National Day of Remembrance of Poles Rescuing Jews in tribute to the heroic courage of Polish silent heroes

Photo: Yad Vashem

On March 24, on the anniversary of the shooting of the Ulma family from Markowa, we celebrate the National Day of Remembrance of Poles who saved Jews under German occupation. It is a tribute to those who, in the difficult period of the German occupation, despite the death penalty, decided to help their fellow citizens of Jewish nationality.

This day was established – as stated in the Act – “in homage to Polish Citizens – heroes who, in an act of heroic courage, incredible bravery, compassion and interpersonal solidarity, faithful to the highest ethical values, orders of Christian mercy and the ethos of the sovereign Republic of Poland, saved their Jewish neighbors from the Holocaust planned and carried out by the German occupiers”.

This celebration is an expression of honor to all Poles who, showing mercy and compassion, helped Jews systematically murdered by German torturers. The motivation behind these silent heroes varied. Some did it because of the love of neighbor or the teaching of the Church. Others were guided by civic duty or simple human decency. Regardless of the intentions, each manifestation of help provided to the Jews in hiding was an act of the greatest heroism, considering the death penalty imposed by the Germans in occupied Poland.

“The Germans were aware that many Jews managed to escape and avoid deportation to concentration or extermination camps, and that a large number of Poles provided them with help in various forms. So they took action to break these contacts and murder all Jews (the main “enemy” according to Nazi ideology) located outside the so-called segregated places. To this end, they introduced the aforementioned death penalty for Poles for any help to Jews” – said Dr. Mateusz Szpytma, deputy president of the Institute of National Remembrance, in an interview with Schuman Optics Magazine. “They acted in two ways. On the one hand, the German police (mainly gendarmerie) without any secret, publicly in front of other residents, murdered whole families (sometimes together with neighbors who did not report hiding) and burned their buildings (mainly in rural areas) in order to sow fear and paralyze the will to help Jews, and in other cases, the same gendarmerie or Gestapo, based on the individual decision of the action commander, arrested Polish rescuers and handed them over to Special Courts of Occupation (Sondergerichten)” – he added.

Poles, however, saved the lives of their Jewish neighbors regardless of the impending danger. The help provided despite the daily terror of the occupation terror was both individual and institutional in nature – an example of the latter was the activities of the Council to Aid Jews “Żegota”, a secret organization affiliated with the Polish authorities. Polish diplomats were also involved in helping Jews. More or less from the beginning of 1941 until the end of 1943, an informal group of Polish diplomats from the Polish legation in Bern and representatives of Jewish organizations headed by Aleksander Ładoś, the Polish envoy to Switzerland, worked to save European Jews. Members of the so-called “Ładoś Group” illegally bought, prepared and delivered to people threatened with extermination false passports and citizenship certificates of four South and Central American countries – Paraguay, Honduras, Haiti and Peru. They were supposed to protect people of Jewish origin from being deported to death camps.

Help of the Polish Church

Polish clergy and nuns were also actively involved in helping Jews, despite the fact that they themselves suffered persecution from the Germans – they were murdered or locked up in concentration camps. As Father Franciszek Stopniak determined, 769 priests (including 17 bishops), nuns and monks in 389 towns in Poland took part in the action to help Jews. In turn, research conducted by Dr. Ewa Kurek shows that Polish nuns saved about 1.5 thousand Jewish children, and over 200 religious houses were involved in this action. Research carried out as part of the project “Priests saving Jews” mentions almost 1,000 priests involved in various types of assistance to Polish citizens of Jewish descent during the German occupation. Of this number, the Nazis murdered 150 priests.

As the Institute of National Remembrance points out, many diocesan priests were involved in helping Jews with the knowledge and approval of their superiors. During the research, it was found that out of 20 Roman Catholic bishops who remained in their dioceses after September 1939, 16 were directly or indirectly involved in such assistance – among them, e.g. Ordinaries of Kraków, Lviv (Latin and Greek Catholic), Lublin, Sandomierz and Przemyśl. The bishops allowed the issuing of false church documents, including baptismal records, appealed for help to those in need, actively joining in it themselves. Archbishop Bolesław Twardowski sheltered a Jewish family in his seat in Lviv. In turn, we owe the Archbishop of Krakow, Adam Sapieha, that Pius XII in 1942, in his Christmas message, called torturers those who decided to murder people only because of their race, nationality and religion. With these words, the Pope unequivocally condemned the Holocaust and the German torturers.

