The Ulma Family: Models of the Beatitudes

COMMENTARY: The nine members of the Polish family, who will be beatified Sept. 10, willingly accepted persecution on account of their love for Christ — a love that led them to the defense of others.

Wiktoria Ulma with her children, wife of Józef Ulma, Polish World War II heroes killed summarily for hiding Jews in their home, named Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem posthumously.
Wiktoria Ulma with her children, wife of Józef Ulma, Polish World War II heroes killed summarily for hiding Jews in their home, named Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem posthumously. (photo: Józef Ulma/1943 / Wikimedia Commons )

In the 21st century, being a Christian places a very large target on your back. And I’m not referring to the United States, even though things are bad enough here. 

According to Aid to the Church in Need, “almost 340 million Christians around the world — or 1 out of every 7 — live in a country where they suffer some form of persecution, such as arbitrary arrest, violence, a full range of human rights violations and even murder.” In Nigeria, China, Nicaragua and many other countries, countless numbers of our fellow believers are literally in the line of fire. 

Many American Catholics are aware of this, at least up to a point. They think it’s bad. And then (and I’m including myself in this) our minds wander on to more appealing topics. We need to stop that from happening. But how? Let me draw your attention to an important source of inspiration: the Ulma family of Markowa, Poland, a family of nine who will be beatified this weekend. 

The Ulmas lived in the small town of Markowa in southeast Poland, not far from the present-day border with Ukraine, during World War II. Jozef was a farmer and Wiktoria was a homemaker, caring for the couple’s six children and expecting their seventh. 

In late summer 1942, a program aimed at murdering all of the Jews in German-occupied Poland began to be implemented around Markova. A Jewish family, the Szalls, asked the Ulmas to hide them. The couple agreed and also took in two Jewish sisters, Golda and Layka Goldman. Jozef and Wiktoria knew they would face the death penalty if they were caught hiding Jews.

The Ulmas gave shelter to their Jewish guests for almost two years. But, in the early morning hours of March 24, 1944, German police came to the Ulma farm. They found the Jews and shot all of them. And then they executed the entire Ulma family. Josef and Wiktoria were the first to die, shot in front of their children. Stanisława, 7; Barbara, 6; Władysław, 5; Franciszek, almost 4; Antoni, 2; and Maria, 1, screaming at the sight of the parents’ murders, were then also executed. 

According to eyewitness accounts by those who saw the bodies after their execution, Wiktoria gave birth to her seventh child, a son, during her execution that morning, and the child perished. 

Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints and his secretary, Archbishop Fabio Fabene, confirmed, “This child had been born at the moment of the mother’s martyrdom” and “with the martyrdom of the parents, it received the baptism of blood.”

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “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. This baptism of blood, like the desire for baptism, brings about the fruits of baptism without being a sacrament” (1258).

Before their beatification, the Ulmas were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Reflecting the deep esteem in which the family is held by the Jewish community, Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, will attend their beatification. 

At the beatification Mass, the first reading, fittingly, will be from Maccabees, about the martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons. The Gospel reading, the Parable of the Good Samaritan found in the Gospel according to St. Luke, was underlined by Jozef Ulma in their family Bible. 

Father Witold Burda, the postulator for the Ulma family’s cause for canonization, remarked that Jozef and Wiktoria were known in their community for being “willing to help anyone who knocked on their door” and that “they built their family on the foundation of faith with fidelity to the two essential commandments: the commandment to love God and the commandment to love one’s neighbor.” 

In the Beatitudes it is written: “Blessed be those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Ulma family willingly accepted persecution on account of their love for Christ — a love that led them to the defense of others. 

We are called to manifest that same love. Fortunately, we’re unlikely to be put to the same horrifying test. But we are required to make public our support not just for Christian victims of tyranny, who make up around 80% of victims of religious persecution in the modern world, but also for others who are persecuted because of their faith. We must appeal to our elected officials to forcefully denounce this global scandal, and, at a more modest level, make sure that our family, friends, neighbors and colleagues know about it — even at the risk of being accused of saying something "inappropriate.” As I say, compared to what the Ulmas experienced, it’s not much of a test. But, at the moment, we’re in danger of failing it. 

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