Sitting in a quiet lane in Warsaw was a convent with a lunch hall attached. It typically attracted a lower middle class clientele. Two weeks after Vladka’s escape, a small party occupied a few of the tables. Michal Klepfisz sat with Vladka. To their right sat Borowski (aka Dr. Adolf Berman), and Henryk (aka Salo Fishgrund); Celek—another underground operative—sat across from them.1 Mikolai Berezowski (aka Dr. Leon Feiner), Bund representative to the Jewish Coordinating Committee and one of the central figures in the Jewish underground, was the last of their group to enter the hall.
This was his first meeting with Vladka. Speaking quietly, Vladka told him about her life, her recent past, and her underground experience. Mikolai was impressed, and he shared Abrasha Blum’s conviction that Vladka’s features would allow her great freedom of movement on the “Aryan” side.
The Coordinating Committee existed to support the ZOB as it prepared for an uprising against the Nazis, and Vladka’s missions were in direct support of that effort. Specifically, her assignment was twofold. She was to smuggle children out of the ghetto place them in Gentile homes before fighting could begin, and to find and secure sources of weapons and smuggle them into the ghetto.
Michal and Henryk were to be her primary contacts, while Mikolai requested that she let him know of any new leads, contacts, weapons acquisitions, or lodgings. Before they left, Mikolai said to her, “We must be very careful…If we make one mistake, we can get a lot of people into very bad trouble…I believe you’ll be able to handle the situation.”
Beginning her new life, the Coordinating Committee secured her an old Polish passport made out to Wladyslawa Kowalska; thereafter she took on the nickname “Vladka.”
Vladka’s false papers. Top to bottom: the front side of her false papers, a close-up of her papers, and the back side of her papers. Images courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Michal’s landlord, Stephan Machai, allowed her to sleep in the cellar of Gornoszlonska 3, and Michal found her a job as a seamstress through a Gentile contact. With a legal identity, an
income, and a place to sleep, Vladka could turn her full attention to her work. She moved deeper and deeper into the underground, working with some of its most important and highly placed members.
She spent most of her days outside, among the Gentiles. Most seemed apathetic to the plight of their Jewish neighbors, and many were actively hostile. One afternoon, as Vladka strolled through a public square near the ghetto, a burst of gunfire rang out somewhere behind the wall. Some of the Gentiles seemed startled, but most remained calm. One young man smiled and assured his friends that “That is just for the Jews.”
Gangs of Polish men haunted the streets of Warsaw’s residential districts, waiting to spot an underground Jew.2 Upon doing so, the men would corner the Jew and demanded money. If the Jew could not pay, the men would take anything of value the Jew had on their person. If the Jew had nothing, the blackmailers, or szszmalcownicy, would hand them over to the Gestapo, earning 100 zlotys per Jew.3
One afternoon, they spied Vladka leaving a factory known to employ Jews. Following her first at a distance, and then closely, one of the men grabbed her and twisted her around to face his companions. She was surrounded. Vladka told them that she was a Gentile going about her day, and nothing more. She began to walk. “Do you expect us to stroll along with you for pleasure, you Jewish bitch?” one of them yelled. “Hand over the money, or else we’ll take you straight to the Germans!” A crowd of onlookers began to form. Her only choice was to lean even deeper into her “Aryan” features. “Very well,” she said with an angry shrug. “You will be called to account for casting suspicion on me and for your attempts to blackmail me.”4 Her confidence, and the threat lurking behind her words, frightened them. She walked away. The men stayed behind, muttering to each other. After putting some distance between them Vladka jumped onto a passing trolley, and escaped. Many others were not so lucky.
Vladka posing on the “Aryan” side, 1944. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
These realities—the apathy, the danger, the tenuousness of the existence of a Jew in hiding on the ‘Aryan’ side of Warsaw—certainly took their toll on the underground operatives.5 Vladka took note of this as one of her missions called for her presence in the ghetto. Inside, she noticed:
somber, stilled ghetto streets were dearer to me than the cheerful bustle of the streets on the ‘Aryan side.’ The ghetto was a dreary place, but it was my own, real world where I could be myself. Here I had no need to maintain the forced smile I wore before my Polish neighbors. Here I did not have to listen to snide remarks from the Poles that the Jews had it coming to them and that Hitler was purging Poland of the ‘Jewish Plague.’ Here I did not have to live in constant fear of being unmasked as a Jewess. I was among my own.”
However, these hardships could not keep Vladka from her work; nothing, not even her personal safety, was more important that striking back at the Nazis.
She was ecstatic when she secured her first revolver, purchased from their landlord’s nephew for a sum of two thousand zlotys. “I turned the weapon over and over, pretending to inspect it, though I had not the faintest idea of how it worked.” A ZOB weapons expert on the “Aryan” side that day inspected the gun and assured her she had not been cheated. All she had left to do was get
the gun into the ghetto.
She placed a call to ZOB, and arranged to hand off the gun at 8:30 that night.6 Vladka packed the gun to make it look like an ordinary parcel and handed it off to Stephan Machai. Machai, unaware of the box’s contents, handed the box through a hole in the wall. The ZOB agents took the package, and her mission was complete.
