The tragic story of the Ulma family – parents Wiktoria and Jozef, along with their six children – who were murdered by the Nazis for hiding Jews, highlights the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations during the Holocaust. For a few, it is a symbol of Polish sacrifice and the joint fate of Poles and Jews under German occupation. For others, it illustrates Polish betrayal of their Jewish neighbors and the bloody end of a thousand years of joint Polish-Jewish life.
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The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews, which honors Poles who protected Jews during World War II, opened last week in a state ceremony attended by Polish President Andrzej Duda in the southeastern Polish village of Markowa, where the family was executed 72 years ago. Alongside the historic documents and exhibits documenting the dramatic and heartrending story, the museum includes a monument commemorating the Jews who were murdered in the region and another for Poles who, like the Ulma family, paid with their lives to save Jews.
The story behind the opening of the museum goes beyond the narrow world of the farming family from the small community in which it is built. It is the culmination of a controversial political-national venture trying to reshape the culture of Polish memory.
For the Polish government, the commemoration of the Ulma family symbolizes the correction of a long-standing historical injustice.
“The world does not know the reality that prevailed in Poland during the years of occupation, and it is this ignorance that hurts the good name of our country,” the Polish parliament wrote in a statement ahead of the museum’s opening last Thursday.
“The Polish legislature, in the name of the Polish nation, praises those who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination, and especially those who were killed by the occupiers in retaliation for helping Jews,” it added.
The Ulma family’s lives were cut short at the end of March 1944. About 18 months earlier, they had opened their doors to eight Jews, from adjacent villages, who had fled the Nazis. When the Germans discovered them all, they shot the Jews to death – five members of the Szall family, the sisters Golda and Layka Goldman, and Layka’s daughter. Then they murdered Jozef and Wiktoria, who was seven months pregnant, as well as their children Stanislawa, Barbara, Wladyslawa, Franciszka, Maria and Antoni.
The murder shook the entire area and caused concern among other Polish farmers who hid Jews and began to fear for their lives.
“The morning after, 24 corpses of Jews were discovered in the fields,” recalled Yehuda Erlich, who was hiding a few kilometers away and survived the war, as recorded on the Yad Vashem page dedicated to the Ulmas. “They had been murdered by the peasants themselves, who had given them refuge for 20 months.”
Still, another 21 Jews continued to hide in Markowa and survived the war. In his speech at the museum’s opening ceremony, President Duda mentioned the Poles who did not turn in the Jews they were hiding, despite the risk of death, as an example of the Poles’ brave spirit.
The opening ceremony was also the scene of an emotional meeting for the families of Holocaust survivors hidden by Poles in the region.
The family of Abraham Segal, 86, of Kiryat Ata, met at the ceremony with descendants of the Cwynar family, which had saved him. Fifty Polish families received medals from President Duda before the ceremony to honor their heroic acts.
No one disputes the bravery or humanity of the Ulma family, whom Yad Vashem recognized in 1995 as members of the Righteous Among the Nations. However, the attempt to turn their story into an example that represents Polish behavior toward Jews during the Holocaust also aroused bitter criticism.
The body leading the initiative to honor Poles’ heroism toward Jews is the Institute of National Remembrance, which operates with support from the Polish Foreign Ministry, which distributes its research results worldwide.
“Part of our mission is to respect the honor of Polish civilian heroes. The past influences the shaping of our Polish identity,” Polish historian Marcin Urynowicz, of the institute’s research department, said last week.
The institute keeps documents that record acts of Polish heroism. They include reports on Poles who saved Jews, but were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps or summarily executed. An examination of them reveals the horrible fate of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews. However, there is no clear answer to the question of how many “good Poles” like these were active.
Yad Vashem has recognized 6,620 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations. The number of people saving Jews is relatively high compared to other nations. Many Poles use this claim as an attempt to clear the Poles of complicity in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
“True, the Poles constitute the largest group in the Righteous Among the Nations, but you have to remember that the number is not high if you take into account that there were three million Jews in Poland,” says Irena Steinfeldt, director of the Righteous Among the Nations department. “The number of righteous people does not attest to the ‘character of a people,’ but rather about those individuals.”
