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.

Some more on the WWII Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai…

A month or two ago I made a post about the “Shanghai Ghetto,” the probable topic of my Master’s thesis. Since making that post I’ve done a large amount of research and spent about a month writing a research paper about a subset of life for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai. So, in light of that, I want to clear up a few things I got wrong, or over-simplified in my last post on the subject.

-German and Austrian Jews fleeing Germany first took a train from Germany to either Naples or Genoa. There, they would sail through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the coast of China. Their ship would then make its way down the Whangpoo River until it docked at the Bund (Shanghai’s harbor-side financial district).

Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai via this route from 1938 until it was closed upon Italy’s entrance into the war on June 10, 1940. After this closure, Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai via the trans-Siberian Railroad. This route took them across Russia through to Manchuria, at which point the majority boarded a ship for Shanghai. This route was open until December 7, 1941. After that date, all escape routes to Shanghai were closed to Jews.

And now we can celebrate the return of my mildly inaccurate MS Paint maps (both courtesy of Google Maps)! The first map shows the Italy-Shanghai route in use from 1938-1940, and the second shows the overland train route in use from 1940-1941. Obviously the ships did not sail over India or Japan; that is just me being incapable of drawing accurate lines on MS Paint.

-Also in Shanghai were Sephardic and Russian communities. The Sephardic Jewish community was generally Baghdadi in origin, and traveled to Shanghai as businessmen under the auspices of the British Empire. Members of this community—specifically the Kadoorie and Sassoon families—gave great sums of money to the Jewish refugee community. The Russian Jewish community had fled to Shanghai from Russia in the midst of the Russian Civil War; they were fleeing from the violently anti-Semitic White Russian forces.

When the refugees—many newly destitute as Nazi policy forbade them from taking many valuables or more than about fifteen American dollars out of the country—arrived in Shanghai, their impoverished status embarrassed the pre-existing Jewish communities who feared that the presence of these impoverished (white) Jews would take away from their own status within Shanghai.

-The “Shanghai Ghetto” moniker is a misleading one. The Hongkew District of Shanghai was home to the city’s poorest Chinese inhabitants. It was partially destroyed in 1937 by hostilities in the Sino-Japanese War, and had not been rebuilt when the refugees began to arrive in 1938. Jewish relief organizations in Allied and neutral countries along with the Sephardic and Russian communities in Shanghai set up refugee homes based in Hongkew for the newly arrived refugees, as structures were inexpensive in that location. These homes (Heime), though obviously better than nothing, were crowded, unsanitary, and the time spent there was extremely distressing for the formerly upper middle class refugees*.

Though some refugees received money from relations in Allied or neutral countries, had smuggled money and/or valuables out of Germany, or had been able to quickly find gainful employment and relocate to the French or International Concessions, many were never able to secure enough money to get out of Hongkew. Some, so traumatized by Kristallnacht, leaving Germany, and arriving with nothing to the Heime—so traumatized by their loss of identity—became depressed and never left their Heim.

In February 1943, the Japanese rulers of Shanghai announced that all “Stateless Persons” who had arrived in Shanghai after 1937 had to relocate to Hongkew by May 1943. Though it was not specified in the language of the proclamation, it was taken to be directed at the Jewish refugees, and was directed at them as an attempt on the part of the Japanese to appease their German allies. Thus, it was only a “Ghetto” for the Jews in the last two years of the war.

-Many dates are attributed to the time at which this refugee community was in Shanghai, a popular one being 1938-1945, but I prefer 1938-1949 because it was in 1949 that Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, and it was by 1949 that most of the refugee community had fled to the United States, Australia, or Israel. By 1957, only 100 Jews were left in Shanghai.

*I could tell you more about the conditions within the Heime and Hongkew as a whole which caused these refugees such existential distress, but I am not sure if you want a post about toilets, sewage, sanitation, etc. I personally find history relating to sewage and sanitation to be really interesting (if not gross) but I don’t know if you want to read about such things. Let me know if you do.

The Shanghai Ghetto

Welcome to one of those posts that is secretly derived from my thesis research. Contains mention of the Holocaust.

My research is still in its early stages, so this breakdown of its background may contain some vaguaries, and some theories which have not yet been thoroughly researched. These will be clearly marked.

My inquiry starts in the early years of the Third Reich. It’s easy to look at these years and wonder why German Jews didn’t start to get their emigration papers in order when Hitler implemented the 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses, but in asking this, we are ignoring the fact that these German Jews saw themselves as 100% German. They fought for Germany in WWI, read and valued and prized German art and literature and philosophy; the idea that their country would turn against them was inconceivable.

