On September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. 16 days later the Soviet Union followed the Germans and also crossed the border to occupy Poland. The Polish Army fought for five weeks, however they were overwhelmed by the amount and high caliber of German weaponry.
The Germans quickly began large-scale oppression of both Poles and Jews. Millions of Poles were sent to Germany to work as slave laborers, or sent to gulags in Siberia. Over the next two years, Jews were separated from the rest of the Polish population and sent to ghettos. In 1942, the deportation to death camps began. In the fall of 1941, the German authorities warned the Polish nation by spreading posters across the country that Jews who fled ghettos would be executed, as would anyone who assisted them. Poland was the only country in Europe where punishments for helping Jews were so harsh. In Western Europe, Gentiles aiding Jews were fined, sent to jail or sometimes to concentration camps; in Poland, they were executed, and sometimes their neighbors were as well. Even seemingly small gestures of aid or sympathy were punished with death.
On March 24, 1944, the village of Markowa in south-eastern Poland bore witness to a terrible tragedy. In the morning, the German gendarmerie murdered seventeen people, among them Józef and Wiktoria Ulma along with six small children. The horror of this crime is unimaginable, because during the shooting, Wiktoria began to give birth to her seventh child.
The village of Markowa where the Ulma family lived was one of the largest villages in Poland. It was home to 4,500 people, including about 120 Jews. Both Wiktoria and Józef were working and studying. Wiktoria studied in the University in the near village Gać and Józef was the manager in the Dairy Cooperative, he also loved photography.
Before the war, Józef Ulma had a good relationship with the Jews. Several Jewish families lived near his home, he also did business by selling his vegetables to them. When in 1942 the Jews were sure that the Germans wanted to murder them all, they asked the Ulmas for help. Józef helped them build dugouts on the outskirts of the village. However, this was not an effective way to survive and some Jews were hunted down and murdered. The Ulmas agreed to take eight Jews under their roofs. They did so despite the warning in the form of posters saying that even the smallest help given to Jews would be met with the death penalty.
Many wonder about the Ulmas motive to hide Jews in their home. They did not accept payment, so it seems most likely that it stemmed from love of fellow their human beings, and an awareness that abandoning them could have been a death sentence for the outlawed people. By accepting the Jews, the Ulmas could count on their help around the house. It is known that Józef Ulma, together with Jews, dealt with tanning of skins for a living, which he sold in large quantities.
Five German gendarmes and several blue policemen took part in the execution in Markowa. Wagon drivers witnessed the executions, having been summoned by the Germans to see what punishment each of the Poles will get for hiding Jews. One of the witness cited the German’s words before the cruel execution Watch how Polish pigs die for hiding Jews. In the space of few seconds the Germans killed 17 people, among them, Wiktoria, Józef and Stasia (8yrs), Basia (6 yrs), Władzio (5 yrs), Franuś (4 yrs), Antoś (3 yrs), Marysia (1,5 yrs) and the unborn in Wiktoria’s womb.
The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa opened on March 17, 2016. The primary mission of the Museum is to show the heroic attitude of the Poles who helped the Jews during German occupation, risking their and their families lives. It is the first museum in Poland devoted to those who rescued Jews in the occupied Poland during the Shoah. The main exhibition presents the known and documented cases of help given to Jews.