The Righteous and the Merciful

Culture - May 20, 2024

A Tragic Story from Poland

Markowa 24 March 1944

Shortly after midnight on 24 March 1944, nine German and Polish policemen with some Polish helpers left Łańcut, a town in the Subcarpathian region that had belonged to the Habsburg Empire before the First World War, and was subsequently a part of Poland, but occupied by Nazi Germany in September 1939. Before sunrise, their horse-drawn wagons arrived in the small village of Markowa. The Nazis had been informed that Józef Ulma, a peasant living with his wife and six children in a cottage outside Markowa, was hiding eight Jews. Since 1941, the Nazis had been trying to exterminate all Jews in Poland (and elsewhere), while they had also killed some in the first two occupation years. Those they captured were shot on the spot or sent to death camps, but some Jews managed with Polish help to go into hiding, including those now sheltered by the Ulma family. The Nazis had announced, however, that every Pole hiding a Jew would be summarily executed. The Jews hiding in Ulma’s cottage were Saul Goldman and his four sons, Baruch, Mechel, Joachim, and Mojzesz, and three relatives of the Goldmans, Golda Grünfeld, Lea Didner and her little daughter Reszla.

The five German and four Polish policemen left the carts and their drivers in some distance from Ulma’s cottage and walked quietly to the house. They first killed three Jews in their sleep, two of the Goldman brothers and Golda Grünfeld. They then summoned the Polish coachmen to the scene, telling them that they had to witness the punishment meted out to any Pole assisting Jews. The remaining five Jews were shot one after another, first one of the Goldman brothers, then Lea Didner and her little daughter, then the fourth Goldman brother and finally the old father, Saul. A while later Józef and his wife Wiktoria were shot in front of the cottage. ‘During the execution we could hear terrible shouts, wailing, and the children calling out for their parents who had been already killed,’ one of the Polish coachmen later said.

An Unborn Baby Struggling in Vain

The German policemen then discussed what to do with Ulma’s six crying children, Stanislawa, eight years, Barbara, seven years, Wladyslaw, six years, Franciszek, four years, Antoni, three years, and Maria, two years. After conferring with his men, Lieutenant Eilert Dieken decided that they should all be shot. One of his men, Josef Kokott, shot some of them before he yelled to the Polish coachmen: ‘See how Polish pigs die for concealing the Jews!’ Now the Mayor of Markowa, Teofil Kielar, obeying an order from the Germans, arrived with a few men who were supposed to bury the people executed. When he asked why it had been necessary to kill the Ulma children, the answer was: ‘So that they would have no further problems.’ It was still dark. Kielar’s men were ordered to search the bodies for valuables, with the Germans watching over them waving a flashlight. They found a box on Golda Grünberg’s chest with some jewels made of gold. They then started plundering the house and the farm and commandeered two additional carts from Markowa on which to put the loot. Kielar’s men were then ordered to dig a big hole in the ground for the bodies. One of them approached a German policeman asking permission to bury the Polish Catholics and the Jews separately. Enraged, the German shot at him, piercing a bucket he was holding. However, the Germans eventually consented to the digging of two graves, one for the Ulma family, one for the Goldman family. Then, the Germans ordered the Poles from Markowa to bring vodka to the site, whereupon they went on a drinking spree.

The German and Polish policemen left Markowa on wagons piled high with the loot. A week later, some friends and relatives of the Ulma family surreptitiously opened their grave at night, laid the bodies into coffins, and reburied them. They found that there was one more member of the family than they had expected, as one of them recalled. He had seen the infant child’s head and chest between Wictoria Ulma’s legs. Eight months pregnant, she had gone into labour before her execution. The youngest Ulma, trapped in the womb of a dead mother, had in vain struggled for survival. In January 1945, only ten months after the murders, the Germans were driven out of Markowa by the Soviet Red Army. The bodies of the Ulma family were transferred to the local cemetery. Later, the bodies of the Goldman family were also exhumed and reburied in a cemetery for Nazi victims.

The Worst and the Best

I came across this tragic story in a recent book published by the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, The Righteous and the Merciful. The Rescue of the Jews by the Poles and the Tragic Consequences for the Ulma Family of Markowa, by Mateusz Szpytma. It showed how total war can bring out both the worst and the best in people. Apparently it was a Polish policeman, Włodzimierz Leś, who denounced the Jews. Before the war, he had been on good terms with the prosperous Goldman family in Łańcut, and initially he sheltered some of them, guarding some of their property as well. But when the Nazis made it a capital offence to hide Jews, he told them that they would have to leave, but refused to return their property to them. Perhaps it was their futile attempt to retrieve this property that prompted him to betray them. He knew from a visit to the Ulma cottage that the Goldmans were hiding there, and he was one of the Polish policemen accompanying the Germans on that fateful night of 24 March 1944. For his part in this evil act he was executed in September 1944 by the Polish resistance movement. Of the five German policemen, only one ever received a punishment, Josef Kokott. By chance, he was recognised in Czechoslovakia in 1957 by visitors from the Subcarpathian region. Subsequently, he was extradited to Poland and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison where he died in 1980. Erich Wilde met his death on the front in August 1944. Lieutentant Eilert Dieken became a police officer in West Germany after the war and died in 1960, shortly before prosecutors intended to open a case against him. Like Dieken, Michael Dziewulski and Gustav Unbehend were never brought to justice, although their whereabouts were known.

Józef Ulma, born in 1900, had attended an agricultural college and was a pioneer in growing vegetables and fruits, and in beekeeping and silkworm breeding. He also built a small electric windmill, the first of its kind in Warkowa. He was a keen photographer who portrayed life in his neigbourhood in thousands of photographs. At the age of thirty five he married the twelve years younger Wiktoria Niemczak. In the photograph above she is seen with her six children. It is only recently that the extraordinary integrity, courage and charity of the Ulma family have been properly recognised. In 1995, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma posthumously received the honorary title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ from Israel’s official memorial, Yad Vashem. In 2017, the Polish government made 24 March a day of commemoration for Poles saving Jews during the Nazi occupation. A museum in Markowa devoted to the memory of Poles saving Jews is named after the Ulma family. On 10 September 2023, the entire Ulma family was beautified by the Catholic Church, including the unborn baby.

Anti-Semitism on the Rise

This story is particularly poignant now when anti-semitism seems to be on the rise in Europe. The twentieth century was a time of unequalled material progress and advances in technology, the elimination of many fatal diseases, and at the end of the century, the virtual disappearance of real poverty in most parts of the world. But it was also the time of totalitarianism, the attempt to destroy time-tested traditions and individual virtues such as integrity, courage, and charity.