St. John Paul II National Shrine exhibit tells story of Ulma family’s ‘sacrificial love’

Part of an exhibit titled "The Good Samaritans of Markowa: The Sacrificial Love of the Ulma Family" is seen at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington after the display opened Jan. 12, 2024. (OSV News photo/Mihoko Owada, The Catholic Standard)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — An exhibit on the martyred Ulma family currently on display at the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington is a worthy tribute to the Polish family whom Pope Francis said is “for all of us a model to imitate in striving for goodness and in the service of those in need.”

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children were beatified last September. They were declared martyrs because they were executed by the Nazis for sheltering Jews during World War II.

The pope has called them “witnesses of hope even amid the most horrid examples of human evil.”

Titled “The Good Samaritans of Markowa: The Sacrificial Love of the Ulma Family,” the display opened Jan. 12 and runs through March, the 80th anniversary of the family’s martyrdom. It includes 20 poster panels highlighting the Ulma family’s daily life, their devotion to their Catholic faith and information on the Jewish community of their little village of Markowa, in the District of Rzeszow in southeastern Poland.

The display also includes a unique reliquary that includes a first-class “ex ossibus” (piece of bone) relic of each member of the Ulma family, and depicts the family members connected by the branches of the Tree of Life.

Józef was a farmer and beekeeper who occasionally wrote articles for the local newspaper. Wiktoria was a homemaker who participated in amateur theater productions. The family attended Mass at their village’s St. Dorothy Church, and the couple was active in their parish’s Living Rosary Association.

After the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of Poland, assisting Jews was an offense punishable by death. Indeed, one panel in the display includes a list of Markowa residents who were scheduled to be executed for hiding Jews, as well as the promise of a reward of more than 200 pounds of rye to anyone who turned in Jews or their benefactors.

It was during this time the Ulmas decided to act on their faith and help the persecuted Jews.

The display includes a photo of the Ulma family Bible, and a photo of Bible passages highlighted by either Józef or Wiktoria that discuss love and mercy toward others.

In 1942, the Ulmas took in a total of eight Jews from two families: Saul Goldman and his sons, Baruch, Mechel, Joachim and Moses. There also were two sisters Golda Gruenfell and Layka Didner, who were distant relatives of Saul Goodman, and Layka’s daughter Reszla. All eight were hidden in the attic of the Ulma home for nearly two years.

Acting on information from a Markowa village policeman, Nazis stormed the Ulma family home in the early morning hours of March 24, 1944. All eight Jews were executed first, shot in the back of the head.

Then the Nazis shot and killed Wiktoria, who was eight months pregnant with her seventh child, and Józef in front of their six children: Stanislawa, 8; Barbara, 7; Wladyslaw, 6; Franciszek, 4; Antoni, 3; and Maria, 2. When the children began to scream seeing their dead parents, they also were shot and killed.

The Nazis forced several village residents to watch the executions as a warning against future assistance to Jews. The family was immediately buried in front of their home. When Ulma relatives exhumed the bodies almost a year later to bury them properly in the parish cemetery, it was discovered that the unborn child — a boy — had emerged from Wiktoria’s womb, either as she was dying or right after her death.

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints noted that the Ulmas’ seventh child had been “born at the moment of the mother’s martyrdom,” receiving the “baptism of blood,” and could therefore be “added to the group of child martyrs.”

The Ulma beatification last September is believed to be the first time an entire family has been beatified as martyrs.

The St. John Paul II National Shrine exhibit — offered in English, Polish and Spanish — includes photos and panels focusing on the Ulmas’ family life, their marriage, their children, their spiritual life, their political, social and artistic activities. There are panels focusing on the Jewish community of Markowa and a diagram showing where Jews were assisted in the village.

There also are reflections by St. John Paul II on the family as the cornerstone of civilization.

Some of the reproduced photos were taken by Józef himself, an avid amateur photographer who chronicled much of his family’s daily life. Particularly touching in the exhibit is a reproduction of a photo he took of Jewish women from Markowa. It is stained with blood from one of the Ulmas when they were executed.

Included is a picture of the Ulma family’s entries in their parish death registry. There also is a copy of the Yad Vashem declaration in 1995 of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma as Righteous Among the Nations. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, has recognized more than 7,200 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, and states that by nationality, Poles represent the largest group of persons who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Much of the information presented on the panels at the St. John Paul II National Shrine comes from the Markowa Ulma-Family Museum of Poles Who Saved Jews in World War II, a museum in Markowa honoring all Poles who risked their lives to benefit Jews. It is believed that in Markowa, village residents were able to save 21 Jews.

The Ulma relics — along with relics of Blessed Carlo Acutis and St. John Paul II — will be venerated by attendees at the Jan. 19 Life Fest in Washington, sponsored by the Sisters of Life and the Knights of Columbus. The event is highlighting holy men and women with stories that speak to building a culture of life.



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