Still, Steinfeldt concedes that the real number of Poles who saved Jews was higher than the number recognized to date. “We add about 50-70 new Poles to the list every year,” she says. Proof is required that a person endangered himself to save Jews in order to receive recognition. The necessary proof is lacking in many cases. “I definitely presume there are those who should receive the title but we don’t know about them,” she says.
Polish authorities repeatedly stress the dangers Poles took to hide Jews. The Institute of National Remembrance documents some 1,500 Poles who were persecuted by the Germans on suspicion of helping Jews. There is no definitive answer as to how many paid with their lives. “We have no exact numbers,” says Urynowicz. “We are collecting the numbers.”
The other side of the story – Poles who abetted the Nazis in murdering Jews – is not found in the museum. Polish historian Prof. Jan Grabowski, whose 2013 book “Hunt for the Jews” described the dark side of Polish behavior during the Holocaust, says that “the authorities in Poland shifted gears in an attempt to prove the great extent of providing help. I fear that the Righteous have become hostages of Polish ‘historical policy’ – in other words, the Polish state institutions are in overdrive to prove the extent of the ‘helping hand’ phenomenon.”
He adds, in a cynical tone, “If you believe the statements of Polish diplomats, officials but also large and growing segments of the Polish public, helping the Jews was one of the major preoccupations of Polish society under the German occupation. The claim is, of course, ridiculous, but it is very popular in Poland – and it unites people from the extreme right to the left of the political spectrum.”
Grabowski, who teaches at the University of Ottawa in Canada, critiques the unbalanced picture that the new museum presents to visitors.
“The museum is dedicated to the memory of Poles who saved Jews and the fate of the Ulma family,” he says. “So far, one can only applaud this initiative. However, to understand this tragedy, one needs to see the full complexity of the rescue drama.”
He turns the spotlight on the Ulmas’ neighbors who collaborated with the Nazis. “How did the Germans learn about the Ulmas? Who turned them in to the occupier, and why? More importantly, what was the reaction of the local community to the unfolding tragedy?” he wonders.
Grabowski belongs to Poland’s “new historians,” whose research puts a not-so-flattering mirror before Polish eyes, to the disgruntlement of the conservative, right-wing government. His colleague, Prof. Jan Tomasz Gross, another Pole who lives overseas, shocked Poland 15 years ago when he revealed the murder that Poles committed against their Jewish neighbors in another town, Jedwabne. These days, in line with the new winds blowing from Warsaw, he is persona non grata in his homeland. “If we want to be credible claiming our heroes from the past, we must acknowledge our villains as well,” he told Haaretz last month.
Yad Vashem’s Steinfeldt also criticizes the Polish attempt to exaggerate the number of Poles who saved Jews. “It is still a minority,” she says. “It angers me that Poles sometimes argue that the general attitude leaned toward saving [Jews]. It dwarves the heroism of the Righteous Among the Nations.”
Steinfeldt says the Ulma family “was probably afraid not only of the Germans but also some of their Polish neighbors. There were informers and betrayers, and even Poles who murdered other Poles for hiding Jews,” she explains. “There are survivors who told us that after the liberation, the Pole who had saved them told them to leave their hiding place at night without telling the neighbors who exactly had saved them. As such, saving did not score the savior any points in Polish society.”
The bottom line is that the picture is complicated. “History is not black and white. It is good to tell this story, but it wouldn’t be right to present it as an example of how all Poles behaved,” Sebastian Rejak, the Polish Foreign Ministry’s envoy to the Jewish Diaspora, told reporters recently.
“All kinds of human behavior emerge here,” notes Steinfeldt. “Poles who saved displaying great heroism; Poles who did it to extort money from Jews; and some Poles who murdered Jews. We are obliged to recognize the few who risked their own lives, but reject out of hand any blanket statement on the subject.”