For much of WWII, Jews who had evaded deportation from their homes by hiding in villages and the countryside were hunted mercilessly by the Nazis and their collaborators. Any Pole who hid or assisted Jews would be summarily executed. Notwithstanding, some Poles completely disregarded their own safety and did their best to save Jews.
A magnificent story of personal resistance took place in the village of Markowa in eastern Poland. Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were a devout Catholic couple who lived there with their six young children. In 1942, they encountered the Szalls, a Jewish family of six. Despite the extreme risk and the financial strain, Józef and Wiktoria hid the Szall family,
together with two other Jewish children, first providing them with work where possible while concealing them in the attic of their home.
This extraordinary arrangement continued for an extended period, until early on the morning of 24 March 1944, when a patrol of German police arrived at the Ulmas’ house to investigate a report that the family were concealing Jews. The Ulmas had been denounced, most likely by a man who had taken possession of the Szalls’ property and wanted rid of them.
The Germans discovered the Jews and shot each of them in the back of the head. Then they executed Jozef and Wiktoria – who was nine-months pregnant – in front of their children. According to eye-witness accounts, there was some discussion of what to do with the Ulma children, but this was soon resolved in favour of executing them immediately.
The memorial marking their sacrifice is desperately sad, yet also a beacon of hope
In 1995, Józef and Wiktoria were recognised as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem and today there is a memorial in Markowa to the nine members of the Ulma family (including their unborn child) who sacrificed their lives attempting to save a Jewish family of complete strangers.
I’ve visited many sites of Nazi atrocities, but there is something unique about Markowa – it’s desperately sad, a place of great suffering, yet a beacon of hope and testimony to the grandeur and courage of the human spirit.