KRAKÓW, Poland – Around 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 1, a woman approached the Ulma family grave in a Markowa cemetery, bowed her head, and prayed. She was there primarily to visit her mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death, but also to visit the Ulma family, knowing that her father had played music at Józef and Wiktoria Ulma’s wedding in 1935.
The moment was a glimpse into the deep connections and reverence the people of Markowa have for the Ulma family, making their collective beatification on Sept. 10 such a monumental moment and source of pride for the small farming village of about 4,500 people.
Crux witnessed the woman come and go alongside Czeslawa Balawajder, who leads a Catholic Action group at St. Dorothy’s Catholic Church in Markowa. The Ulmas’ grave is one among many in a crowded cemetery, featuring a gray headstone topped by a cross with a depiction of Jesus, and a portrait of the family and description below. Every day, it’s decorated with candles and an array of flowers, a sign of strong local devotion.
“For us it’s a special place … it shows that people who are one of us deserve to be saints,” Balawajder said.
The story of the Ulma family dates to the winter of 1942, when Józef and Wiktoria and their seven children provided shelter for eight Jews in the attic of their home in Markowa. At the time, German military and police were operating on Polish territory, and, according to their decrees, any form of help or contact with Jews was punishable by death.
After the Ulma family was denounced by a policeman on March 24, 1944, they and the eight Jews they hid were killed.
The story grew to national fame in Poland and, to a lesser degree, worldwide in 2003, when the Archdiocese of Przemyśyl initiated a sainthood process for the Ulma family. Knowledge of their story gradually grew, and then took off after Pope Francis approved a decree on the martyrdom of the Ulma family on December 17, 2022, clearing the path for their beatification.
The Sept. 10 ceremony will mark the first time an entire family has been beatified. It was initially believed, both in Poland and beyond, that it would also be the first time an unborn would be beatified, as Wiktoria was pregnant with her seventh child at the time they were murdered.
However, on Sept. 5 the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints issued a statement clarifying that the child was born in the moment of the mother’s martyrdom, and therefore was added to the number of living children who had been executed.
As part of the beatification process, the Ulma family’s grave was exhumed. As of Sept. 10, the remains will be placed in an altar within St. Dorothy’s Church, with special arrangements made for believers to worship, according to Monsignor Roman Chowaniec, the pastor.
Chowaniec told Crux on Sept. 1 that years before the beatification process began, people in Markowa were well aware of the Ulma family story. Over time, he said, some even began to pray to them as if they were already saints, which adds even more significance to the beatification for the local community.
“They are very happy to have this beatification process finished, and to have it here in Markowa on Sept. 10,” Chowaniece explained. “More and more requests to pray come from around Poland, and the people believe that more people praying to the Ulma family makes the prayer more effective.”
Not only was the Ulma family from Markowa, but they have a deep connection to St. Dorothy’s Church. Wictoria and the children were baptized at St. Dorothy’s, and Józef in the previous church building. Józef and Wictoria also married in the church in 1935, and they were regular Mass-goers.
“Here we can say they grew in faith, attending Masses, and also participated in a very active way in church life,” Chowaniec said. “They were very righteous people… And the execution that took place in 1944 on the 24 of March, was sort of the consequence of the choices they made in their lives.”
Mateusz Szpytma, Vice President of the National Institute of Remembrance in Poland and a Markowa native who’s dedicated much of his life’s work to the history of the Ulma family, explained to Crux Aug. 31 how the beatification is important for both the local community, and country.
“Blessed people are sometimes on statutes, and now I realize we have blessed people in our family. It’s amazing for me, and we’re very grateful,” said Szpytma, whose grandmother is Wiktoria’s sister. “By these deaths we want to show a sacrifice that will be a testimony for people, for the next generation and it’s an example for people of every faith.”
Outside Markowa, the Ulma family’s sacrifice has been a source of inspiration for government officials in their response to the Russia-Ukraine war as well.
Michal Tabisz, vice president of the board at the Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport – the closest airport to the Ukraine border in Poland – invoked the story of the Ulma family to make a point of why the region and nation’s support of Ukraine continues.
“This is something we have in our blood, that we really look at the others when they suffer, and this is exactly how we feel about Ukraine,” Tabisz told a group of journalists on a trip sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sept. 1.
“We don’t focus on who is fighting whom, within Ukraine, across the borders and the globe … but right now, here we feel that the Ukrainian people suffer, and they shouldn’t suffer, and it was unprovoked and therefore if we can help them somehow through what we do, we should do it.”
Earlier in the day, Wladyslaw Ortyl, the Marshal of the Subcarpathian Voivodeship – essentially the head of the southeastern province in Poland – similarly noted the “warm hearted and open approach” that the Ulma family exhibited in a conversation focused on the region’s continued aid to Ukraine.
On the Ulma family, he said the government has an “obligation to commemorate” their actions, not just to keep their personal story alive but also the stories of the estimated 300,000 Poles who hid and helped Jews during World War II, around 1,000 of whom were executed.
Pope Francis touched on the Ulma family’s heroism in his August 30 general audience, where he encouraged people to participate in the novena that runs until Sept. 9 in preparation for the beatification, and explained that “holiness and heroic deeds are achieved through fidelity in everyday small things.”
Crowaniec told Crux the pope’s words are crucial to further spread the story worldwide.
“It was crucial what Pope Francis said about the Ulma family,” he said. “It’s crucial to spread the cult of the Ulma family. They are a good example that everyone can be a saint, pursuing a very normal life.”
On the ground in Markowa on Sep. 1, the soccer field where the beatification will be held at 10:00 a.m. on Sept. 10 has been fenced off and is full of construction equipment to get everything set up. About 35,000 people, including clergy and government officials, are expected to attend, according to Father Maciej Flader, head of communications for the Archdiocese of Przemysl.
Expected attendees include Poland’s head Rabbi Michael Schudrich. The ceremony will be presided over by Italian Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.
The event is expected to cause logistical challenges for Markowa, as the small town isn’t accustomed or set up to accommodate such large numbers. Yet Anna Baltowska, who works for the Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa, which is dedicated to the Ulma family, said the community is more than willing to deal with one day of potential headaches.
“Everyone here is proud of the Ulma family, so I’m sure they’ll be able to put up with the difficulties,” Baltowska said.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg