Vladka Meed Part 6: The Labor Camps
After the Uprising, the Jewish Coordinating Committee turned its efforts to providing aid and attending to the welfare of ZOB survivors, Jews in hiding inside and outside of Warsaw, and Jews interned in forced labor camps.1
Vladka once more undertook dangerous and harrowing missions in support of these efforts, traveling across the city smuggling false identification documents to underground Jews, posing as a smuggler to bring relief to Jews in hiding outside of the city, and working to set up covert aid networks in the labor camps.
Vladka on one of her missions, 1944. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Still struggling with feelings of hopelessness in the aftermath of the
destruction of the Ghetto, Vladka often turned to Benjamin Miedzyrzecki—her Coordinating Committee comrade—for strength. His “words of comfort,” she wrote, “dispelled my despair more than once…It was only thanks to him that I did not break down.”
Benjamin Miedzyrzecki on the “Aryan” side, 1943. Both images courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One of the missions she undertook in this period was the reinstatement of Coordinating Committee contact with a group of twenty-three survivors of the Czestochowa Ghetto Uprising hidden in the town of Koniecpol.2
To begin, she boarded a train—sans travel permits—to Koniecpol. With her, she carried a smuggler’s sack full of “merchandise,” and letters and paper money from the Coordinating Committee concealed beneath her belt. Over the course of fifteen hours of travel, she’d had to dodge Nazi inspections, and bribe several Polish officers
to make them forget that she was traveling without permits.
After arriving in Koniecpol, Vladka walked to the group’s hideout. Their landlady—an elderly Gentile woman—led Vladka to a dark barn where thirteen young Jews lay hidden beneath piles of old straw stored on the tiny hayloft; the other ten Czestochowa Jews were dispersed across two other hiding places.
The group was in desperate need of blankets, medicine, food, and money. When Vladka reached them, they were overjoyed to learn that their comrades in Warsaw had not forgotten them. She spoke to them one by one, noting their needs, distributing the money and letters, and taking down the information of those in need of false documents. “Don’t forget about us!” they called out as she left.
Vladka returned to Koniecpol twice a month with money and supplies. Later that year the Coordinating Committee experienced problems receiving their funds from overseas. Without money, Vladka could not travel, and she lost track of the Czestochowa group. When the Committee resolved its pipelines issue, Vladka returned to Koniecpol to find that the group’s landlady had evicted them when they ran out of money.
Once out of their hiding place, the group was almost immediately subject to harassment at the hands of the Polish police and hostile members of Polish partisan groups. They retreated deep into the woods, and when Vladka found them, they resembled “living skeletons, bags of bones who could hardly stand.” Luckily, Vladka, newly arrived Committee funds in hand, quickly located
new hiding places for the group, and secured documentation from the Armja Krajowa stating that the Koniecpol group was officially under their protection. She remained in contact with the group through the end of the war.
Three Jewish partisans in Wyszkow forest near Warsaw, 1944. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Meanwhile, across Poland, the Nazis were slowly working pockets of isolated Jews to their deaths in forced labor camps. It was Vladka’s mission to infiltrate these camps and set up covert aid networks.3
One major labor camp was in Czestochowa; it held approximately 10,000 Jews.4 Vladka traveled to Czestochowa by train and walked to one of the factories known to exploit Jewish labor. Trusting her instincts, Vladka stopped a few workers as they passed, asking them to deliver a note to a party inside the factory in exchange for money. Eventually, an elderly Polish worker took her up on the offer. Three days later, he returned with a response.
In it, the Jews of Czestochowa wrote that they could hardly believe that Warsaw had not forgotten them. It was signed ‘Jacek’—the code-name of a young Zionist working in the factory. Jacek included in the response the address of a contact: Jan Brust, a Polish factory worker who could serve as a liaison between the Coordinating Committee and the Czestochowa
Jews. Vladka easily established contact with Brust, and went back to Warsaw. A few days later, she returned to Czestochowa with letters and money. Jan Brust smuggled them into the factory, and then collected responses and other communications for Vladka on his way out.
Vladka visited Brust every few weeks with money and letters. Through Brust, she also smuggled medicine, food, and illegal publications into the labor camp.5 Her skill at covert operations was so great that many of the aid recipients never even knew that the supplies were coming from outside the camp. Vladka maintained this aid network until the Red Army liberated the city in January 1945.
The military center of Radom, however, posed more of a challenge. The Jews of Radom, ghettoized beginning in 1941, lived in wooden barracks on the outskirts of town.6 Every day armed guards escorted groups of Jews from the barracks to their work assignments, typically at either the print shop or the munitions plant. Vladka had no contacts in
Radom, and there were too many Nazis in town for Vladka to be able to simply recruit a messenger from outside a factory. This time, she would have to make direct contact with the Jewish workers.
