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Poles rescuing the Jews – the Ulma, Baranek and Kowalski Families

Of all crimes committed by the genocidal Nazi regime in occupied Europe, murders of civilians (children, women, elderly people and whole families) were particularly vicious. During the World War II, nearly 6 million Jews were murdered. However, German occupiers frequently applied the method of inhumane, collective responsibility to the Poles as well: they would pacify villagers for helping the partisans, residents of Warsaw during the uprising of 1944, and Polish families daring to provide help for persecuted Jews.

Already in October 1941, death penalty for Jews escaping from ghettos and those providing help for them was introduced at the territory of the General Government. The German policemen were taking the decision on execution at their own discretion and the victims were usually killed on the spot. Death penalty started to be applied towards Poles providing help for Jews beginning from the last months of 1942. Alongside exterminations in ghettos, the Jewish who managed to hide were being hunted down. According to comprehensive documentation, in the years 1942-1945 about 700 Poles were killed for attempting to help Jews, and in at least 40 cases this “collective guilt” was attributed to whole families: adults and children.

The Kowalski family from Ciepielów near Radom
In the autumn of 1942, Adam and Bronisława Kowalski sheltered two Jewish neighbours (Elka Cukier and Berek Pineches) in their house. Jews were also hiding in other houses in Ciepielów. On 6 December 1942, German military policemen, informed by local Volksdeutsche, surrounded suspected houses. Members of the Kowalski family (not only parents but also children aged from 1 to 16: Tadeusz, Henryk, Stefan, Zofia and Janina) were burnt alive in a wooden house belonging to the Obuchiewicz family, together with their neighbours and the hiding Jews. On the whole, 31 Poles and an unknown number of Jews were murdered in Ciepielów on that day.

The Baranek family from Siedliska near Miechów
On 15 March 1943, during an inspection carried out by Sonderdienst (German auxiliary police) in the house of Wincenty and Łucja Baranek, two shelters were discovered with four Jews, most likely from Goldfinger family. The Jews were immediately killed, and Wincenty and Łucja Baranek, together with their sons (9-year-old Tadeusz and 13-year-old Henryk), were shot in the back of their heads. Germans ordered the villagers, under the threat of massive repression, to bring Łucja’s absent mother, Katarzyna Kopeć, to Miechów the next day. She was shot there.

The Ulma family from Markowa near Łańcut
Józef Ulma, together with his wife Wiktoria, sheltered 8 Jews from the Schall and Goldman families in the attic of their house for 18 months. On 24 March 1944, upon denunciation by a local Blue policeman, all members of the Ulma family (including six children aged from eighteen months to eight years: Władysław, Stanisława, Marian, Franciszek, Barbara, Antoni), along with the Jews, were killed on the spot by officers of the German military police and of the General Government police forces. In 1995, Wiktoria i Józef were posthumously awarded the medal “Righteous among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel. In 2003, the Catholic Church began the beatification process for the whole family.

The tragedy of these families is the best illustration of an awful price that many people had to pay during the Holocaust if their courage and heroism were equal to those of the battlefield heroes. Many of those who offered help perished, but it is thanks to such people that about 30-40 thousand Jews survived the occupation of Poland. We will never find out how many people were involved in rescuing people of Jewish extraction in Poland, but their number was certainly several times higher than the number of survivors. And although most of our fellow citizens did not know how to, or were unable to, resist the crimes, the accomplishments of the noblest and bravest people should give us the strength to cope with difficult problems in our history. The memory of those who were rescuing other people when doing so was almost a superhuman act cannot pass away.

Jerzy Halbersztadt Former Director of Museum of the History of Polish Jews
President of the Partnership in Culture Foundation
(Fundacja Partnerstwo w Kulturze)