Jews were involved in tailoring - they could sew uniforms, clothes for soldiers, but the idea of murder prevailed.

It was then that many Jews realised that they had to get help from the Poles in order to survive. This is when large-scale ghetto escapes began. The liquidation of the ghettos, as I have already mentioned, began in the spring of 1942. In Krakow, the ghettos were liquidated in March 1943; before that, partial deportations took place. In Warsaw, they began on 22 July and that was when the capital - the second most Jewish city in the world after New York - realised it was over. From July 1942, the search for help from Poles in Warsaw began on a larger scale - from Catholic priests, various institutions and, above all, from private individuals. We sometimes hear that Poles were late in helping the Jews and that the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota” was established too late, however, this is due to a lack of knowledge about the realities of the occupation. The Social Committee for Aid to the Jews was established in September 1942 and transformed into a state organisation in early December. It was the third year of occupation, and a leaflet campaign by Zofia Kossak and Wanda Krahelska was carried out in August. Their protest was a shocking document followed by action. When the organisation was recognised by the Government Delegation for Poland, a structure was built. It was wonderfully outlined in the Institute of National Remembrance’s 2017 exhibition on “Żegota”. You can see how many people were involved and from how many backgrounds. It was formed by all the political forces of the Polish independence underground (except the Nationalists) and the Jewish National Committee and the Bund. Help provided by the Poles was not massive, but it was widespread - it involved different people in different communities. Even in the nationalist circles there were those who provided help, but most Jews hid with those they had known before the war and with whom they had collaborated, which was quite often in left-wing circles. It was slightly different with the religious Jews, as they lived in quite a lot of isolation from the Christian world. They didn’t have that many contacts, they didn’t know Christian religious circles. It was much more difficult for them. They spoke poor Polish, or if they did, it was with an accent, and were rather at a loss to hide “in plain sight”. So it is not surprising, as I have already mentioned, that more people were saved by help provided by left-wing circles, because they had a lot of friends among the Poles. This is natural, in a situation where there is a death penalty for providing help. This is because, in the first instance, we tend to give support to people we know or people someone recommended to us. Having a family, it was very difficult to take in a Jew you didn’t know. It involved a huge amount of risk. Especially since the perfidious Germans also had Jewish agents who were told that they would save their lives by taking part in a provocation. These were difficult situations, especially as, from October 1941, the death penalty was imposed for any Jew who left the ghetto and for anyone who helped them.

The Germans considered that an intentional act would be treated as an accomplished act: “instigators and aiders are subject to the same punishment as the perpetrator, an attempted act will be punished as an accomplished act”.

This meant that the aid must have been effective, or at least noticeable by the Germans, so it had to be deterred. In 1942, the regulations were tightened and even incidental support resulted in the threat of death. You could also lose your life or end up in a camp if you did not notice that there were Jews hiding in the neighbourhood and did not report it to the Germans. The occupiers were incredibly effective in the way they spread terror; they had it well thought out. For example, in addition to the law aimed at limiting aid, they used other methods of collective responsibility, such as appointing hostages, known in Polish as “dziesiętniki” – from the number “ten” or guards. This meant that every ten weeks another ten hostage-houses were selected in the village and if partisans or Jews appeared in the area during this time and the residents did not report it, the men or all the inhabitants of these houses were to be shot. It is understandable that these ten families were very keen that nothing happened at the time they held guard. In another few weeks, more people and their families could fall victim to this regulation.

We understand what the Jewish police did in the ghettos. We emphasise that the policemen were trying to save their lives. But at the same time we measure the Poles by a different yardstick - as if they were not threatened at all during the occupation.

