Vladka Meed Part 1: The Ghetto
Vladka Meed, born Feigele Peltel (1921-2012), escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto with a map of Treblinka hidden in her shoe. She smuggled dynamite into the Ghetto, set up covert aid networks in forced labor camps, and journeyed deep into forests filled with partisans—friendly and hostile—to locate Jews who needed her help. Through grief and pain and loss, and at constant risk to her life, she never stopped working to aid her people, even as the Nazis did their best to destroy the world as she knew it.
Vladka Meed c. 1942. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I am, frankly, in awe of her, and I would very much like for there to be some sort of alternative timeline in which she hung out with Hannah Szenes and Noor Khan (also, Peggy Carter even though she’s not real).
But I digress.
Vladka Meed’s story begins in the unique cultural world of interwar Polish Jewry. In 1921, Jews made up 10.5% of the population of Poland; by 1931, they made up 9.8%.1 In the cities, their representation was even higher: by the early 1930s, they made up 30.1% of the population of Warsaw. The Polish Jewish community was uniquely characterized by its deep commitment to Jewish political parties—the three most important of which were the Bund, Agudath Israel, and the Zionists—and their attendant youth movements, which dominated the social and cultural lives of interwar Polish Jewry.
The youth groups in particular played formative roles in the lives of young Polish Jews.2 Vladka, for her part, was a member of the Bund, a secular Jewish socialist movement which understood Polish Jewry as an autonomous nation whose destiny was tied inextricably to that of the Poles. The Zionist movement was split into many separate groups and parties, their politics ranging from far right militarism to far left Marxism. Agudath Israel was a religious party which rejected Zionism and secularism, and united Orthodox and Hasidic Polish Jewry.
When the Nazis marched into Poland, they began their campaign of dispossessing and ghettoizing Polish Jewry.
They initially paid little attention to the youth groups, and in this slight bubble of freedom the youth groups slowly transformed into centers of the nascent Jewish resistance. Vladka, for example, worked on her Bundist youth group’s illegal newspaper, and worked to organize illegal children’s groups.
A page from a 1942 edition of the Bund’s underground newspaper, perhaps one Vladka worked on. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
At first, the youth groups functioned as their own separate, ideologically defined universes. As the Nazis isolated Jewish communities across Poland, the youth groups and their attendant parties, cut off from their members in other towns and cities, reached out to their membership for volunteers to carry information and correspondence to their far-flung comrades. The majority, and most successful of these volunteers, were female, some as young as fifteen.
These volunteer couriers transported papers, documents, forged identity cards, underground newspapers, and money in and out of the isolated Jewish communities—and later ghettos—of
Poland. These couriers had only limited protection from certain death: passing Gentile features or hair dye and makeup to disguise their traditionally “Jewish” features, forged papers, genitalia which could not betray their Jewish identities, and a manner of gendered socialization which prepared Jewish women and girls to be able to engage with both the Gentile and the Jewish communities.3 These female couriers became the backbones of their youth groups, and, as Nazi policy towards the Jews shifted from isolation to extermination, of the organized Jewish resistance.4
In Warsaw, the isolation began in autumn 1940 as the Nazis ordered the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto on October 2, and sealed it on November 16.
Warsaw Ghetto street scene, 1941. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Between 300,000 and 440,000 people behind lived within its walls, and inside, conditions inside were grim. In 1941, 5123 Jews died of starvation and disease. Included in their number was Vladka’s father, Shlomo Peltel, who died of pneumonia.
On July 19, 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. It went like this: the Nazis and their Ukrainian troops surrounded the living and working quarters in the Ghetto, building by building, and ordered all Jews to exit. Upon rounding up a large enough group, the Nazis either marched them or sent them via truck or streetcar to the assembly and deportation point (the Umschlagplatz). There, the Nazis loaded the rounded up Jews into sealed freight cars bound for Treblinka.
Jews make their way to the deportation point. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Jews assembled at the deportation point, 1942. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Train platform at the deportation point. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The deportations ended on September 12, 1942. Only 10% of the ghetto’s original population remained. That 10% generally consisted of men between the ages of 15 and 50, and strong, healthy young women able to perform labor. These individuals, initially cleared for survival because of their youth and strength, were generally the only remaining members of their families left in the ghetto. Vladka was no exception: her mother Hanna, her fifteen-year old brother Chaim, and her sixteen-year old sister Henia all perished in Treblinka that summer of 1942.
Those who remained asked themselves how this had been allowed to happen, how 50 Germans and 400 supplementary Ukrainian and Latvian policemen had been able to ship 350,000 of their friends, families, comrades, coreligionists, and loved ones to their deaths without encountering a lick of resistance.5
In the early days of the deportations, few knew where the trains were headed. The youth group and party leadership knew. So did the Polish underground and their allies in the Bund.