Because Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930’s, he gave German Jewry time to rationalize and get used to each new piece; with every new law they would think to themselves “Well this must be it; it can’t get any worse than this; what more can they do to us?”

German Jews did emigrate out of Germany over the course of the 1930’s (often, as previously discussed, at the urging of women) as they lost the ability to rationalize the legislation to themselves, but some were not able to see that it was going to keep getting worse until after Kristallnacht. By then, it was too late for many of them to secure the documentation and funds they would need to emigrate (in addition to the sheer amount of time it took to get emigration papers, and the fact that prospective countries had strict emigration quotas, the Nazis charged emigrating Jews a massive exit tax).

There was, however, one place that would accept these Jews without any papers or visa requirements: Shanghai. A sizable number of German and Austrian Jews fled to Shanghai in the late 1930’s and stayed there through the course of the war as Stateless Persons. While most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai were German or Austrian, there was also the entire student population of the famed Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland whom had been rescued by a Dutch official in Lithuania*. Also present in Shanghai, specifically in the International Concession, was a community of very wealthy Sephardic Jews, many of Iraqi descent.

When the Japanese occupied Shanghai after declaring war on the United States (and thus the Allied Powers) in 1941, they forced the Stateless Persons to move into a very small area of crowded, low standard housing in the Hongkew district of Shanghai—this area became known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Though it was officially only the Stateless Persons who were forced to move into this area, the relocation was aimed at the Jewish refugees (as they made up the majority of the Stateless Persons). This was an attempt of the Japanese to appease their German allies.

While the living conditions within Hongkew were terrible, the Japanese took no further steps against the Jews, focusing more of their direct aggression and violence towards the Chinese population of Shanghai. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that in the Japanese government was given financial assistance against the Russian tsarist government in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) by American Jewish financier Jacob Schiff. This gave the Japanese—who hadn’t had much interaction with Jews—a positive view of the Jewish people, and may have influenced their decision not to persecute the Jews in their territory.

The second possible reason is that the Japanese—in their non-experience with Jews—had been exposed to anti-Jewish propaganda of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion variety by the White Russian troops they fought alongside against the Communists in 1919 and took it seriously. They feared that if they treated the Jews poorly, the powerful Jewish financiers behind Western governments would exact revenge on Japan. It also may have been a combination of the two.

Though General Ghoya—the often violent and unpredictable Japanese officer and self-styled “King of the Jews” who had been put in charge of issuing papers allowing people in and out of the Hongkew District—made no attempt to murder these Jews, poverty, malnutrition, lack of access to health care, unclean drinking water, disease carrying insects, Allied bombing raids, and exposure to unfamiliar climates were all effective killers.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, Shanghai was occupied by American troops. Some Jews stayed around for a few years, working for the American military and saving money for an eventual emigration to New York—most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai did aspire to live out the remainder of their lives in the United States. Some returned to Germany to register with the new government and attempt to get government restitution for their property which had been seized by the Nazi government; this was often a traumatic and unsuccessful venture. Fewer still made their way to Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Palestine/Israel (depending on what part of the 1940’s we’re talking about). The few Jews who had remained in Shanghai through the 1940’s left as the Communist regime made its way to Shanghai, and by the Cultural Revolution, none were left.

And just a note about German Jewish émigrés, not all went to Shanghai or Palestine or New York or Australia or Argentina or England. Many traveled and settled in other Eastern and Western European nations, believing that Hitler would not invade those countries, and/or underestimating Hitler’s devotion to lebensraum. Many were trapped and murdered in these countries as they were overtaken by the Third Reich. Ultimately, of the Jews who escaped from Germany, only half of them survived the Holocaust. That figure of 50% does not take into account those who died or committed suicide after arriving in their émigré countries.

*After the invasion of Poland, the student population of the Mirrer Yeshiva fled to Lithuania. Knowing that Lithuania would probably be the next to fall to Germany, one student visited the Dutch consul in Kovno, and got the official to write in his passport that no visa was needed to travel to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The Japanese official in Kovno—Chiune Sugihara—gave the student a transit visa to cross Japan on his way to Curacao. This student’s Yeshiva colleagues were all given this allowance. Both officials knew that there was no way for these Jews to reach the Caribbean, meaning that they were implicitly and illegally smuggling these people out of soon to be conquered Lithuania into Shanghai through misuse of consular power. These students would later say that they had been saved by an angel. Both officials were later penalized by their respective governments for their actions.