During the war the Polnische Polizei was commonly referred to as the blue police to distinguish it from the pre-war National Police. From December 1939, officers were forcibly conscripted under penalty of death. It was therefore a new formation that had to obey German orders under such punishment. Quite often these forces settled matters in Polish circles. Any examples? Someone reported that he had seen a Jew and told the village head or a blue policeman about it. He could, of course, turn a blind eye, but then he risked being reported himself. He could report it to the German gendarmerie, but then the gendarmerie would have come and liquidated the Jews and those who were hiding them. And then there was a third option, as a result of which Poles are often described as cruel and mean. These were situations where the problem was solved among themselves. The blue police would come and execute the Jews who had been denounced. Then they would tell the Germans that they had seen them while they were trying to escape and had to kill them. In this way they saved themselves and the lives of those Poles who were hiding the Jews. How to judge such a situation and the people who acted in this way? I am not ready to do that because in this case every choice was satanic, horrible and criminal.

I think that the opinion about Poles during the occupation still lacks balance, although we understand the dramatic situations in the ghettos. We understand the Jewish police gathering the contingents on the ramps; they knew that every day they were sending more and more people to their deaths, and sometimes they did it with excessive zeal. The commando that came to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto saw how efficiently the Jewish police operated. It decided that there was nothing to be done there, so it went to liquidate the Otwock ghetto.

In spite of everything, I do not consider the Jewish ghetto police, which I view negatively, as do many Jewish survivors, as accomplices, but as victims who contributed to the deaths of other victims.

I also see it that way, but what about the assessment of the blue police?

While my assessment of the blue police is also decidedly negative, I encourage you to assess each of these police officers individually if possible. Let us remember that there were cruel people in this group who murdered Jews and Poles, but also people like Franciszek Banaś, who was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal after the war.

What shaped the attitude of Poles towards Jews during the occupation? Especially after they were locked up in the ghettos. In the early days of the occupation, there may have been a continuation of attitudes from the interwar period. My mother, for example, recalled - although it is difficult for me to place it in time - the terrible things people saw in Warsaw’s Praga district, how young Jews were herded under German rifles and had to shout various slogans such as: “This war is because of us, Jews” or “Marshal Śmigły-Rydz taught us nothing. Then golden Hitler came and taught us how to work.” My mother was very affected by the awful situation, that these people had to shout the stupidest slogans, because it was a condition for their survival.

Before the war, the relations between Poles and Jews were varied. There were those who maintained good relations with the Jews, but there were also anti-Semitic circles. However, this had nothing to do with what happened in 1939. The Germans began their occupation, and Poles became witnesses to the Holocaust; and these behaviours became very different. Some helped, others collaborated with the Germans, because in every nation there are different people. Many looked with compassion on the Jews. There are many testimonies of people who did not like Jews before the war, but when they saw what was happening, they said: “these are people, after all”, “this is not right.” Such voices of opposition to the unfolding crime also came from the so-called nationalist side, even though their dislike of Jews, usually motivated by economic rivalry, was still present. The murder of people was also inconceivable to those who, before the war, wanted the Jews to leave Poland, and supported their emigration to Palestine or the USA. Characteristic is the protest of Zofia Kossak, who disliked Jews as a Polish minority, but saw them as human beings and fought for human dignity. It was she who called out the loudest: “This cannot be!”. She urged the Polish society and the world to do something on this issue, and she helped Jews on a large scale in an organised manner.

There is also the example of Rev. Marceli Godlewski of the parish on Grzybowski Square in Warsaw, who before the war founded Christian unions and taught Poles how to fight for their rights in business. He taught Polish shopkeepers how to compete in the market, what to do when a Polish shop opened, and Jews as result lowered the prices in theirs. Yet when the murder of people began, he did everything he could to save them. In the vicarage at All-Saints’ Church, he gave the Jews a roof over their heads, calling them “parishioners”.

There were priests who, from their pulpits, publicly called on people – as the survivor Stella Zylbersztajn-Tzur recalls – to help the Jews, and they risked doing so too, because the laws forbade such help. What did this help look like in smaller towns, where Polish and Jewish communities did not intermingle?

Some of the Jewish people spoke little Polish.