But Nazi disinformation campaigns easily overtook the power of these “rumors.” Warsaw Jewry was desperate for any shred of hope; when the Nazis forced Jewish prisoners to send cheery postcards homes from Treblinka, their friends and families clung to the false promises contained within these missives. And as they did so, they reacted with anger and hostility towards any Jews spreading information to the contrary, including the stories of those managed to escape from the death camps and make their way back to the ghetto.
Further, it was not, and is not, true that no one tried to resist. In mid-March, 1942, Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of Dror—one of the labor Zionist youth groups—called a meeting between himself, the representatives of the other Left and Center Zionist youth groups, party leaders, and the Bund to discuss the formation of a cooperative resistance group.
Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
However, the attendees feared that any attempt to resist would be met with collective retaliation, and the Bund representatives were comfortable with neither the idea of acting apart from the Polish underground, nor with the Zionist undertones of the meeting. The meeting ended, with little accomplished.
When the deportations began in July, the Center/Left Zionist groups decided to move forward without the Bund, and founded the Jewish Fighting Organization (the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ZOB) on July 28, 1942. The ZOB’s first months were riddled with failure and tragedy. Those few Jews aware of their existence distrusted them, perceiving them as dangerous provocateurs. The Nazi captured, executed, and/or deported many ZOB leaders in these early months, and many more of the party and youth group leadership—including those who had called the March meeting—fled the ghetto on the eve of the deportations. These losses, combined with the enormity of the deportations, left the remnants of the ZOB shocked, hopeless, and despondent.
But in a perverse way, it was the magnitude of the deportations which allowed the ZOB to flourish. Those who remained in the Ghetto could no longer view the ZOB as dangerous, because the ghetto had already suffered the worst. Further, the party leaders who fled before the deportations—Mordecai Anielewicz, Yitzhak Zuckerman, and Zivia Lubetkin (the Hero of Another Story/FHL post)—returned to the ghetto in September.
Mordecai Anielewicz. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Zivia Lubetkin. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In this new atmosphere, the ZOB was finally able to create a military and political framework for an organized Jewish resistance. The ZOB remained the military arm of the organization, while the Jewish National Committee—which included in its body representatives from all of Warsaw’s Jewish parties and youth groups—acted as the organization’s political arm.
In addition, the Bund soon re-entered talks with the ZOB. To bring the Bund, and its contacts in the Polish underground, into the fold, the ZOB developed a third arm: the Jewish
Coordinating Committee. The Jewish Coordinating Committee governed the resistance, and spoke on the behalf of the ZOB and the Jewish National Committee in negotiations with Polish underground representatives and potential Gentile allies. By the end of October, 1942, the Jewish underground had achieved what was impossible only a few months earlier: solidarity between and within the Jewish political and ideological streams of Warsaw.6
As October moved into November, Abrasha Blum, one of the leaders of the Bund, called a meeting of all remaining members of the Bund and its youth group.
Abrasha Blum. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
He opened the meeting with the news of the organization of a joint resistance effort, and the creation of the Jewish Coordinating Committee. Abrasha then briefed them on the goals of the resistance: to smuggle women and children out of the ghetto, to smuggle weapons and dynamite into the ghetto, and to train and organize fighting groups in preparation for an uprising against the Nazis when they, inevitably, returned to complete the liquidation of the ghetto.
When he finished speaking Abrasha began to assign missions to all of those present. Finally, it was Vladka’s turn. He noted her distinctly Gentile looks (in her own words, “a rather small nose, grey-green eyes, straight light brown hair”) and made her an offer: if she chose to accept it, her mission would be to cross into the “Aryan” side of Warsaw, and act as a courier in support of the goals of the resistance. Vladka, of course, accepted.
She was to tell no one of her mission, and wait quietly to receive her orders. Two or three weeks later, one night in early December, Michal Klepfisz, an old Bundist colleague of Vladka’s already stationed outside of the ghetto, appeared at her door. “I’ve come to take you away, Feigel,” he said.
Michal Klepfisz. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Get ready; you’ll be leaving the ghetto within two days.”7 He instructed her to conceal a copy of the underground newspaper (which included a detailed map of Treblinka) on her person, bribe a leader of one of the labor battalions employed in a factory outside of the ghetto, and leave the ghetto with the battalion, posing as a member. She was then to meet him outside the
gates on the Aryan side of Warsaw at 8am.
Two days later, at 6am on the morning of December 5, 1942, Vladka left her apartment for the last time, the illegal literature concealed within her shoes. Following orders, she bribed a leader of one of the labor battalions and joined their ranks. Unfortunately, she was immediately conspicuous of one of the few women in the group. Suspicious, a guard ordered her to stop, and report to a small wooden shack for questioning.