When Vladka arrived in Radom, money and letters concealed on her person, she walked straight to the printing plant. Finding it closed and its entrance guarded, she began to walk the perimeter of the factory. Finally, she located some Jews.
To her luck, the guard on duty was neither a German nor a Ukrainian, but a member of the Jewish police.7 Vladka hurried over to him and asked for a woman named “Meltzer.” When he returned with the woman in question, Vladka whispered to her that she had letters and money from Warsaw. Tears sprang into the young woman’s eyes as she realized the meaning of Vladka’s words: the Jews of Radom were no longer alone.
Meltzer ran to fetch her husband and his brother, and the four of them discussed the organization of a clandestine relief pipeline. Vladka gave the Meltzers the money and letters from the Coordinating Committee, and they wrote a letter back to the Committee stating the community’s needs.
Vladka returned to Warsaw with their letter, and the next time she traveled to Radom she brought 50,000 zlotys, illegal literature, and more letters from the Coordinating Committee with her. That day, there were no Jewish guards on duty. So, Vladka hid her contraband, hitched a smile onto her face, and approached one of the Ukrainian guards to ask permission to buy something from the Jews.8 Though initially brusque, the guard quickly thawed, becoming increasingly chatty and, apparently, into it.
The guard allowed her to approach the fence. She asked the nearby Jews for someone with the surname “Meltzer.“ The guard joined her, loudly inquiring as to whether anyone had any shoes to sell. When Meltzer appeared, Vladka sent another Jew over to distract the guard. When his back was turned, Vladka slipped Meltzer the contraband. He hid it beneath his prison clothes, and promptly
vanished. As he disappeared, another Jew approached with a pair of shoes for sale. Vladka tried them on, continuing her cheerful flirtation with the guard. When his attention was called away, one of the Meltzers slipped Vladka a letter. With this, her mission was complete.
As she left, the guard stopped her to ask if she wanted to hang out later that night. She said yes, but obvs she ghosted. The network she set up with the Meltzers supported the Jews of Radom through the end of the war.
1 To support these activities, the Coordinating Committee received money from the Polish government-in-exile in London and contacts abroad. These parties sent them American dollars through the Polish underground and Gentile allies in Warsaw, and the Committee then converted the dollars into zlotys on the black market.
2 The Czestochowa Ghetto too staged an Uprising, this one on June 27, 1943. The Nazis put it down after four days. Two-thousand died in and from the fighting. The Nazis sent 3900 to labor camps, 1200 to death camps, and shot 400.
3 Slave labor was a large part of the German war economy, and Nazi use of Polish Jewry as slave labor began almost immediately following the occupation of Poland. Though at first, Jewish labor gangs marched to and from work assignments, by 1943 the Germans set up camps specifically for Jewish laborers, generally on the sites of liquidated ghettos, or in barracks set up near major factories and industrial plants. Living and working conditions in the overcrowded camps were harsh, dangerous, and filthy. Jewish laborers were treated in line with the Nazi policy/ideology that Jews, and therefore Jewish workers, were expendable non-humans to be treated in accordance with the goals of the Final Solution; even as the Germans realized that Jewish labor was essential to the war economy.
4 Approximately 28,500 Jews lived in Czestochowa before the War. The Germans established the Czestochowa Ghetto between April and August 1941. At its height, the ghetto contained close to 40,000 people between its walls, comprising both residents of the city and Jews from surrounding areas. The Nazis liquidated the ghetto from September through October 1942, leaving behind some 5,000 male laborers and their families, all deemed capable of work. These laborers lived in a camp built on the remains of the ghetto. They worked in ironworks, ammunitions, textile factories, and a variety of smaller factories and workshops. In late 1944, early 1945, the Germans “evacuated” the Jews to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck ahead of the Soviet lines.
5 Unfortunately, a German guard caught Brust in the act of smuggling, and Brust sustained a fatal wound. Vladka located a new Gentile contact, named Mendzec, who continued to smuggle letters and supplies to the Jews of Czestochowa.
6 The Nazis set up two ghettos in Radom between March and April 1941: the 27,000 person “Main Ghetto” in the city, and the 5,000 person “Small Ghetto” in a nearby suburb. The Nazis liquidated the ghettos between February and August 1942. By the end of August, 2,000 Jews remained in Radom. The Small Ghetto then functioned as a labor camp. In November 1943, the Nazis transferred the surviving workers into 20 shacks, holding a total of 2,450 men and 400 women. The Nazis deported most of them to Auschwitz in June, 1944, and only a few hundred of the Jews from Radom survived the war.
7 The Jewish Police were a Thing that I can’t properly address within the confines of this post.
8 By this point in the war, it was known that a wide variety of clothing items could be cheaply purchased from Jews. It was illegal, and one of the few remaining means by which Jews could make money.