At that time, the only way to help was to make bunkers in the woods or to take people in, because living “in open sight”, even with good false documents, was not possible. Hiding them in a barn and applying the principles of advanced conspiracy and an iron-clad consistency on both sides. If total discretion was kept, the so-called “bad appearance” and a lack of knowledge of Polish did not play a role. Although by the end of the Second Polish Republic, almost all Jews spoke some Polish. The language was taught in schools; and they needed it to do business. But of course, you could immediately tell from a conversation that someone was of Jewish origin. Hiding “in open sight” was reserved for those who looked “appropriate”, knew Polish and, of course, it was easier for women than men. The latter were circumcised, and it was in this way that the Germans very often checked their origins.

Where did the phenomenon of the “szmalcownik” [blackmailer], come from and how widespread was it?

Scoundrels and traitors are to be found in every nation. Blackmailers were people who wanted to make money and blackmailed Jews, so they were a huge threat. Helping someone, saving them - this required long action, duration, effort. Whereas a blackmailer could destroy all that effort in a second. He demanded money, and if he didn’t get it, he denounced them. One effective blackmailer was enough to paralyse the whole village with fear. This phenomenon was unfortunately not incidental. We know from Jewish accounts that Jews often encountered it. There is no doubt that blackmailers, as well as those who murdered and robbed Jews, were treated with disgust not only by Jews, but also by other Poles. Let us also remember that in addition to the blackmailers, there were also German agents who acted as denouncers. We know that the perpetrators of the whole mechanism were Germans and without them, none of this would have happened. But there were a limited number of them, so without their agents and blackmailers, they would have been blind. It was more difficult for them to recognise who was a Pole, who was a Jew, whereas the blackmailers knew it. The Underground State not only demanded not to hand over Jews, but also criminalised such acts. However, it did not have much capacity to enforce this. Therefore, although the blackmailers were convicted, not many sentences were executed. It should be emphasised that our underground authorities did not collaborate with the Germans – as was the case in France. They did not take any part in the Holocaust. The Polish authorities, whether at home or in exile, were of the opinion that Jews were Polish citizens and they should be helped. It is debatable to what extent help was provided and how effective it actually was, given that the Germans wanted to exterminate all Jews. Therefore, it should be emphasised that the blackmailers were not only acting against the Jews and the Poles who saved them, but also against the Polish government, the Polish underground. They were outcasts of society who would be tried in a free Poland. After the war the communists also condemned the blackmailers, unless they become their agents.

Ordinary people from marginalised communities were sometimes exploited by the Polish Underground State. A pre-war thief could be useful in underground work because he had a certain cunning needed to deceive the occupying forces. The average marginalised person did not become a blackmailer, so they must have been exceptional scoundrels…

The blackmailers could not blackmail those who operated in the underground, because these people would have neutralised them. They were afraid of revenge. Poles had their agents among the Germans, and it happened that such information came to light. And yet to this day a huge number of anonymous letters have survived, also concerning the Polish underground. The Jews, according to the Germans, occupied the lowest place in the social hierarchy, so they could easily fall prey to such individuals. Let us remember that Jews had to find a way to secure or hide their property, i.e. they usually had it on them or with them, and then it was much easier to rob them, steal their valuables, money or gold.

In the story of the Ulma family, extracted from local to national memory, everything comes together as if through a lens. There is selfless help, there is denunciation and there are the worst possible consequences for everyone.

