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The Ulma Family: Rays of light in the darkness

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Thousands attend the 10 September beatification Mass of the Ulma family, pictured above, who were martyred in Markowa, Poland, for sheltering Jews under German occupation during World War II. Photo: OSV News photo/Patryk Ogorzalek/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via Reuters
Thousands attend the 10 September beatification Mass of the Ulma family, pictured above, who were martyred in Markowa, Poland, for sheltering Jews under German occupation during World War II. Photo: OSV News photo/Patryk Ogorzalek/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via Reuters

In one of the most significant moments in Polish post-war history, the Ulma family was beatified in Markowa, in south-eastern Poland on 10 September.

“I think it will only get me at night, when I come back home, because now I still can’t believe it,” Jerzy Ulma, nephew of Blessed Józef Ulma, told OSV News.

His uncle Józef, along with wife Wiktoria and seven children: Stanislawa, Barbara, Wladyslaw, Franciszek, Antoni, Maria and a child without a name born during the martyrdom of their mother were declared blessed by papal envoy Cardinal Marcello Semeraro in Markowa, where the Ulma family lived and died on 24 March, 1944.

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They were killed by German occupants of Poland for giving shelter to eight Jews in their house.

“It would be a mistake if the day of the Ulma beatification would be used only to remember the terror and atrocities committed by the perpetrators,” Cardinal Semeraro said in a homily.

“We would like this day to be a day of joy,” he said.

In 1942, Wiktoria and Józef accepted a Jewish family into their home.

“Today, along with the new blessed, we would like to remember their names,” Cardinal Semeraro said.

They were Saul Goldman with sons Baruch, Mechel, Joachim, Moses as well as Golda Grünfeld and Lea Didner with little daughter Reshla,” he listed.

“The gesture of Józef and Wiktoria was a sign of obedience to God’s commandment,” the cardinal said.

“It was a ‘yes’ to God’s will,” he said, emphasising that a man “despised, rejected and mortally wounded” was welcomed to their home.

During the Angelus prayer on 10 September, Pope Francis praised the new blesseds, “an entire family exterminated by the Nazis on 24 March 1944 for having given shelter to some persecuted Jews.”

“They opposed the hatred and violence that characterised that time with evangelical love,” the pontiff said.

“May this Polish family, which represents a ray of light in the darkness of the Second World War, be for all of us a model to imitate in the zeal for goodness and service to those in need,” he said before asking the faithful to applaud for the newly blessed.

In Markowa, the families of Wiktoria and Józef accompanied Fr Roman Chowaniec, parish priest at Markowa’s St Dorothy Church when he carried relics of the Ulma family. The project of reliquary includes a tree from which “the family grew”, as beatification organisers explained, and now will be part of the parish church where they proclaimed their faith and their house where they sheltered their Jewish neighbours.

The beatification altar included multimedia elements. Pictures taken by Józef Ulma were displayed throughout the beatification Mass to illustrate who was being beatified —“saints from the neighborhood.”

Before and after the liturgy, the images could be seen as a slide show.

“This beatification is an emphasis on the importance of married and family life in unity and fidelity in everyday life,” Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, primate of Poland, told OSV News.

The Ulmas “took up their vocation very concretely, being faithful to the end to what is the basic reality of man, which is love of life, fidelity to life and also love towards other people.

“This is something amazing that we can pass on from this beatification to the whole world,” he said.

Thousands attend the 10 September beatification Mass of the Ulma family, pictured above, who were martyred in Markowa, Poland, for sheltering Jews under German occupation during World War II. Józef and Wiktoria and their seven children were proclaimed “Blessed” by Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, who concelebrated the Mass in Markowa. Photo: OSV News photo/Patryk Ogorzalek/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via Reuters
Thousands attend the 10 September beatification Mass of the Ulma family, pictured above, who were martyred in Markowa, Poland, for sheltering Jews under German occupation during World War II. Józef and Wiktoria and their seven children were proclaimed “Blessed” by Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, who concelebrated the Mass in Markowa. Photo: OSV News photo/Patryk Ogorzalek/Agencja Wyborcza.pl via Reuters

Manuela Tulli, author of the book Martyred and Blessed Together: The Extraordinary Story of the Ulma Family, written with Polish Fr Pawel Rytel-Andrianik and published by Our Sunday Visitor, said she discovered the Ulmas only in December 2022, when she passed through Poland on her way to Ukraine.

“I didn’t look for the Ulma story, the story found me,” she said.

She said the Ulmas were “an ordinary family like many others, with work-related problems associated with such a large family, with the joy of the little ones who arrived in just a few years.

“An ordinary family deciding to do an extraordinary thing, which was to open the doors of their home to eight Jews, risking their lives,” she told OSV News.

For US priest Fr Michal Niemczak, being in Markowa for the beatification of his family members was something he was “very grateful for.”

The priest of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who is now forming seminarians at Mount Angel Seminary in St Benedict, Oregon, came to Poland carrying his tablet with 1,156 intentions shared with him through a Google doc by his parishioners in New Mexico, family and friends, but also people from around the United States and Poland.

“So far I got 423 of them,” he told OSV News at 7am, three hours before the beatification, about how many intentions he had already gotten through.

“I wish that our family in heaven grows, because now we have an example.

“Many families are going through difficulties in their lives but there is so much hopes I see in these intentions that the Ulma family will intercede,” he said.

Along with Cardinal Semeraro, Cardinal Gerhard Müller and Cardinal Robert Sarah arrived from the Vatican, accompanied by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, longtime personal secretary of St John Paul II, Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw and Cardinal-designate Grzegorz Rys of Lódz. Over 70 bishops and 1,000 priests concelebrated Mass.

Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich participated in the outdoor Mass, celebrated at the football stadium in Markowa.

He said the Ulmas are “mentors.”

“We ask ourselves, what does God want from us? How do we know what we should do?” he said in an interview with Vatican News.

“Of course we have many verses in the Bible that are clear. But it’s very helpful to see someone who lives the way God wants us to live,” he said.

A separate ceremony conducted on 10 September by Cardinal Semeraro, Archbishop Adam Szal of Przemysl and Rabbi Schudrich accompanied the beatification at the nearby Jagiella-Niechcialki war cemetery, where the eight murdered Jews lie buried.

President Adrzej Duda of Poland, first lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also were present along with several members of the Polish government. Delegations from Israel, the United States and Germany arrived as well to celebrate the heroic family that showed mercy to their persecuted neighbours.

“I truly thank God today where he had led me,” Urszula Niemczak, a family relative, told OSV News.

Her father-in-law was WIktoria’s brother. Her husband, Franciszek, said that “the sun rose early today, this is a good sign,” he said, smiling.

Jerzy Ulma recalled “More than 20 years (ago) someone asked my father whether he would like the Ulma family to be beatified. He said: ‘God willing! I wish my brother that he rests in peace, because what else can I wish him?”

Paulina Guzik is international editor for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly known as Twitter) @Guzik_Paulina

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