Pope Francis elevated the Ulma Family to the group of blessed ones. What does this beatification mean for Poland and for Europe?
Prof. Jan Żaryn: First of all, the beatification of the Ulma Family is a very important event for the Church, i.e. for people who believe in Christ. This is the first circle and undoubtedly this is beatification, which speaks of extraordinary human mercy, of extraordinary courage that a family with strong faith gains, because it gives the freedom to make such a heroic decision. I think this is a beatification that provokes various reflections also regarding our contemporary condition, because it is a family that found the strength in God to make such heroic decisions as sacrificing one’s life for the sake of a neighbor who was in even greater danger and need for rescue. It is also a reflection on the Polish family and the family in general as the force that, thanks to love, is able to make such heroic decisions. It is also a family that was a large family, and the youngest child, according to the research conducted in connection with the beatification, was born in this tragic reality of the mother’s death, so a child who tries to answer the question about the value of life, the protection of life and what can bring an ideology and practice that is implemented by the perpetrators – both the former perpetrators and those who still threaten life today. Both the life of the most defenseless one, i.e. the unborn, and the life of the defenseless one who is already in old age and some people believe that the only way to free the world from them is euthanasia. The last case of suffocation of a woman who was euthanized also shows us how far man has moved away from the system of values that the example of the Ulma family carries. Also, the reflection seems to me very important and clear when it comes to understanding the other side, that is, how deeply not only Dieken – the one who commanded the local unit of torturers – but the German nation was able to implement such a pagan mission in which the Germans were capable to overcome the culture in which they were also brought up – Christian culture. How much they must have allowed themselves to be deceived by pagan ideology, if they were capable of such monstrous acts as Dieken, who, in addition, after returning to his country and the establishment of Germany, was able to continue functioning and was not even able to transfer this knowledge to his loved ones, family, to at least in this circle account for their crimes. On the contrary – he left this family in total ignorance, and his daughter found out, as we know, about his murders, only thanks to the memory that we, Poles, have preserved in our initiatives and historical research. It should not be forgotten that the main perpetrator of this discovery of the memory of the Ulma family was, of course, Dr. Mateusz Szpytma and the entire Institute of National Remembrance, from at least the times of Janusz Kurtyka, which institution was committed to remembering Poles saving Jews. At some point in the existence of the Institute of National Remembrance, this became – and still is – one of the main tasks of this institution, both scientific and educational.
So we have at least several great topics that are related to this beatification and, of course, the main public opinion that can reach all these topics, experience them and offer their own reflections are, first of all, people of the Church, but I very much hope that also people who do not share the Catholic view, but have their own process of finding the truth, reading their conscience, that this beatification can also reach them with the same portion of reflection on the condition of the modern world. How far, for example, has Europe moved away from the heroism that is and was present in the individual and in the family thanks to love, because it is this value that gives wings and raises people to those eagles that do not fall from the ridge, but are able to maintain themselves even in the least favorable moments.
The example of the history of the Ulma Family shows, as if through a lens, that if we separate history from God, we will not learn anything from it, because we will have a lot of facts, but we will not see cause and effect relationships. Isn’t this the problem with contemporary historical studies, from primary school to university? This would explain why we, as humans, keep making the same mistakes.
The problem is probably deeper. Here, education is undoubtedly a very important place and a potential factor that raises a person from these various knees to which he is forced to humiliate himself. I am also thinking here, for example, of catechesis. Catechesis is also an educational space in which, when teaching about God, we can undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of our great predecessors. Recently I found such a beautiful quote from the testament of Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who, when confronted with our 19th century independence aspirations, more or less said and wrote that, above all, faith in God is the necessary carrier of Polish patriotism and thanks to this we will regain independence, and not the other way around. That is, it is not love for the Homeland that is in itself the condition for regaining it, because without love for God, this love for the Homeland will not have the foundation that is necessary to give strength, to give what is the foundation of determination. This is also, to some extent, an important message to this day, not only in the context of the relationship between an individual and the homeland, but also in the relationship between an individual and a neighbor, and another person, that freedom actually exists in us thanks to God’s strength, which gives us our own and thanks to this, we are able to cope with the greatest problems of life, both the collective one and our own, individual one.
Actually. However, if we do not draw logical conclusions, these wars will repeat themselves, because war does not break out without a reason, but because somewhere in human action there was a lack of the presence of God, who was replaced by idols, either pagan, as was the case with Nazi Germany, or and others leading directly to totalitarianism.
