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In 1944, in Markowa, Poland, a German firing squad executed Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, their six children and unborn child, and the two Jewish families they had been sheltering. Beatified as martyrs by the Catholic Church in September last year, the Ulmas are relevant exemplars of how to maintain one’s humanity and decency amidst the demoralization of war, which, in 2024, continues to rage in the Holy Land, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Of the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, half were Polish citizens. Poland’s army was quickly overwhelmed after the Nazi invasion of September 1, 1939. The nation would soon become a macabre laboratory for Hitler’s racist ideology. The Slavic majority were to be partially exterminated or turned into slaves for the Nordic “master race,” while Poland’s more than three million Jews were to be completely wiped out.

The German governor of occupied Poland (and Hitler’s personal lawyer), Hans Frank, issued a decree punishing assistance to Jews with death. Only in occupied Poland, Ukraine, and Serbia were such draconian punishments levied. Meanwhile, Poles who denounced Jews to the Gestapo could count on monetary awards, extra food rations, or liquor.

Such a diabolical carrot-and-stick method tested the consciences of many Christians. Yet there were those, such as the Ulma family, who without fearing death followed Jesus’s pronouncement that there is no greater love than laying down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). This echoes the Torah, which proclaims that by saving a single life, one saves the world.

At the very center of the Ulmas’ lives was their profound Catholic faith. They were active in the Living Rosary Association at St. Dorothy’s Parish in Markowa. Years after the Ulmas’ execution, their family Bible was found. In it, two passages were underlined in red: a fragment of the Sermon on the Mount (“For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?”) and the parable of the Good Samaritan, next to which one word (tak, or “yes”) was written.

The Ulmas have since been dubbed the “Good Samaritans of Markowa.” During the German occupation, the Ulmas gave shelter to eight Jews: the Goldmans, Didners, and Grünfelds. They certainly knew the risks. Posters with Hans Frank’s execution order were widely circulated across Poland. Shootings and hangings of Polish benefactors of Jews often took place publicly so that the subjugated population knew that the death sentence for altruism was not a dead law.

Furthermore, according to historian Mateusz Szpytma, a Markowa native and relative of the Ulmas, some of Józef and Wiktoria’s acquaintances had tried to dissuade them from hiding Jews, arguing that doing so would wantonly endanger the lives of their entire family.

A further hindrance to aiding Jews was the fact that a village like Markowa lacks the anonymity of a big city, making it much more fertile terrain for local informers. Indeed, the Germans had learned of the Ulmas’ “crime” after they had been tipped off by Włodzimierz Leś, a local policeman. (During the war, the Polish police was placed under brutal German control and used in operations against Jews, Roma, and Polish partisans.) He was himself soon executed by the Home Army, the main branch of Poland’s resistance, for his act of treason.

“Solidarity” is an important word in twentieth-century Polish history. During the horrors of World War II, many Poles displayed solidarity with victims of Hitler’s terror. Although the Ulmas’ execution was public and held in broad daylight, historians estimate that twenty-one of Markowa’s pre-war Jewish population of 107 survived until the end of the war, more than a year after the Ulmas were shot, thanks to local Gentiles.

Many survivors of Auschwitz found themselves unable to believe in God. Blistering criticism has been leveled against the institutional response of Christian churches in the face of these horrors. Yet people like the Ulmas, who turned to ancient and familiar passages of the Bible such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, bore witness to a simple faith that can triumph over any evil and save humanity.

In Shūsaku Endō’s novel Sachiko, which is partially set in Auschwitz, an atheistic inmate named Henryk constantly debates the Polish Franciscan friar Maximilian Kolbe about the existence of God and the problem of evil. How can God possibly be present in a place like Auschwitz? Fr. Kolbe responds that if there is no good in Auschwitz, we must create it here. Later, Fr. Kolbe volunteers to die in place of another prisoner and is sent to the starvation bunker. After surviving for two weeks, he is killed by lethal injection. Fr. Kolbe’s sacrifice inspires Henryk to mute his cynicism and share a slice of bread with another inmate.

Amidst the moral abyss of the Third Reich, it was people like the Ulmas, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Blessed Bernard Lichtenberg (the provost of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin sent to the Dachau concentration camp for his public opposition to the Third Reich’s eugenics program and anti-Jewish persecutions) who saved humanity’s dignity. Although the Ulmas only had a basic education, their faith in Jesus and his Word was reason enough to embody the parable of the Good Samaritan, even in the face of death. May their witness inspire many potential Good Samaritans in today’s war zones.

Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist who has written for the Catholic World Report and the European Conservative, among other publications.

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Image by Kancelaria Premiera via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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