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Here's what’s special about the Ulma family beatification

On Sunday, Sept. 10, Vatican Cardinal Marcello Semeraro will preside over the beatification of nine members of a single family.

A photo taken around 1943 by Józef Ulma of his wife, Wiktoria, and six of their children. Public Domain.

It’s widely believed that this will be the first time that a whole family has been raised to the altars at one time.

But that’s not the only unprecedented or unusual feature of the beatification of Poland’s Ulma family.

Here’s The Pillar’s guide to a ceremony with a difference.


The seventh child

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the beatification is that one of the nine family members was an unborn child until just before his death.

On the website of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, the child doesn’t have a name and is referred to only as “the seventh child” of parents Józef and Wiktoria Ulma.

To understand why the nameless child will be beatified next Sunday, we must go back to the 1940s, when Poland was occupied by Nazi Germans.

The Ulma family lived on a farm in the village of Markowa in southeastern Poland, not far from the present-day border with Ukraine.

In 1942, they accepted a total of eight members into their home from three Jewish families: the Goldmans, the Grünfelds, and the Didners. They did this despite the Nazi occupiers declaring that those who helped Jews would face the death penalty.

In the early hours of March 24, 1944, Nazi police descended on the Ulma family home. They forced all the occupants to line up and shot dead the eight Jewish residents. They then killed Józef and Wiktoria, and their children: Stanisława, aged 7, Barbara, 6, Władysław, 5, Franciszek, 4, Antoni, 2, and Maria, 1.

The house was set on fire, the bodies hastily buried, and the murderers celebrated the massacre with vodka and laughter. 

A week later, the bodies were dug up to give them a more dignified burial. The diggers noticed that beside the body of Wiktoria, who had been seven months pregnant, was a newborn child. It was thought that she had entered labor at the time of her execution.

Although the child was never baptized, the Vatican says that the child is eligible for beatification through the time-honored concept of “baptism of blood.”

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “the Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ.” 

It adds that “this Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.”

The Dicastery for the Causes of Saints expanded on the reasons for the seventh child’s beatification in a Sept. 5 statement

It said that “at the time of the massacre, Mrs. Wiktoria Ulma was in a state of advanced pregnancy with her seventh child.” It noted that “this son was delivered at the time of his mother’s martyrdom,” and was therefore included alongside the other children who were also martyred. 

“In fact, in the martyrdom of his parents he received the baptism of blood,” the dicastery explained.

The dicastery says on its website that the Ulma family’s killers were motivated not only by anti-Semitism but also by an “anti-Christian aversion” that was “not only theoretical or remote.”

As evidence, it notes that the police commander Eilert Diecken had renounced his Protestant faith when he joined the Nazi party. His deputy Joseph Kokott — who killed several of the Ulma children — wore the Death’s Head insignia of the SS on his cap, although he was not a member. The dicastery says that the symbol was also worn by members of “satanist and esoteric” groups associated with Heinrich Himmler, the chief architect of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.”

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As a side note, Diecken returned after the war to Germany, where he continued to work as a police officer. He died in 1960, shortly before an investigation into his role in the massacre was completed. Kokott, who researchers describe as a “germanized Czech,” was discovered in Czechoslovakia in 1957. A Polish court gave him a death sentence, later reduced to life in prison. He died in jail in 1980.

A monument to the Ulma family in Markowa, southeastern Poland. Wojciech Pysz via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A village ceremony

Unlike many beatification ceremonies, the Sept. 10 Mass will not take place in a big city cathedral. It will be held instead in the Ulmas’ village of Markowa, home to around 4,000 people.

According to the organizers, 32,000 people have signed up to take part in the beatification, meaning it is likely to be the busiest day in Markowa’s history. 

Groups are expected from the neighboring countries of Slovakia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, as well as the U.S. Nearly 1,000 priests and 80 bishops and cardinals will concelebrate the Mass. 

Asked recently if the village setting was unique, the Vatican’s Cardinal Semeraro said that he had participated in other beatification ceremonies that were not held in cathedrals. He recalled one in Oran, Argentina, that he said “took place literally in the middle of nowhere.”

“You don’t always need the majesty of a great cathedral,” said the Italian cardinal who has led the saints’ dicastery since October 2020.

The beatification Mass will take place outdoors at 10 a.m. local time, preceded by the performance of a play about the Ulma family entitled “Called to Love.” After the Mass, Markowa will be connected with the Vatican for the midday Angelus prayer.

At 4 p.m., prayers will be said at the cemetery where the Jewish people who were slain before the Ulmas are buried.

A Hebrew book displayed at the Ulma Family Museum in Markowa, Poland. Silar via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Jewish and Catholic solidarity

It’s rare for the participants in a beatification ceremony to include a rabbi. But the beatification of “the Good Samaritans of Markowa” will be attended by Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland.

The chief rabbi’s presence underlines the esteem in which the Ulma family is held by the Jewish community worldwide. 

Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem on Sept. 13, 1995. The title honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save those of Jews during the Holocaust.

Asked recently why he planned to attend the beatification ceremony, Poland’s chief rabbi said: “The Righteous Among the Nations are the best people in the world. They risked their lives for their Jewish fellow citizens, and some, like the Ulma family, gave their lives for them.” 

“For me, it’s very simple — everything they did should be publicized and due tribute should be paid to them.”

The chief rabbi said he believed that the Church was also sending a message to Catholics through the Ulmas’ beatification. 

“This is a very important step by the Church — to show the faithful how they should act, and not only in times of the Holocaust, not only against anti-Semitism, but in all conditions, for all people, regardless of their origin or nationality — a person has a duty to save others,” he said.

Józef and Wiktoria will not be the first people designated as Righteous Among the Nations to be beatified. Odoardo Focherini, an Italian journalist who was awarded the title in 1969, was beatified in 2013.

In a pastoral letter issued in June, Poland’s bishops highlighted Józef and Wiktoria’s daily commitment to making sacrifices for others and performing deeds of love. 

“The fruit of adopting this lifestyle was the heroic decision to help the doomed Jews. It was not rash, but resulted from reading the Word of God, which shaped their hearts and minds, and thus their attitude toward their neighbor,” the bishops wrote. 

“The Bible was an authentic book of life for them, as evidenced by the highlighted Gospel passages [in their family Bible], especially the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Ulmas, trying to live like Christ, implementing the commandment of love on a daily basis, were ready to give their lives for their neighbors.”

The bishops went on: “Józef and Wiktoria decided to take in eight Jews, despite the threat of the death penalty from the Germans for helping to hide Jews. Three families … took refuge in the attic of their small house. For months, they provided them with a roof over their heads and food, which was quite a challenge during the war.”

“Their self-sacrificing attitude had its tragic finale on March 24, 1944. That’s when the Nazi Germans burst into their home and cruelly executed the hiding Jews, and then Józef and Victoria were murdered in front of the children. The tragedy was completed by the killing of the children.” 

“Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, being absolutely aware of the risks, sacrificed their lives to save Jews in need. Their heroic attitude is a testimony that love is stronger than death.”

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