MARKOWA, Poland – At the crack of dawn on March 24, 1944, German forces raided Jozef Ulma’s home, situated on the outskirts of this village. They found eight Jews hiding in the attic – five men and three women. Ulma, his pregnant wife Wiktoria, their six small children and the Jews they had tried to save were marched to the central square of the village and, one after the other, shot dead. The village residents were ordered to come out and watch the executions – just in case they had any thoughts of their own about helping Jews.
Two years ago, the Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II was opened here in their honor. It is the country’s first museum to pay tribute to Poles who risked their lives – and often paid with them – to rescue Jews. The family was posthumously honored in 1995 by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center as “Righteous Among the Nations” – among 6,700 Poles designated as such for risking their lives to save Jews without receiving any compensation in return.
At this stage, the museum focuses primarily on rescuers who came from the Subcarpathian region of southeastern Poland. But the long-term plan is to broaden its scope to include rescuers from other parts of Poland as well.
So what could anyone have against a museum dedicated to such a noble cause?
To understand why this little museum, tucked away in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, has sparked so much controversy recently, it is crucial to bear in mind that this is Poland – a country deeply conflicted about how to tell the story of what happened on its soil during World War II. Were the Poles merely victims, or did they also collaborate with the Nazis against the Jews? And were the Ulmas and people like them the norm or the exception?
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The current right-wing government, its opponents charge, would like the world to believe that most Poles were like the Ulmas. After all, this is the same government that initiated legislation that would make it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes. (The law, passed in parliament in January, is still pending review by the Constitutional Court.)
This is why critics of the government have serious reservations about the museum, which they believe pays a disproportionate amount of attention to the phenomenon of rescue, while ignoring the fact that most Poles were bystanders and many collaborated with the Nazis – and even initiated pogroms against the Jews on their own.
Anna Stroz, the newly installed museum director, is aware of the criticism but dismisses it as “a little bit unfair.”
“As you can see, it’s not a huge museum and we’re trying to do our best,” she says, as she escorts a visitor around.
Rebuffing accusations that the museum is being used as a propaganda instrument by the government, Stroz says there is nothing wrong with focusing on a particular aspect of history.
“We’re not the only museum in the world dedicated to the rescuers – there’s even one in Berlin – and the fact that we show only positive examples here is normal, because you don’t commemorate negative examples,” she says. “This is not meant to be a Holocaust museum.”
Her view is shared by Wladyslaw Ortyl, the region’s marshal and a member of the ruling Law and Justice party. “People who criticize the museum should know that the idea was to give one particular perspective – not the entire perspective,” he says.
To be fair, the museum does not attempt to conceal a rather uncomfortable aspect of the Ulma family story: That the rescuers and the Jews they were hiding were most likely turned in by a local Polish policeman who tipped off the Germans.
The written testimony brought against him by the mayor of Markowa after the war is on display – albeit not very prominently – in the permanent exhibit. According to Stroz, it is the only testimony that exists about who denounced the family.
The exhibit also features several examples – certainly not an exhaustive list – of local Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. Neither is this information extremely accessible: Visitors interested in learning more about these collaborators must pull out drawers from an installation attached to the wall. The information is hidden inside these drawers.
With a current population of just over 4,000, Markowa was home to some 120 Jews before the war. Roughly 20 survived the Holocaust – a higher proportion than in similar towns. In addition to the Ulmas, several other local families hid Jews in their homes during the war. Recorded interviews with members of some of these families are featured in the exhibit.
Since the official opening in March 2016, the Ulma Family Museum has attracted 80,000 visitors, according to Stroz. “Considering our location, that’s a very nice number,” she says.
In front of the building, designed as a simple house, is a square with plaques bearing the names of Poles from around the country who were killed while attempting to rescue Jews. The wall near the main entrance features the names of Poles, specifically from the Subcarpathian region, who assisted Jews. Behind the building is a large field with glass plaques installed in the ground that are illuminated at night. Each plaque bears the name of a town or village where Jews were saved by Poles. At the center is a monument to the Ulma family.
The highlight of the indoor exhibit is an exact replica of the interior of the Ulma family home, which no longer exists. Among the artifacts it contains are a few original pieces of furniture, Josef’s carpentry and gardening books, and a large collection of family photographs taken by Josef – who was an avid photographer. There is also a math notebook that belonged to one of the Ulma children.
The nearby multimedia exhibit features a special section devoted to unusual hiding places used by Jews in the region. All the exhibits are in three languages: Polish, English and Hebrew.
The museum is currently running a temporary exhibit spotlighting lesser-known Poles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
While it is hard to blame the museum, Micha Bilewicz – director of the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw – says he has noticed in recent years a growing tendency among Poles to idealize the behavior of their countrymen during World War II.
His latest study shows that the average Pole believes 49 percent of the Polish people rescued Jews during the Holocaust. (While no exact figures exist, it is widely assumed that the percentage of rescuers was significantly lower than that.)
Bilewicz says he believes it is important to share the stories of rescuers “as long they are told in the proper way, as long as it is made clear they were exceptional, and as long as it is made clear they were not only at risk because of the Germans but also because of their neighbors.”
Although he has never visited the museum, Bilewicz has reservation about the overall concept, “I think the government is trying to use this museum for political purposes,” he says. “There’s a reason all the guests of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are now being sent to Markowa.”
Focusing exclusively on the rescuers, he adds, is a “skewed and distorted” way of telling the story of the Holocaust, “because you are presenting it through the lens of something that was marginal and extraordinary.
“If you present it this way,” he continues, “that is blasphemy to the memory of those who risked their lives.”
In July 1946, over a year after the Nazis were defeated, 42 Jews were murdered in a pogrom in the Polish town of Kielce. Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic psychologist and longtime resident, has dedicated years to convincing his fellow townspeople that they need to acknowledge this dark stain on their past and draw the appropriate lessons. His personal crusade is the subject of the new documentary film “Bogdan’s Journey,” which recently opened in Israel.
Bialek refuses to step foot in the Markowa museum. “If one day Poland decides on a national day of commemoration for the victims of the Holocaust, a day when it publicly acknowledges the suffering of Jews at the hands of Poles, that is the day I will go visit this museum,” he says.