With no other recourse, Vladka obeyed. Inside, she waited in a small room, its walls papered with maps, charts, and pictures of half-naked women; all were spattered with blood. A guard entered shortly, and ordered her to strip in order to search her clothing for contraband. Vladka tried to keep calm; she assured herself that everything would be fine so long as he did not order her to remove her shoes. But, of course, he did. Vladka stalled, unlacing her shoes as slowly as possible. The guard had no patience for this. He ordered her to hurry up, and began to advance on her with a whip. At the last minute, a second guard ran breathlessly into the room. Another Jew, it seemed, had fled the premises. Vladka’s guard swore, and the two ran out of the room, leaving Vladka alone with her partially unlaced shoes. She hurriedly dressed, and slipped out of the room. A third guard stopped her outside the shack, but she convinced him that she had passed inspection.
When Vladka returned to the labor gang, all of its members were shocked to see her emerge alive, unscathed and in one piece; most of those sent into the shack never came back out. She marched with them through the gates, into the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. Outside the ghetto, the battalion members boarded a wagon, their transport to their work assignment. When the ghetto walls were out of sight, Vladka, at the urging of the rest of the gang, who knew that she was on a mission of some sort, removed her white armband (all Jew were required to wear one) and jumped (in 1991, she recounted this experience in an oral history).
Two Jewish men at work in a ghetto factory, c. 1941/1942. Note the armband worn by the man in the background right. All Jews had to wear it, and it is what Vladka pulled off before she jumped. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
She was free, but it was an odd sort of freedom, “…it was as if nothing had happened in the last two years. Trolleys, automobiles, bicycled raced along; businesses were open; children headed for school; women carried fresh bread and other provisions. The contrast with the ghetto was startling. It was another world, a world teeming with life.”
Michal Klepfisz had waited for her outside the gates with his Gentile landlord and ally to the Jewish underground, Stephan Machai for hours. Finally, they had returned home, hoping that Vladka had noticed how strict the guards were that day and retreated. Yet, early that afternoon, they heard someone banging on the door of the cellar of Gornoszlonska 3—the address Michal had had her commit to memory before leaving the ghetto. A blonde woman opened it, and there, to her relief, stood Michal Klepfisz.
Her life as an underground operative for the Jewish resistance began. In a period of five months, she would encounter more danger, isolation, fear, and intrigue than she ever dreamed possible as she worked single-mindedly to prepare the Warsaw Ghetto for an uprising.
1 They made up the largest Jewish population in non-Communist Europe.
2 The 1930s were not a good time for young Polish Jewry. Global economic downturn threatened everyone’s future, while renewed anti-Semitism gave way to public
violence, and segregation from and within universities and professional organizations. In short, Polish youth seemed to have no future. Those traditional centers of authority: the family and the rabbis, could not seem to offer any solutions to the problems of young Jewish people. So, they turned instead to the youth groups. Whole classes of Jewish children and adolescents joined one group or another, and looked to the group and party leadership for guidance and authority. These groups even ran school and summer camps.
3 In that time and place, Jewish girls typically attended secular academies taught in Polish—this gave them the ability to speak fluent Polish without the Yiddish inflection so easily identifiable to gentile Poles. Their mothers and communities socialized these girls to be able to maintain a household, raise their children in line with both Polish and Jewish cultural values, and to potentially run the family business. In short, these women were socialized to be able to comfortably navigate the world inside and
outside of the Jewish community. Jewish boys, on the other hand, typically attended religious academies taught in Yiddish, and were socialized to dedicate their lives to religious study, and the small number of trades and occupations open to Jews. In short, Jewish boys were socialized to operate primarily within the Jewish sphere of Polish life. There was also the matter of circumcision: if a Jewish man were caught and ordered to drop his pants, his body would clearly betray his Jewish identity. Women’s bodies could not give them away in this matter. Please note that these gender norms reflected social ideals, not lived realities. For more on these particular gender roles, see Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies) by Paula E. Hyman.
4 The article, The Female Couriers During the Holocaust, provided me with much of this information on the female couriers. Definitely worth a read.
5 In addition to those sent to their deaths at Treblinka, 11,580 were sent to forced labor camps, 8,000 escaped to the Aryan side of the city, more than 10,000 were murdered in the streets during the roundups, and 20,000-25,000 successfully evaded capture; the Nazis referred to the latter group as “illegal residents.”
6 Mostly. Betar, the youth arm of the right-wing Zionist Revisionist party, did not join. It could not agree with the ZOB on issues of tactics and leadership, and founded its own, independent resistance group: the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowski, or ZZW).
7 All direct quotations in this post series are from Vladka Meed’s 1948 memoir, On Both Sides of the Wall unless otherwise noted.