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Poland will celebrate the beatification of a family executed for harboring Jews during Nazi Germany’s occupation, with historians warning the government is using the event to exaggerate Poland’s resistance to the Holocaust ahead of national elections.

Józef Ulma and Wiktoria Ulma and their children will be beatified on Sunday in the village of Markowa in southeastern Poland, marking the first step towards St. Just one step. In 1944, they hid eight Jews in a farmhouse before being denounced to the Germans by a Polish policeman. Shot Ulma after the first massacre of Jews.

While the heroism of the Ulmas, who knew they risked the death penalty for their actions, is unquestionable, the government’s presentation of their story has prompted some scholars to warn of distortions of the Holocaust.

The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is emphasizing Polish values ​​and its defense of the country’s sovereignty as it bids to win a third term in the Oct. 15 vote.

Historian Adam Leszczyński said: “The beatification event will be a large, publicly funded pre-election demonstration to show Law and Justice voters that only this party can Defending ‘Polish honor’ against accusations that they killed Jews during the war.” Professor at SWPS University in Warsaw. He added that the event was “as much a continuation of this administration’s historic policies as it is a campaign event.”

Polish authorities deny the beatification was an attempt to exaggerate the help Poles provided to Jews during the German occupation. They also said the timing was set by the Vatican after Pope Francis approved the Decree on the Martyrdom of Ulma in December.

“It’s purely coincidental that the Polish elections coincide with the decision by the Catholic Church,” said Karol Nawrocki, director of the Institute of National Remembrance, a state body that promotes Polish history. “I think Poland, Europe Even some people around the world think everything here is about politics, but I don’t see any connection between politics and Ulma’s beatification.”

Demonstrators holding signs
Demonstrators in Warsaw hold signs demanding wartime reparations from Germany © Aleksander Kalka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2018, the Law and Justice-led government imposed criminal sanctions on anyone accusing Poles of participating in the massacre. But after protests from Israel, the United States and other countries over Poland’s efforts to stifle public debate, it changed its stance, making it a civil crime and lifting the threat of imprisonment.

“The tragedy of the Ulma family has been used in a very cynical way to promote the idea of ​​the so-called universality of the rescue phenomenon,” said Jan Grabowski, a history professor at the University of Ottawa.

Saving Jews was particularly dangerous, he said, “not because of the Germans, but because of the lack of social license.” “Anti-Semitism is strong and what (Polish aid workers) fear most is condemnation from neighboring countries.”

The sacrifices of the Ummah have been recognized. Since 2018, Poland has held a national commemoration of the Poles who saved the Jews, commemorating the day the family was executed. In 1995, Israel’s Yad Vashem Institute honored Józef and Wiktoria Ulma as Righteous Among the Nations, a designation given to non-Jews who help Jews. These include more than 7,000 Poles.

Polish Archbishop Adam Saar
Polish Archbishop Adam Szal says it is “normal and desirable” for politicians to participate in beatification celebrations © Darek Delmanowicz/EPA-EFE

The beatification comes amid tensions between Poland and Germany, exacerbated by Warsaw’s demand for 1.3 trillion euros in wartime compensation last autumn, which Berlin immediately rejected.

In July, the Polish State Railways launched a special train between southeastern Poland and Berlin. The locomotive of the train bound for Germany was decorated with a photo of Ulmas and the slogan: “Murdered by the Germans during World War II for saving the Jews.”

The German embassy in Warsaw told the Financial Times that it considered the beatification “an important contribution to the memory of the victims of the German occupation of Poland”.

Polish Archbishop Adam Saar, who is organizing the beatification, said it was “normal and desirable” for politicians to take part in the celebrations.

Speaking about other Jews killed by the Poles, Narocki said: “This situation proves that people behave differently. It is important to remember that the Polish government never sanctioned the murder of Jews. During the war, thousands Poles were killed by German criminals for helping Jews.”

However, Grabowski said Poland should also commemorate the Jews killed by Poles in Markowa.

Ron Riesenbach, whose Jewish father survived the war in his village, declined an invitation to travel from Canada for Sunday’s beatification.

“I have video and audio recordings of my father and grandfather describing their anxiety about Markowa hiding out from German authorities…” Riesenbach said in a letter to Polish authorities seen by the Financial Times One letter reads: “When your governments and cultural authorities stop downplaying and denying the harsh realities of the past, we can unite for a better future. “

This month, an exhibition will open in Warsaw that includes photographs taken by Józef Ulma, who was passionate about photography and built his own camera.

The monitor listed the name of the German commander who ordered the killing, but the Polish policeman who condemned Ulma was described only as one of the “blue police,” a term used for local police who collaborated with the Germans.

In Markowa, a museum dedicated to the Pole who saved Jews named the suspect as Włodzimierz Leś but said there was a lack of documentary evidence to prove his guilt. After Germany’s defeat, he was shot dead by the Polish resistance.

Journalist Konstanty Gebert, who has covered Polish-Jewish relations for more than 40 years, said more should be done to highlight direct Polish opposition to Ulmas, adding: “By downplaying widespread condemnation and widespread condemnation that the museum downplayed the scope of their heroism due to a lack of support for saving the Jews.”


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