Yes, but I think that as specific people we are not able to master the entire world order. We cannot take on such responsibility because we are not capable of meeting the obligations we have undertaken. However, we can undoubtedly react. The last example – the war that broke out, during which the Russians attacked their neighbor, Ukraine, for imperial purposes, and as a result, Ukrainian refugees found themselves within our borders of the state and national community, and it turned out that we are capable of attitudes that connect us with those, post-war generations. Of course, I do not want to compare this effort and courage to the courage of the Ulma family, but somewhere there is a subconscious cultural code that exists in us, but it is still very closely related to the Christian system of values. Even if it is not defined by specific people, Poles today do not define it this way. It was out of love for our neighbor that we helped Ukrainians – many of us because we are Christians, but many of us came from the same system of values when providing help, although of course they did not have to appeal to the Christian God, to the Virgin Mary, to those who, as our patron saints, help us. At least we believers treat them that way.
It is estimated that between 7,000 and 11,000 Poles risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors during World War II. They were all ready for martyrdom, because helping Jews was punishable by death by the Germans in occupied Poland. Europe does not want to remember this. Is it because she rejected the Gospel a long time ago, or are there other reasons for this?
Ignorance, as we know, when it comes to learning about Polish history has a long history of its own, caused by the fact that after World War II we, as a nation, were absent from the discussion defining the history of World War II. The historical policies pursued by Western countries, the Soviet Union and the United States distorted the Polish narrative not only because it was free only in exile, but primarily because it was absent and therefore inaccessible, and in its place was the pro-Soviet narrative, which was the result of the existence of state authorities dependent on a foreign power. We’ve been getting out of this for decades. Today, in 2023, we are in a much better place than a dozen or so years ago, because we, as Poles, had to re-read our history, especially the period of World War II. Strong with this knowledge, we can today face this storm of lies that appears to us from time to time in external manifestations in public opinion that attacks us. If I remember our collective reaction to the book “Neighbors” by Jan Tomasz Gross, where it turned out that we were unprepared, completely defenseless against lies, these lies that entered our territory from the Western world, i.e. the one to which we bestowed upon truthfulness, we are today in another place. Those who try to insult us or lie about us out of ignorance or cynicism are also aware that the resistance is much more serious, because we ourselves are endowed with much greater knowledge about our past. And when it comes to Poles saving Jews, we, of course, repeat many times as historians that the phenomenon of this help was, on the one hand, that it was institutional help, i.e. both the Polish government in exile and all its diplomatic structures, with the ministries responsible for for budgetary and financial issues, which also informed public opinion in the West, from 1942 they decided that the aim of the war would be to support the Jewish population escaping from the ghettos, because then the extermination became visible beyond any doubt. Undoubtedly, this institutional help, which is visible primarily in the Polish underground state, is visible both in terms of the financial and organizational sphere, i.e. the department of internal affairs of the Government Delegation for Poland, which has its own Jewish section, which is an intermediary between the underground structures and the Council for Aid to Jews. The Council to Aid Jews, in turn, is an institution that brings together representatives of the Polish and Jewish underground, thanks to which this help can be real, because without this contact with the Jewish underground it would obviously not be adapted to the realities of the occupation life. On the other hand, there was also great institutional help from the Home Army, i.e. courts and executions against those who broke Polish law and obeyed German law, i.e. primarily against snatchers, and against all categories of informers or Gestapo agents, because these Poles were excluded from the Polish community precisely because of the ethos of the Polish underground state, but also by the attempt to enforce penalties imposed on traitors, and snatchers were also treated as traitors to the Polish state. The Germans, in turn, as we know, and this also limited the possibilities of providing help, sentenced Poles to death not only for helping Jews. This death penalty was, of course, applicable to Jews, but this execution went deeper, that is, in fact, the only attitude of a Pole that was permissible under the occupation law was the Pole as an informer. Everyone who did not report was already a victim of the occupation law system, so we also need to understand this and, in this context, also understand the other form of help, i.e. the non-institutional, individual one, in which, of course, the Catholic Church, women’s and men’s religious congregations, and parish priests, entire parishes where Jews were also hiding, or of course parishioners, believers in villages, small towns, and large cities, such as, above all, Warsaw, have particular merits.
