On September 10, Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children were recognized as saints of the Catholic Church. Józef and Wiktoria have been counted among the Righteous of the Nations since 1995. The Ulmas were ordinary people, peasants, living in Markowa, Poland in 1939 when the Nazis arrived. When I look at the photograph of Wiktoria and her children, taken by her husband, I think of countless meals cooked and clothes washed; scraped knees kissed and bedtime prayers recited… the ordinary things of life, secret treasure.
But theirs was not to be an ordinary life, nor were those ordinary times. The Ulmas had witnessed the execution of most of the Jews of Markowa in 1942 and had not hesitated to hide the Szalls and Goldmans and Grunfelds who had escaped – eight people in all, hidden on the farm. After almost two years, the Ulmas were denounced and on March 24, 1944, the German and Polish police came. They shot the Jews first and then Józef and Wiktoria, who was heavily pregnant and went into labor when the police appeared. And then the fateful decision by the German commander, Lt. Eilert Dieken – the children would be killed as well – a lesson to anyone still hiding Jews – Stanislawa, Barbara, Wladyslawa, Franciszka, Maria and Antoni Ulma, ages seven to two, shot in the yard of their home.
It is easy to shrink in horror from such a ghastly thing, but the bravery and heroism of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma should give us pause. How many of us would welcome the stranger when that quiet, secret knock came to our door in the night? Or would we more likely shoo our desperate neighbor urgently away – the risk too great, too dangerous! There is no way for us to know, of course, but what we do know is that the Ulmas were not ordinary people after all… not ordinary at all.