Seventy-two years ago, the Holocaust banged on the door of the Ulma family, knocked it down, dragged them all away and ended the lives of 16 people.
Eight Polish Jews and eight ethnic Poles died in March 1944 – members of the Diner, Grunfeld and Goldman families, along with Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, their six children and the unborn child Wiktoria was carrying.
The Ulmas had been hiding the Jewish families long after the majority of the Jews of Markowa, a village in south eastern Poland, had been rounded up and murdered in 1942.
They knew the risks they were facing, yet the Ulmas, along with eight other Polish families, defied the Nazis. In the end, they were betrayed by a local collaborator and were executed along with the Jews they were hiding.
On March 17, their sacrifice will be recognized in Poland and in Toronto as a museum in their honour is dedicated in Markowa.
Congregation Habonim, along with the Consulate General of Poland and the Polish Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, will co-host an event in Toronto to mark the opening of The Museum of Poles Saving Jews, in Markowa.
A few hours earlier in Poland, the country’s president, Andrzej Duda, will address an audience of dignitaries in a dedication ceremony that is expected to make national headlines.
The event is “part of the revival of Polish-Jewish relations [recognizing] our common history in Poland,” said Andrzej Szydlo, the Toronto-based consul responsible for diaspora relations. “The fact that the president of Poland is attending the event signifies that it is an event of national importance.”
Szydlo noted that everyone is familiar with Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp located in Poland. “Now another piece of the puzzle is in place.”
The museum itself was founded by the provincial government of Podkarpackie. It features Museum Square, which houses a monument to Holocaust victims as well as memorial plaques with the names of Poles murdered for helping Jews.
Szydlo said the Ulma family were “simple people” who, “in the name of humanity, risked their lives and perished.”
Eli Rubenstein, spiritual leader at Congregation Habonim, which was founded by Holocaust survivors, said, “This is an important story to be told, honoured and celebrated.”
Yad Vashem has recognized more than 6,000 Poles as Righteous Among the Nations, including the Ulma family, but the museum in Markowa is the first of its kind to be dedicated to the Righteous, he said.
“It’s wonderful to see a museum that teaches us about such courageous and noble examples of the human spirit and that inspires us to follow in their footsteps,” Rubenstein added.
Two survivors who were saved by Poles will speak on March 17. Joe Gottdenker was an infant who was left in the care of Petronolo and Wladyslaw Ziolo for three years. He reunited with his parents after the war.
Sally Wasserman was eight years old when she was smuggled out of the Dombrowa Ghetto and hidden by Eva and Mikolaj Turkin.
Franciszek Pasławski, the only known Righteous Gentile living in Canada, is also expected to attend.
Rubenstein said creation of the museum comes at a time when relations between Jews and Poles are being debated in Polish society. For many Jews, relations with their Polish neighbours were problematic, and many do not recall with fondness their experiences with Poles during the war. At the far end of the spectrum was the July 1941 incident in Jedwabne in which two dozen Polish villagers killed 340 Jews by locking them in a barn and setting it on fire.
At the other end of the scale is the heroism in Markowa and the thousands of other righteous Poles. Both incidents are part of a complicated story of Polish-Jewish relations that ought to be told, Rubenstein said.
In addition to the co-hosts, other sponsors include the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem, Canadian Friends of Polin: the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, March of the Living, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.