And there is also the execution of a sentence by the underground state on a man who, as suspected at the time and today, denounced them, that is the whole spectrum in this story. Thanks to the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), I was able to research this story in great depth. Although I come from this village and I lived there for the first nineteen years of my life, and although I am from the family of Wiktoria Ulma, née Niemczak, who was my grandmother’s sister and my father’s godmother, I did not deal with it in my professional work for years. It wasn’t until in 2003 when at church I heard of the beginning of the beatification process, that I suddenly felt an impulse. I realised that I was from this village, that I am a relative, that I have been working for the IPN for almost three years and that I must do something about it. After all, apart from a small note about Józef Ulma, as an interesting citizen of Markowa, apart from his name on the common plaque dedicated to those who “died at the hands of the Nazis or after the war at the hands of the fascists for consolidating the people’s power” – they had nothing more. There were about two sentences in a book. At the time, I was working as an expert for the Prosecution Commission, i.e. a historian cooperating with prosecutors. I thought that since I had come across so many cases of murdered people who are commemorated, who have their own plaques and monuments, then maybe I could do the same. I wanted to commemorate people from my village with a permanent, commemorative stone and a book. I went to the head of the Kraków branch, Mr Janusz Kurtyka, and told him that I had such a story in my family… That, admittedly, the story did not concern the Kraków branch but the Rzeszów branch, but I asked if I could take care of it. He gave me the green light. I got very involved, searching for documents, people, materials and photographs. On the one hand, this story is not unusual, because after all, about a thousand Poles were killed for helping Jews. But on the other hand, the drama of it all is terrible, so many children died… even an unborn child. The amazing thing is, that so much material has survived. I was so drawn into it that I am still immersed in the story to this day.

Was there a conviction in Markowa that there were heroes among you, who died…

Awareness was widespread, but people did not realise how terrible the events that took place actually were. It was treated as something typical of the times of this cruel war. Of course, the family remembered what happened. I found out about it because I enjoyed looking through photos in the family album. I recognised people in them, I knew something about everyone. But there was also a group of photos in which I knew absolutely no one. For years they were the least important to me. However, when as a young boy, I asked about them, I was told that these were the Ulmas, who had been murdered by the Germans.

What did you manage to find out?

The circumstances of this crime have been established. Records have been preserved from the trial of Josef Kokott, the young gendarme who murdered the largest number of people. He came from Opavian Silesia, today 7 km from the Polish border. It is the part of German Silesia, which was incorporated into the Czech Republic after the First World War. In 1939 Kokott declared himself as a German although he spoke Czech and a little Polish. I managed to establish the surnames of the Jews hiding in Markowa, including those hiding at the Ulmas, and the first names of some of them. Then an employee of the Ulma Museum, Kamil Kopera, established the names of four more Jews and one Jewish woman. So today we know the names of all the Jews hidden by the Ulmas. When the monument was created, we still used the nickname Szallow-Goldman, and Szallow was a nickname from Saul. We have identified them all. We have also managed to find documents that tell us who might have denounced them. The documents of the Polish underground show that it was, as suspected, a blue policeman – Włodzimierz Leś. He had eagerly cooperated with the Germans during the occupation. I am not saying for sure that he was the one who informed on them, but he certainly took part in the crime. He was in the guard and helped the gendarmes. On 10 September 1944, he was executed by a sentence of the Polish Underground State. We do not know exactly for which specific acts, but certainly for collaboration with the Germans. I managed to establish and get to know the pre-war Jewish community of Markowa, finding out where they lived and how many of them there were – about 120. I established the details of the commander of the execution squad that killed them. So far it was only known that his name was Eilert Dieken because that is what his subordinate Kokott stated in the files. Some historian wrote that he had died in Germany and it was difficult to find him. I looked for him for many years in various ways, because not much has survived in the archives. Every now and then I typed his name into Google and finally, after a few years, I found that in 1953, a man with that name and surname took part in a tender for the renovation of a police station in Esens. He had such a rare name. I wrote a short letter to the German police in 2011 that we were looking for information about Eilert Dieken, who was on military duty in Łańcut, and I gave it to the director of the Castle Museum in Łańcut, Poland, which at that time had started to work on the construction of the Ulma Museum. As luck would have it, the letter was signed by the deputy director, whose surname is Ulma. She is not a relative of Józef Ulma, but the same surname helped a lot. The addressees assumed that the Ulmas were making a family museum. In the West, if someone is rich, they can make a memorial chamber in their home or in a public place. This was thought to be the case. The police station where Dieken worked after the war sent us some photos of him among the gendarmes from the 1950s. The photos were from some sort of jubilee – with champagne glasses in hand. We managed to recognise him, although he was barely visible. The big surprise was that a year and a half later, Dieken’s daughter wrote to me. It turned out that the officer was reasonably well-known, having died in 1960. My letter was given to his daughter – informing her that someone in Poland was interested in her father. She wrote a shocking letter, which is now in the museum. She wrote that it was very good that the Ulma Museum was being created and she was glad that her father would be commemorated there, as he was a very good man. “I am happy as I know that as a result of his activities he did a lot of good to people. Anyway, I wouldn’t expect anything else from him.” He was such a good father. She was delighted that he would be mentioned there and to this end she sent a photograph – from the war in full German gendarmerie uniform. She wanted to be invited to the opening of the museum. I went to see her with the director, Mariusz Pilis, who was so shocked by this that he said he would make a documentary about it. I prepared myself very well and had all the documents concerning Dieken (in German). Even the ones that showed he received the Iron Cross in the early summer in 1944. At first, I thought he had received it for the Ulmas, but it turned out that the application had been made a month earlier. He received it after the execution. I wanted to give it to her. Yet when I walked into a room in the nursing home I saw an old woman. I decided that I didn’t want to be responsible for the shock that could have shortened her life, because she wasn’t responsible for what her father had done. I sat down and asked what she remembered about her father. After listening to her, I asked, if she wanted me to tell her what I knew. She did not want to. So I only said that we had a completely different picture of him. “If you have the strength and readiness, then I leave it all in the envelope. I’m not going to say what’s in it, but I leave it for you to decide, because these are difficult matters, very difficult,” I said. I left her my card and added that if she wanted to talk about it, she could call me at any time. I didn’t tell her anything about her father. And she told me – apart from the things about his career and his service record – that when he came home on leave, he would say that everything he did was secret, and he didn’t talk to anyone about it.