Poles saving Jews were, are and should be a role model and an inspiration – it’s not only almost 7,000. known by their names and surnames, commemorated by the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute. There are also thousands of compatriots who remained anonymous or did not receive this award. Today, after decades, it is impossible to determine their personal details.

“Yad Vashem has its own, quite rigorous criteria. One of them is the requirement for the rescued Jews to testify. And we know that many of those who were helped died. When Poles were murdered for hiding Jews, of course the hidden also died. In these cases so it is difficult to obtain a Jewish testimony. Many Jews after the war had such a trauma that they did not want to return to these stories in any way. That is why research by other centers is also important. At the Institute of National Remembrance, we have attempted to determine the names of Poles who saved Jews, and we know that we are unlikely to be able to collect more than 11,000 names, and some estimates say that there were at least ten times as many people who helped” – explained Dr. Szpytma.

The Germans shot or burned alive

The story of the murder of Poles hiding Jews in Ciepielów and Rekówka is only one of many examples of the bestiality of the Germans. Elka Cukier and Berek Pinchas (Pinechas), son of a tailor, were hiding at Adam and Bronisława Kowalski’s. Piotr and Helena Obuchiewicz helped i.a. the owner of the cap factory in Ciepielów (soon those in hiding returned to the forest). The Kosiors from Ciepielów hid two Jews whose names were unknown. Two Jewish women from Ciepielów stayed with the Kosiors and Skoczylas in Rekówka for a week, then four Jews. It is not clear under what circumstances the Germans found out about those in hiding. It was most likely due to denunciation. In the early hours of December 6, 1942, the households of the Kowalskis, Obuchiewiczes and Kosiors in Ciepielów were surrounded by German policemen from the station in Górki Ciepielowskie. The manhunt lasted several hours. Then the drama happened. In the early afternoon, the Germans shot the Kosiors together with the two hiding Jews, and then burned the farm. At this signal, other Germans took the Kowalskis to the Obuchiewicz house.

“They took the whole family to Obuchs. Uncle Adam walked in front, holding the hands of the boys – Heniek and Stefan, as he sometimes went for a walk with them, only his head hung to the ground and he dragged his legs helplessly. Behind them, aunt Helena cradled little Tadek in her arms, and Janka and Zofia followed their mother” – Maria Bielecka née Mirowska, Adam’s niece, recalled the last moments of her relatives. The family was cordoned off by members of the firing squad. “My aunt turned her head towards our windows. She probably wanted to give us a good-bye look, but the German whacked her on the back of the neck with the butt of his rifle and nearly buried her face in the dirty, trampled snow. At the door of the Obuchów hut, she tore Tadzio from her breast, as if she wanted to give him to the German, probably begging for mercy for the little one. The German pushed her so hard that she bounced off the door frame and fell somewhere over the threshold of the cottage. The door was carefully closed, the handle was immobilized with wire” – she reported.

Maria Bielecka testified that both families were burned alive. Other testimonies indicate that they were shot in front of the building, then their bodies were thrown inside, which was locked and set on fire. Most likely, the Germans did not murder all the children at once. They left them unscathed to burn. Janka, Kowalski’s daughter, managed to get out of the burning building. However, she was shot while escaping and her body was thrown back inside.

The tragic fate of the Ulma family from Markowa in Podkarpacie, murdered by the Germans on March 24, 1944, was elevated to the rank of a symbol of German crimes committed in retaliation for saving Jews. On that day, Józef Ulma, his pregnant wife Wiktora, their six minor children, and eight Jews from the Didner, Grünfeld and Goldman families hidden by a Polish family lost their lives. The child who grew up under the pregnant Wiktoria Ulma’s heart also died. Pope Francis decided to beatify Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their seven children. The beatification ceremony will take place on September 10 in Markowa. The beatification mass in the former Ulma house will be celebrated by the head of the Vatican’s Office for Canonization, Cardinal Marcello Semeraro.


Source: IPN, POLIN, Schuman Optics Magazine

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