The massacre behind today’s National Remembrance Day of Poles Saving Jews under German Occupation
Across the country, a plethora of online activities are scheduled to take place to honour the memory of the many Poles that risked their lives to help Jews during WWII.
Held for the first time in 2018, the National Remembrance Day of Poles Saving Jews under German Occupation has gained traction ever since. However, outside of Poland – and even sometimes within it – the event that inspired it remains little known.
Occurring in Markowa, a small town 22 kilometres outside of Rzeszów, it was on this day 77 years ago that the Ulma family were massacred by German gendarmes. Their crime: sheltering Jews.
Born locally in 1900 and 1912 respectively, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma married in 1935. Though a farmer by profession, Józef defied the rural stereotype; a passionate amateur photographer and an occasional librarian, he was also socially and culturally active in both church and theatrical groups.
Kamil Kopera of the Ulma Family Museum in Markowa tells TFN: “He was very prominent around town – everyone knew him, everyone recognized him. His murder would have struck the community hard.”
Working hard for their success, the Ulmas were a happy, growing family and had, by the time the war broke out, purchased a larger five hectare farm in what is now Ukraine.
The war disrupted more than just their future plans.
“Józef would have known what was happening to the Jews in the region,” says Kopera, “and it’s possible he even witnessed executions himself as his window overlooked the grounds that were used for these.”
Kopera speculates that it was this knowledge, paired with his Christian upbringing and general compassion that led Ulma to offer shelter to persecuted Jews.
“It’s hard to judge the reasons for his motivation after all these years,” says Kopera, “but for sure those reasons played an element. It’s also very possible that Józef’s father knew both of the families very well and this exerted some kind of pressure or loyalty.”
Whatever their reasoning, despite the hardships and dangers it would have incurred, the Ulmas decided to provide shelter in their attic for eight Jews around about the end of 1942: Saul Goldman and his four sons (known as the Shall family) and the two daughters and granddaughter of Chaim Goldman.
What happened next is difficult to discern given the passage of time, however, it is likely that the Ulmas were denounced by Włodzimierz Leś, a member of the so-called Blue Police, a Polish auxiliary force under German command.
According to one of the more commonly accepted theories, the Szalls had left their belongings in the care of Leś. Sensing an opportunity to seize their holdings, some claim Leś subsequently denounced them after learning that they were still alive and hiding out in Markowa.
So it came about that, around dawn on March 24th, a squad of Blue Police and German Gendarmes pulled up to the Ulma family farm in four carts. Led by Lt. Eilert Dieken, their number included Josef Kokot, Michael Dziewulski and Erich Wilde. According to eyewitnesses, Włodzimierz Leś was also present.
Rounding up those inside, the Jews were executed first, reportedly with a single shot aimed to the back of the head. Attention then turned to the Ulmas. Józef and Wiktoria were next, with evidence suggesting that Wiktoria, pregnant with her seventh child, began going into labour in the traumatic moments preceding her death.
Distressed by the events unfolding around them, the Ulma’s six children began screaming adding to the sense of panic and confusion. After a brief discussion, Dieken issued the order to kill them: Stanisława, aged 8, Barbara, 7, Władysław, 6, Franciszek, 4, Antoni, 3 and Maria, just 2.
With the slaughter finished, the perpetrators shared out three litres of vodka between themselves.
Later, when the town’s Sołtys, Teofil Kielar, enquired why the children had been murdered, Diekert answered cynically: “so that they wouldn’t give you any trouble.”
Justice caught up quickly with Leś, and he was killed later that year by the Polish Underground.
Elsewhere, the principle trigger man, Josef Kokot, just 23 at the time of the massacre, also faced a reckoning of sorts. Caught hiding out in Czechoslovakia 12-years after the war had ended, he was extradited to Poland and placed on trial in Rzeszów. Implicated in scores of other brutal crimes, a weeping Kokot was sentenced to death.
Although this was later commuted to life imprisonment (and then revised again to 25-years), he never tasted freedom again, dying in Racibórz prison in 1980.
Others, though, escaped punishment, most pertinently Diekert himself. Described by some who remember him as being “pleasant” and “helpful”, he resumed work as a policeman in post-war West Germany and died in 1960.
Despite being inducted into Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among The Nations in 1995, there had been a danger that the Ulmas story would be largely lost in the sea of suffering that WWII brought about.
However, this has now been corrected, not least thanks to the 2016 launch of The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in WWII.
Designed by the award-winning architect Mirosław Nizio (responsible, also, for such world class efforts as the core exhibition at POLIN and the Warsaw Rising Museum), the institution spotlights not just the heroism and sacrifice of the Ulmas but also that of other Poles who placed their lives on the line to help their neighbours.
But whilst an emphasis has been put on the compassion of Poles during World War II, more challenging aspects of Polish-Jewish relations during the German occupation are also broached.
“We’ll never really know how many Poles died helping Jews,” says Kopera. “We’re still learning about this period eighty years on. But what we hope to accomplish with the museum is to demonstrate that even during the darkest times imaginable, humanity can be found.
“Through the extent of their sacrifice, the Ulmas have become symbolic of this and it is only right we remember their empathy, courage and kindness.”