A good deal of smuggling took place at a section of the wall across from an alley called Paryowski Place. There, Polish smugglers set up shop, charging other smugglers for the pleasure of climbing the wall.
Jewish smugglers posing on ladder leaned up against the ghetto wall. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Vladka and Michal, on a mission to transmit a package of steel files to the ZOB, arrived dressed as peddlers.7 After paying the chief smuggler, Michal climbed the wall, took the package from Vladka, and jumped into the ghetto.
Her next visit to Paryowski Place, however, was less successful. On this occasion, she was on a mission to smuggle three boxes of powdered dynamite into the ghetto. When she got to the smuggling depot, the place was deserted. She learned that, earlier that day, the Nazis shot two smugglers. Luckily it was not too much of a challenge to find another way in. One of the factories on the “Aryan” side, Feifer’s, backed up against the ghetto wall. In the very back was a tiny window granting access to the ghetto. Vladka called the ghetto, letting the ZOB know that there was a change of plan.
Getting into the factory was simple enough; Vladka simply bribed the night watchman with a flask of vodka and 300 zlotys. He led her through the labyrinthine factory, until they reached a tiny room with a small, grated window looking out over the ghetto. Her comrades were already outside, waiting. As she moved to pass the dynamite through the window she found, to her horror, that the bundles would not fit through the gratings. Outside the window, her comrades were getting nervous, and inside, the watchman was getting panicky—this was starting to seem more serious than the average smuggling operation. Vladka broke into a cold sweat as she frantically repacked the dynamite, the tension making her hands shake. Her
colleagues urged her on in frantic whispers, as the watchman, unhelpfully, continued to panic. Finally, she repacked all of the dynamite, and passed it successfully through the window. Another mission complete.8
And then, there were the children to attend to. Few Poles were willing to harbor Jewish children. Even sympathetic Poles were too frightened to take the risk inherent in sheltering a Jewish child. When Vladka made contact with Gentiles willing to take the risk, she could never assure the child’s parents of their safety—there was always the danger that the child would do or say something to give themselves away, or that the Gentiles sheltering them would go back on their word, or that the blackmailers would find them. For example, once out of the ghetto and on a trolley, a six-year-old boy named Olesh Blum almost immediately gave himself away. He began to ask: “Why are there so many cars and trolley cars here and none there? Why are there so many stores with fine things here, and none there?” It didn’t take very long for the other passengers aboard that trolley to grasp the meaning of these questions.
Once placed, Olesh changed residences three times as each host became frightened of the repercussions of being found sheltering a Jewish child. The boy grew unresponsive and apathetic, but ultimately survived the war. In another instance, Vladka placed a pair of ten-year-old twins named Nelly and Vlodka Blit with the Dubiel family. The two girls spoke unaccented Polish and knew never to mention the ghetto. Yet, they were deeply distressed at the separation from their mother. They stopped eating, spoke to no one, hid in corners, and only ever seemed happy or energetic when Vladka visited. They too survived the war.
The very worst came to pass in the case of twelve-year-old Mika Perenson. The Polish police arrested him shortly after his escape from the ghetto, and discovered ten bullets on his person. The Gestapo tortured the boy, trying to make him reveal the source of the bullets, as well as his address in the ghetto, his mother’s name, and his destination. Mika told them nothing. The Polish prison officials were amazed that a Jewish boy could be so brave. Stephan Machai had contacts in the Polish police, and a detective of his acquaintance told Stephan
that they had a chance of saving Mika. After weeks of negotiations, promises, bribes, and waiting, Mika was finally released. Despite all of these hardships, dangers, and hard-won victories, Mika perished in the ghetto during the Uprising.
1 Borowski was a representative of the Jewish National Committee and leader of the Poale Zion, a leftist Zionist party; and Henryk was a Bund activist from Krakow.
2 They were able to identify Jewish individuals by location, association, place of work, appearance, and demeanor.
3 Remember the Snatchers from the last Harry Potter book?
4 Think like, suburban-mom-demanding-to-see-the-manager style.
5 The couriers stationed on the “Aryan” side, mostly young women and girls with Aryan features, fluent Polish language skills, and full understanding of Gentile behavior and norms, would often meet informally in a house at Miodowa 24. Few of them had known each other before the war. They hailed from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and held diverse political affiliations. But on the “Aryan” side, they formed a tight-knit group. Acting as a family, they laughed together, cried together, and forced themselves to celebrate each other’s birthdays as though life went on unchanged. They were on the constant lookout for one another; they spent their days traversing a hostile world while carrying guns, money, illegal literature, and explosives hidden on their persons. Any absence from Miodowa 24 could mean that one of their number was dead.
6 Telephones remained in the factories in the ghetto where most Jews spent their days, telephones which could make and receive calls to all of Warsaw. The ZOB monitored the phones in case one of the Coordinating Committee members needed to get in touch. On the “Aryan” side, they only called in from public payphones, and only in case of emergency. They conversed in code, and hung up as soon as an operator interjected.
7 The ZOB distributed these files to the ghetto’s populace, to be used to escape from sealed freight cars.
8 She later assured the watchman that it had been powdered paint she was transporting, nothing more.