That seems to be the easiest way out.

And she also said that he was friends with Poles. I asked her: which Poles was he friends with? She replied that with the apple sellers at the market in Łańcut.

Was Dieken particularly zealous in fulfilling his duties?

I think he was a regular officer - executioner; as a commander he participated only in major actions. Though he certainly had cruel subordinates. Among them, the most zealous was the youngest, Josef Kokott, who, when he began his service in Łańcut in 1941, was just over nineteen years old. However, in the case of the Ulma family, it turned out that Dieken, too, was a ruthless murderer. From the findings of the IPN published in the dictionary Represje za pomoc Żydom (Repressions for Aiding Jews) we know, that in occupied Mazovia it was not uncommon for only adults helping Jews to be murdered, or only those who were aware of German decrees, i.e. also teenagers. Infants and small children were spared. However, this unit murdered the Jews, then Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, and then deliberated what to do with the children. Dieken decided that it was necessary to murder everyone. He was the one to give the order.

When the village head was brought in to bury the bodies shortly after the crime, he, knowing Dieken from the constant requisitions in Markowa and having some boldness towards him, asked: “Commandant, was it necessary to murder those children too, after all they were innocent?”. To which the German replied with irony – and it is all recorded in the documents. He replied: “So that the village wouldn’t have any trouble with them”. That is, so that you don’t have any trouble with them. Ironically, in the sense… we did it for you. Interestingly, Dieken was not a Nazi in the formal sense.

How do we know that?

Because in 2015 I wrote a letter to Thomas de Maiziere, the Minister of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany. I told him that I was investigating this case and asked them about the files of this gendarme. The Interior Ministry decreed it to the archives and sent me the documents. I found out that he was not a member of the NSDAP. On the other hand – and this is interesting – he denied his Protestant faith before the war. In the questionnaire he indicated that he did not want to be a Christian, and the reason he gave was his reluctance to pay church taxes.

We established everything about the crime itself. Has it been discovered what motivated the Ulmas that they agreed to take in Jews?

This is difficult to establish because, understandably, no diaries, memoirs or chronicles have survived. The Ulmas did not mention it either, so we can only rely on circumstantial evidence. This is really a question for the postulator of the beatification process. We know about their life before the war, how they were perceived by other people and how they functioned. It can be assumed that the desire to help a person in danger stemmed from Christian motives. The book Bible Stories was found in their home with underlined passages: the parable of the Good Samaritan and the doctrine of the love of neighbours… This was most likely the basis for their conduct. As a historian it is difficult for me to say anything more.