Jews, Food, and Socialism

January 11, 2019: This post was a bit of a thought experiment to see if this theory could go anywhere after taking some intensive courses. I still think some of these ideas are interesting, but much more work is needed before I could defend any of this.

In traditional Eastern European Jewish society, and specifically within the Russian Pale of Settlement for the purposes of this post, communities were bound together by food: everyone followed the kosher laws, from the richest person to the poorest. Because of this, all members of these Jewish communities felt entitled to eat well regardless of class. Since the consumption of kosher food was divinely commanded, no one had the right to deny it to another. The poor felt as though that the wealthy owed them food, and the wealthy felt obliged to supply it.

That said, this society was hardly egalitarian; on the contrary, it was heavily stratified and class lines were rigidly upheld—one of the primary purposes of arranged marriages was to uphold these class lines. However, the attitudes towards food created a communal consciousness in which the idea that the poor somehow deserved to have a harder time in life by virtue of their poverty was not present.

This society also had a very rigid concept of proper gender roles. Men were expected to be Talmudic scholars and dedicate their lives to the study of the holy texts. Certainly not all men were or could be scholars, and not all families had the funds to allow their sons to dedicate themselves to this study, but the figure of the Talmudic scholar was the masculine ideal.

Women, on the other hand, were not allowed access to the holy texts. They were expected to venture out into the public sphere to earn a living for their families while their husbands were at home studying. Thus, young women were given a secular education to prepare them for their role as breadwinners. Some families sent their daughters to public schools, if there were any available, while others paid for a private education, or private tutors.

Because secular education was prized for women, and because nineteenth century Russia was a multi-lingual society, many of these girls were fluent in both Russian and Yiddish, and sometimes French and German as well. Over the course of their secular educations, they encountered modern and revolutionary literature written in these European languages which their male peers were not encountering in the cheder (pre-yeshiva Jewish elementary schools for boys). It was in this literature that these young girls and women, raised in communities which rejected the notion that the poor deserved to be punished for their poverty, encountered socialism. This socialism did not inform, but rather cemented the world view of these women.

Between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Pale to America, and most settled in New York City. The vast majority of the young women who came to America with their parents found work in the factories and workshops of the garment industry.

These young women became rapidly dissatisfied with the unsafe and unregulated conditions in which they had to work. Because of the views on class which they had learned in Russia, it never would have occurred to these women to think that they deserved to work in awful conditions by virtue of their low socio-economic status. When the management was unresponsive to their concerns, they went on strike. As these women went on to marry and become housewives, they channeled this conception of class into protests against unaffordable grocery prices, exploitative renting practices, and other such working class concerns.

These women were distinctive. They weren’t revolutionary socialists, and they weren’t American capitalists. While these women were eager to Americanize and showed great enthusiasm for consumer culture, they rejected the tenet of American capitalism which dictated that poverty was a result of personal failings. They combined the socialist class conceptions of their lives in Europe with consumerist aspects of working class America to form their own distinct reality.

Thus, I would argue that the class consciousness instigated by the necessity of observing the kosher laws in the tightly knit Jewish communities of the Pale allowed these women to take the socialism they encountered in Russian revolutionary literature, and make it their own. This socialist consciousness traveled with them across the Atlantic to America where they used that consciousness to create their own working class experience.

I do not argue that the American Jewish experience was informed by the kosher laws—in the face of Americanization, many once Orthodox families became far less zealous about their upkeep, sometimes leaving them by the wayside entirely—but that the kosher laws informed the consciousness from which the distinctive experience of pre-WWII American Jewry rose.

“A pint of trouble for the bosses”: Clara Lemlich Shavelson

January 11, 2019: This post does not do Clara justice. I am planning on a full rewrite.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson (1886-1982) never backed down. She never gave up. No obstacle, from the czarist regime to the House Committee on Un-American Activities could stand in her way. I can only hope to scratch the surface of her massive contributions to American society over the course of the twentieth century in this post, and I have left out many of her contributions in the interest of brevity.

Early Years and Union Involvement

Clara was born in the Pale of Settlement, the geographic area—encompassing most of modern day Western Russia, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, and Ukraine—to which Russian Jews were confined under the czarist government. Specifically, she was born in the Ukrainian village of Gorodok. The primary language spoken in the Pale was Yiddish.

Lemlich was forbidden from learning Russian by her parents. In her first act of rebellion, she studied the Russian language behind their backs, and built up a library of Russian revolutionary literature in similar secrecy. Her exposure to this socialist, revolutionary literature would determine her lifelong political trajectory.

