The simple metal plaque I am standing next to marks where an atrocity took place but it can never communicate the drama and tragedy behind it. It is a story that in microcosm presents the tragedy which unfolded in Poland during the years 1939-1945. Significant also, the plaque does not mention that Polish police were at this place when the massacre occurred!
About twenty meters away stands an empty wooden house, it is probably beyond repair. All around are green fields set within rolling low hills merging into the horizon. I am in Poland’s Lancut district in the south east, not far away is the tiny village of Markowa.
The early morning air is chilly, the smell of rural greenery very refreshing. I feel the silence. The shrubs growing around the base of the plaque burst with colour and I think, how pretty, but, and there is always a but in Poland, the ground we are standing on has forever been fouled by the brutality of the massacre perpetrated on it.
In March 1942 the Belzec death camp became operational and a large majority of the Jews living in and around Markowa were deported there and murdered. In the summer of 1942, the Germans began rounding up the remaining Jews in the area. Anyone captured was taken to a former animal burial ground, shot, and buried in a mass grave. The Jews fortunate or resourceful enough to escape the roundup searched desperately for places of refuge.
One morning a Jewish man, Saul Szall, knocked on the door of Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma, non Jewish Poles who with their six young children lived on a farm not very far from Markowa. He asked them to hide him and his four sons. The Ulmas must have realised just how dangerous this could be yet they agreed and took the Szall family in. The Szalls were later joined by three other women, Gołda Goldman and her sister Lajka who was accompanied by a small daughter.
Before arriving at the Ulma farm the Szalls had been hidden by a Polish policeman, Włodzimierz Les, a gesture that was not humanitarian, payment was demanded and handed over. The relationship was further complicated by Saul’s decision after relocating to the Ulmas to leave his valuables with Les for safekeeping. One could speculate he believed a policeman could be trusted, a misplaced trust which triggered a massacre.
By February of 1944 the Russian army was approaching Markowa and believing liberation was weeks away Saul approached Les and requested the return of his valuables. When confronted with the choice to either hand over the valuables or hand over the Szalls Les opted for betrayal. Events moved very quickly. On the morning of 24th March 1944 a force comprising German and Polish police under the command of lieutenant Eilert Dieken arrived at the Ulma farm. What followed was brutal. They first shot the Jews, next Jozef and Wiktoria who was in the seventh month of pregnancy, and finally the Ulma children. Within a few minutes seventeen people lost their lives; Wiktoria started giving birth at the moment of her execution and her baby was also murdered.
In 1995 Josef and Wiktoria Ulma were posthumously recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial centre in Jerusalem. Their bravery and humanity cost them their lives prompting a very uncomfortable question for all of us; if we faced the same perilous situation confronting Josef and Wiktoria, would we have opened the door to a Saul Szall and invited him to stay?
The tragedy of the Ulmas also allows for a microscopic view of the brutality perpetrated by the occupying Germans on the non-Jewish population of Poland; the fear of reprisals would have blunted any motivation to act positively in order to assist fellow citizens, in this case, Jewish neighbours.
On the extreme polar opposite to the humanity and bravery of the Ulmas is Włodzimierz Les; for a price he extended assistance and then became the instigator of a mass murder. There were many Josef and Wiktoria Ulmas in Poland but there were many more like Włodzimierz Les. Jewish families were denounced to the German authorities and after the occupants were arrested or deported to slave labour or death camps neighbours entered their now empty homes, stripped them bare of all the possessions left behind, and frequently also took possession of the properties themselves.
And then there are the millions of Poles who turned a blind eye, maybe at some time expressed anger or sorrow at the treatment of their fellow citizens, but did nothing. Do I judge them? No, I cannot but what I agonise about is to try and understand when a society stops struggling for retention of the basic pillars which create a moral framework, an ethos which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes as, “the concern for others and an active commitment to justice and compassion”.
What about the perpetrators Lt. Dieken and his squad of German and Polish policemen? Dieken was never brought to trial, however one of the members of the squad, a Czech national Jan Kokott, was convicted and died in prison in 1980. What causes a human to throw aside compassion and murder men, women, and children, including a newborn, in cold blood? Was it hatred, a warped sense of duty; were some sociopathic; did others feel guilt or compassion and aim not to kill but to miss the group of terrified people who were cowering in fear and in shock? And what did they think about when they left the farm? Did the Polish police in the squad go home to their wives and children and continue life as if nothing had happened?
And what about the eight Jews who knocked on a door desperately trying to avoid the fate that had befallen their families, their friends, and their whole community in Poland? An inversion of the rule of law declared them other than human. I have an image of a Nazi propaganda poster in my head that depicts a fat worm astride planet earth which it is devouring. The thing is a caricature representing the usurping Jew. The message is made clear by way of its huge bulbous nose, the dollar sign in one eye depicting the fictitious international Jewish financial cartel, and the hammer and sickle in the other eye representing the threat of communism which in Nazispeak is a Jewish invention. Transformation of a person from something human into a noxious bug redefines genocide in the minds of the perpetrators to becoming an act of pest control.
How did humans descend into such a state of depravity that evil was retranslated to mean good, and therefore logically it becomes good to be evil?
I take one last look at the simple plaque as I turn to leave; in its silence it has spoken out so loudly.