There is also one more circumstance indicating that the Ulmas did not gain material benefits and did not receive any fees for saving lives, because a box with valuables was found next to one of the murdered persons.

I think that the Jews contributed to their upkeep because that is natural. However, we have no indication that they paid for their stay. The fact that at the end of the occupation this woman had jewellery with her also indicates that the help was selfless. Otherwise someone would have tried to take it from her. These valuables were seized by the gendarmerie.

Today there are those who say that accepting any form or type of payment is proof that the help wasn’t selfless.

This can only be said by people who do not know the realities of the occupation.

Jerzy Koźmiński told me how Jews were hidden in his family. One of them was a watchmaker. He would take broken watches from wherever he could because there was money for each repair. The Koźmińskis were hiding 23 Jews, so it took a lot of money to support them. They went to great lengths to obtain funds to feed them. It was probably similar in the case of the Ulmas. Somehow, they managed, but the help itself was selfless.

This is evidenced by the possession of valuables by one of the Jewish women after fifteen months in hiding. My research shows that most likely the Ulma family hid the Jews for that long until the moment of execution. From December 1942 to March 1944. We know that during the war everyone hiding in the Ulmas’ house had made a living from tanning leather, among other things.

Are there any traces that the Ulmas also helped other Jews? Has it been possible to find any evidence of this sort during the research? Were there any stories in the family?

Józef Ulma’s brother knew about it, and it was later confirmed to me by other people, that Józef had previously helped the Ryfki family (they had this nickname: Ryfki). This was probably the Tencer family. Józef helped them when they had a dugout outside the village in the bushes by the streams. They were discovered and murdered. We must remember that from 1 August 1942, Jews were not allowed to live in Markowa. They had to be either in the ghetto in Łańcut or in the labour camp in Pełkinie. Nearly sixty people were hiding in various places, about half of those who lived there before the war. Some fled or were transported by the Germans to the East already in September 1939. Only a handful of Markowa Jews reported to the ghetto.

Did the Germans know of such things from the population registry?

That’s right, and they knew they had to search, and they ordered searches, manhunts, which had to be carried out by policemen, hostages and district firemen. The residents had to accompany the blue police and look for the Jews. We don’t know if any German was present at this search – rather not, but there was an order, under penalty of death, that people had to search. 25 Jews were probably found. Less than half of those in hiding. They were taken into communal custody. The German gendarmerie was notified, and all this happened on 13 December 1942. On the morning of 14 December, the Germans arrived and shot all the detained Jews. By then it was clear that it was impossible to survive in the dugouts, and the time of year was not favourable either. What happened at the Ulmas’ was part of what happened after these searches. Those 25 Jews were executed, but the rest found shelter in the peasants’ houses. They all survived except for the eight who were with the Ulmas. I am very impressed by the heroism of the Poles who continued to hide Jews after the death of the Ulmas.

Is this not greater heroism than that of the Ulmas themselves?

The Ulmas were shot, and these other families were not even afraid of being shot. Heroism overcame fear.

This is extraordinary. After all, the Ulmas were ruthlessly murdered together with all their children. We know that subsequent executions made Poles unwilling to take risks. Markowa must have had an exceptionally good reputation, because Jews from other places also came there; the Goldmans were from Łańcut.

This is puzzling because, after all, before the war this village was like all the other neighbouring villages in terms of Polish-Jewish relations. And here too, from 1942 roundups of Jews were organised, which the Polish residents had to carry out on German orders. Markowa, however, is the largest village, very cohesive (only a few of its inhabitants did not have ancestors dating back to the 14th century), and a significant group of farmers were quite wealthy and had food reserves. The Jewish neighbours and those from outside the village were hiding in Markowa. But the latter were either related to the Markowa Jews, or they came from the nearby area and were well known by the Polish villagers.

How did you manage to establish the names of the other Jews hidden in Markowa?

