Vatican beatifies Polish family executed by Nazis in World War II

Vatican beatifies Polish family executed by Nazis in World War II

In an unprecedented move, the Vatican has beatified a Polish family of nine - a married couple and their small children - who were executed by the Nazis during World War II for sheltering Jews.

During a Mass in the village of Markowa, in southeastern Poland, papal envoy Cardinal Marcello Semeraro read out the Latin formula of the beatification of the Ulma family signed last month by Pope Francis.

In his homily Semeraro noted that for their “gesture of hospitality and care, of mercy” the Ulmas “paid the highest price of martyrdom.”

A contemporary painting representing Jozef and a pregnant Wiktoria Ulma with their children was revealed near the altar. A procession brought relics taken from their graves to the altar. It is the first time that an entire family has been beatified.

At the Vatican, speaking to the public from a window in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said the Ulmas “represented a ray of light in the darkness” of the war and should be a model for everyone in "doing good and in the service of those in need.”

The pope then invited the crowd below to applaud the family, and he clapped his hands. Those gathered in Markowa watched Francis' address on giant screens placed by the altar.

Last year, Francis pronounced the deeply Catholic Ulma family, including the child that Wiktoria Ulma was pregnant with, martyrs for the faith. The Ulmas were killed at home by German Nazi troops and by Nazi-controlled local police in the small hours of 24 March 1944, together with the eight Jews they were hiding at their home, after they were apparently betrayed.

Mateusz Szpytma/The AP
This undated photo shows Polish farmer Jozef Ulma with his pregnant wife Wiktoria and their six children - Mateusz Szpytma/The AP

Jozef Ulma, 44, was a farmer, Catholic activist and amateur photographer who documented family and village life. He lived with his 31-year-old wife Wiktoria; their daughters Stanislawa, 7; Barbara, 6; Maria, 18 months; and sons Wladyslaw, 5; Franciszek, 3; and Antoni, 2.

With them were killed 70-year-old Saul Goldman with his sons Baruch, Mechel, Joachim and Mojzesz, along with Golda Grunfeld and her sister Lea Didner with her little daughter Reszla, according to Poland’s state Institute of National Remembrance, IPN, which has meticulously documented the Ulmas’ story.

Giving the orders was Lt. Eilert Dieken, head of the regional Nazi military police. After the war he served in the police in Germany. Only one of his subordinates, Josef Kokott, was convicted in Poland over the killings, dying in prison in 1980. The suspected betrayer was Wlodzimierz Les, a member of the Nazi-controlled local police. Poland's wartime resistance sentenced him to death and executed him in September 1944, according to IPN.

The Catholic Church had faced a dilemma in beatifying Wiktoria's unborn child and declaring it a martyr because, among other things, it had not been baptised, which is a requirement for beatification.

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints issued a clarification saying the child was actually born during the horror of the killings and received “baptism by blood” of its martyred mother.

The clarification was issued 5 September by Cardinal Semeraro, who is the prefect of the Vatican's saint-making office.

Polish President Andrzej Duda along with the ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, attended the celebration in Markowa, and thousands of pilgrims came from across Poland to take part.