And what is worth emphasizing is that we, as historians, are very clearly aware that neither membership in a political party – from left to right – nor affiliation with a class or class limited the provision of individual help. This is also a great, wonderful phenomenon of Polishness, that despite very far-reaching intellectual, ideological, political and party disputes in the underground structures, this individual help directed towards those in need was the result of a deeper, internal understanding of Polishness, i.e. the understanding of this system of values based on Decalogue, on love for one’s neighbor. Hence we have Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Julian Grobelny. We have families that came from socialist families close to the Jewish community. And we have nationalists among us – both from ONR and the National Party. Of course, there was also a lot from the people’s movement, because the countryside helped a lot. For example, Markowa, as a small town that actually groups a rural community, was one of the numerous proofs of this. Also the landed gentry manors – this is the second version of the Polish village – provided help to Jews and they took refuge there in these landed estates too. So we have a whole cross-section of society, also in cities – from working class communities to professors, artists and actors. There were also many Poles there who realized that they could not reject this outstretched hand of a person asking for help.
This is a huge topic. I, as a historian, have been dealing with the history of Poles saving Jews for many years, as one of the co-founders of, among others, together with Professor Tomasz Strzembosz of the Committee to Commemorate Poles Saving Jews, we counted and still count that there were hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million of Poles who provided help to Jews, from incidental to more long-term assistance. Today it is generally agreed that it was certainly at least several hundred thousand. It seems to me that this is a great achievement of historians who – including me – said that it should not be summed up after the Yad Vashem Institute, because the Righteous Among the Nations, a beautiful category of brave and wonderful people, is only the peak of certain reality that is related to Poles providing institutional and individual help to Jews. And if anyone would like to argue that such incidental, short-term, one-day help for Jews is incomparable to such help as was provided in Markowa and the Ulma family, let them know that we know of cases where the Germans killed a Pole who was approaching with a cup of water to a marching column of Jews going to slave labor. It was incidental help that had no effect because he did not bring the water, but nevertheless he was a victim of the German occupation reality because he tried to be a human being.
The beatification of the Ulma family is not only a great joy for Poland, but also a reminder of the truths about the transition to eternal life. Is Europe, thoroughly secularized and plowed by the cultural revolution, able to accept them as its advocates? In particular, is it able to accept the child who died in Victoria’s mother’s womb, since the West wants to perform abortions on such children?
I won’t say I’m optimistic here. That’s why I said from the beginning that there are these circles, that is, undoubtedly a circle of people of the Church, who are people of the Church, I think, but are still better prepared to accept a certain reflection that is promoted by the Catholic Church and blessed are necessarily the foundation necessary for this reflection. But not our European world, especially due to its management by left-liberal media, by institutions staffed by cinical people, lack of will to move towards the truth, and interested in managing people and entire communities. I think that also business, which is very often in the hands of cynical people or people who are not gifted with the mission of elevating a person to higher tasks, because also for economic reasons, a person is a much better recipient of goods. All this, i.e. the diminishing of humanity that exists in public space, leads us to believe that an attempt to place a man on a ridge is a very difficult attempt to accept. I repeat about the eagle that is on the ridge and does not roll down – these are the words of Primate Stefan Wyszyński, which he preached to the youth. If there is any sense of optimism somewhere, I think that it is in these young generations that we should look for this spark of optimism, because young people have always had and still have a tendency to think about themselves in positive terms. None of the young, normal people plan in their lives to be a murderer, to be a Dieken. I think that a young man wants to be like the Ulma Family. This is the nature of man.
You reminded, Professor, that the murderer of the Ulma family, Eilert Dieken, never faced any consequences for his actions, which seems to mean that despite rhetorically distancing themselves from Nazism, the Germans remained in this spirit. How big a threat does it pose to peace in Europe today? Here we come back to the ability to draw conclusions from history – Germany rejected God and did not pay reparations, so I guess we have a serious reason for concern. How does the Professor evaluate it?
Undoubtedly. Imperialisms can be renewed in new guises or in older ones. On the one hand, Putin’s Russia, which in fact openly refers to Stalinism, refers to the tsarist, imperial times. On the other hand, the Germans, who, of course, have taken off the Nazi robe and consider themselves democrats, are in fact also taking over their own imperial and totalitarian traditions by trying to impose this system on the European Union, not even of values, because these are rather anti-values, but of the system of managing European civilization. Germans have the ability to seek responsibility for creating Europe, regardless of whether other Europeans feel like it, and this is totalitarianism, not any democratic transformation of Europe. Therefore, as Poles, especially in these two flywheels, we must be sensitive to all those experiences that prove the vitality of old and new imperial temptations existing in these nations. Undoubtedly, the German nation has an extraordinary potential to do good for European culture, so let’s hope that this time, as Poles, we will be good teachers of them.
Interview by Anna Wiejak