This was the result of my research into the Ulma family. I decided that I could not describe only their story, but I should research all the other stories, which ended positively, as well as those in which the inhabitants did not play such a glorious role. Before I dealt with these topics, in the literature, i.e. in the village monograph from 1993, there was information about 13 Jews who survived the occupation, and today we know that there were 21 of them. This is much more than before detailed research was undertaken. If every village, like Markowa, had its own regional researchers, then not only monographs of individual villages, but Polish history textbooks would provide more complete knowledge, including the number of rescued or saved Jewish people. From my own experience I can say that this kind of research resembles detective work. This is a task for historians-regionalists because the Institute of National Remembrance cannot investigate every village or even every district. I must admit that if I had not come from Markowa, I would not have established these facts either, because, firstly, not everything would have been told to me (some of the facts can only be established by talking to living witnesses), and secondly, I don’t know if I would have spent so many weeks to establish what sometimes was a single detail. With willpower and diligence, however, a lot can be done.

How did the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews during WW II come about?

After the unveiling of the monument to the Ulma family in 2004, Abraham Segal – one of the Jews who survived the occupation in Markowa, popularised this story in Israel. And since the Ulmas already had the Yad Vashem medal, this attracted the interest of tour operators, who started to bring thousands of young Israelis to the grave of the Ulmas. Since there were about 5,000 of them a year, and they came in waves, sometimes in eight to ten buses at a time, I thought it would be worthwhile to have a place where they could stop by and learn about the history of the Ulma family in peace. This coincided not only with the creation of my books about the Ulmas, but also with the scientific and documentary work of the IPN Branch in Rzeszów, especially Prof. Elżbieta Rączy and Igor Witowicz on the rescuing of Jews throughout the voivodeship, which made it possible to expand the subject matter in the future museum. And so, together with one of the town councillors, Bogdan Romaniuk, we got the local government of the Podkarpackie Voivodeship interested in this project, which was opened and implemented through the Castle Museum in Łańcut in 2016. It would not have been created without the Institute of National Remembrance, which provided the entire substantive development material for the permanent exhibition. The creation of this museum was one of the most difficult matters in my life. I took a long unpaid leave of absence from the Institute of National Remembrance and moved to the countryside for fifteen months to make it happen. This museum is about all the Poles who saved Jews. We have outlined the whole situation and the Polish-Jewish relations. Not just the positive ones, but all of them. We show the denunciations and the searches for Jews, which of course happened, but above all we present and celebrate the Heroes and the rescue of people.

There is a second place in Markowa, which also contains mementos of those who were hidden and those who were hiding Jews.

The museum does not have the authentic Ulma house (it has not survived to the present day). And many visitors were particularly interested in the appearance and conditions of the houses in which the Jews were hiding. While managing the Ulma Museum for several months, I found out that one of the houses in which the Jews were saved was planned for demolition. I persuaded the Society of Friends of the Museum to purchase it, and thanks to the commitment of its activists, the Szylar house joined the dozen or so buildings previously located in the open-air museum. In this house, the hosts rescued seven members of the Weltz family, who, after the war, left for the USA and settled in Brooklyn. The Szylar family kept in touch with them for many years

Did you meet any families like the Ulmas during your research?

In addition to the Ulmas, I learned the story of the Baranek family. When the symbolic memorial anniversary of their death was approaching, I went to Miechów, to the mayor’s office, to organise a commemorative ceremony for them. He agreed. I then met members of this family who still lived at the scene of this crime. They were relatives of this family, because all the Baraneks (in a straight line) had been murdered, just like the Ulma family. Someone told me that they could show me the place where they were murdered. He led me to the barn, and there was a door that had survived for eighty years. We look at that door and there were bullet marks on it. The host told me that there were crosses drawn in chalk over these marks. He added that the barn was about to be demolished because it was falling apart. I told him that I would take this door to the museum. This way, more people learned about the Baranek family.

How many cases are there of the involvement of whole families who suffered repression?

I have not counted this. I estimate that there were about a thousand Poles murdered for helping Jews. In addition to that, there are those who ended up in camps.