In 1903, after a pogrom swept through a nearby village, Clara and her family emigrated to the United States—in the period between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews from the Pale would make the same journey. Clara and her family, like the vast majority of Jewish émigrés, settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There Clara and her Jewish female peers found work in the garment industry; so many female Jewish and Italian immigrants took jobs in the garment industry said industry was based in New York, and the factories needed workers.

These female workers had to work long, unregulated hours in unsafe, unhealthy conditions. They had no rights as workers, and their salaries changed at the whims of their employers. Lemlich, observing her surroundings, and unwilling to simply accept them, joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). A contemporary referred to her as “a pint of trouble for the bosses.”

Once in the union, she bacame frustrated at the sexist attitudes and general complacency of the male leadership. When they would not listen to her or take her seriously, she went over their heads to actively court female membership and involvement. She did not merely coax other women into action; she was there with them in the front lines. During a strike in 1909, she returned to a picket line after her employer’s hired goons broke several of her ribs.


“Come at me, bro.” (Image courtesy of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, Kheel Center Collection, Cornell University)

In November of 1909 at a meeting at Cooper Union, after listening to inconsequential male speech after speech, Lemlich became fed up. She demanded to be allowed to speak, took the podium, and said “I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

Over the next weeks, between 30 and 40 thousand young, female, and predominantly Jewish garment workers walked out of their jobs (this has come to be rather romantically known as the Uprising of the 20,000). The strikes were partially successful in that many Union contracts were produced as a result. However its limitations were thrown into tragic relief when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned on March 25, 1911.

Suffrage and Working-Class Advocacy

Finding herself blacklisted within the garment industry after calling the industry to strike, Lemlich could no longer work effectively within the union. In its absence, she turned to the fight for female suffrage. In her eyes, the fight for the rights of working women and the fight for the female vote were one and the same.

Rejecting the middle and upper class gentile perspective of many of the female suffragists, Clara helped to found the Wage Earners League for Woman’s Suffrage, a group concerned with the situation of working class women. The tension between herself and the upper class suffragists came to a head when she was fired from her position as organizer in 1911, when her radical politics clashed with the more moderate views of her employers.

In 1913 Clara married Joe Shavelson. The two moved to Brooklyn and had three children together. Once settled, Clara continued who fight for equality, this time with the women of her working class neighborhood. This period of her life was spent fighting to better the conditions of the working class—specifically working class women—across racial, religious, and ethnic lines.

She was active throughout the teens and the twenties, and in 1926 she both joined the Communist Party and founded the United Council of Working-Class Housewives. In 1929 she co-founded the United Council of Working-Class Women—an organization which led rent strikes, anti-eviction demonstrations, price boycotts, and sit-ins and marches on Washington; and in 1935 the UCWCW’s name was changed to the Progressive Women’s Councils.

The PWC formed a coalition with other women’s organizations to alleviate issues faced by the female, working class community. This coalition organized a boycott on the high price setting of the meat industry which was so effective that it shut down 4,500 butcher shops in New York City alone. It was also instrumental in passing rent control laws. These are only two examples, but they are indicative of the PWC’s effectiveness and influence, much of which, in my opinion, may be attributed to the very force of Lemlich’s will.

The PWC was effective in alleviating some of the worst effects of the Great Depression on working class communities. The attention Clara and her coalition of housewife activists paid to the concerns of working class women laid the groundwork for the focus on the concerns of women working within the home in the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Communist Involvement and the Later Years

After the Second World War, Clara’s activism changed yet again. This time, her work was much more directly influenced by her Communist beliefs than it had been during her PWC years. She served on the American Committee to Survey Trade Union Conditions in Europe, and was an organizer for the American League against War and Fascism while remaining a visible member of the Communist Party.

She came to the attention of the American government after her 1951 visit to the Soviet Union with the American Committee. This resulted in the revocation of her passport. Later that year she was summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Her entire family was investigated and would remain under surveillance for the next 20 years.

But that didn’t stop her. In 1953 she loudly and publicly protested the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. In 1954 she protested the US intervention in Guatemala. She spoke out against nuclear proliferation, worked with civil rights organizations, and was active in early anti-Vietnam organizing. All while living under the watch of federal surveillance.

Her husband died in 1951, the same year that she was called before the House Committee. She re-married an old union acquaintance, Abe Goldman, in 1960, and lived with him until his death in 1967. After his death she moved to California to be closer to her children.

She lived in the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. There she harangued the management into joining the United Farm Worker’s Boycott of grapes and lettuce, and helped the orderlies organize a union.

She died at the age of 96.