It is said that the history of the Holocaust has been commemorated by high-quality Hollywood films. We mainly produce documentaries about Poles saving Jews. Will feature films of greater scope and for a wider audience be made?

I hope so because this is a story that should be told. There will probably be films related to the upcoming beatification.

The Pope has announced that the beatification of the Ulmas will take place on 10 September 2023 and interest in their story has increased. Markowa, with a population of 4,100 people, has become known worldwide. Will this worldwide coverage of the Ulma story contribute to greater interest in the Poles who rescued Jews – as in the past we were often placed in the stand alongside the Germans?

This was a result of ignorance or lies, of which there are many concerning the German occupation in Poland. The Ulma’s case illustrates the repressiveness of the German war machine against the Poles. In our country, death was the punishment for many acts. There is hope that people all over the world, thanks to the Ulmas, will also learn about other stories of Poles rescuing Jews. This is also the purpose of the museum. I could have made a place commemorating only the Ulmas, but the idea was broader. That is why the exhibitions are described in Polish, English and Hebrew. I hope that this is the beginning of the true story of what happened in our country during the war.

* * *

The Survivors

After the events of December 1942, many peasants in Markowa continued to give shelter to Jews in defiance of German prohibitions. Michał and Maria Bar, who lived with their children Stefania, Janina, Weronika, Antonina and Antoni, hid Chaim and Ruzia Lorbenfeld and their daughter Pesia. At the home of Antoni and Dorota Szylar, who lived with their children Zofia, Helena, Eugeniusz, Franciszek and Janina, six members of the Weltz family had been hiding since January 1943: Miriam and her children Moniek, Abraham, Reśka and Aron, as well as the latter’s wife Shirley, and after a few months they were joined by Aron and Shirley’s son Leon, who was a few years old.

Józef and Julia Bar, living with their daughter Janina, were hiding the Riesenbach family: Jakub and Ita and their son Josek and daughters Gienia and Mania. It should be added that for the first few months Gienia and Mania were hidden by the Kielar family and only later joined their parents and brother. At the home of Michał and Katarzyna Cwynar, who were raising their grandson Jan, a Jew using the name Władysław survived (perhaps it was Mozes Reich, who testified after the war that he had been hiding in Markowa).

Jakub Einhorn initially hid in Husów and Sietesza, as well as in Markowa, where he had several hiding places. At first, he was assisted by Michał and Wiktoria Drewniak, who lived with their children Antoni and Józef, as well as by Katarzyna Bar and her son Franciszek Bar and daughter Stefania Bar (the latter was raising her daughter Helena at the time). After the death of Michał Drewniak in 1943, Jakub Einhorn found new shelter with Jan and Weronika Przybylak, who lived with their children Bronisław and Zofia.

According to a post-war account by Eugenia Einhorn, Jakub’s widow, a Jewish family of three who were friends of Einhorn were also hiding with the Przybylak family. According to Weronika Przybylak, this Jewish family of three was a married couple named Szmul and Sianga and their daughter Pesa. From the summer of 1943, Abraham Segal, who claimed to be Roman Kaliszewski, stayed and worked on the farm of Jan and Helena Cwynar, who lived with their daughters Maria and Czesława. Correspondence dating as far back as the 1950s shows that his employers became aware of his Jewish background after a while and continued to hide him. This was all the more dangerous because Cwynar belonged at that time to the leadership of the underground folk movement in the Przeworsk district.

* * *

Mateusz Szpytma (b. 1975) - historian, PhD, deputy president of the IPN. Author of books: Sprawiedliwi i ich świat. Markowa w fotografii Józefa Ulmy [The Righteous and Their World. Markowa in the Photographs by Józef Ulma] (2007, 2015); The Risk of Survival. The Rescue of the Jews by the Poles and the Tragic Consequences for the Ulma Family from Markowa (2009); ZSL w województwie krakowskim (1949–1956). Geneza – ludzie – działalność (2013) and other.

The interview was published in the “IPN Bulletin” No. 3/2023


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