Vladka Meed Part 7: The Red Army

In February 1943, two months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Russians defeated the Germans in the Battle of Stalingrad.

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The Battle of Stalingrad; still from the Soviet film The Story of Stalingrad showing rocket missiles being fired at German positions. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 90999)

With this, the tide of the war slowly but steadily turned against the German forces. By the summer of 1944, the Red Army was quickly advancing across Eastern Europe, pushing the Germans into retreat. The Eastern Front drew close and closer to Warsaw. The sounds of battle could be heard in the streets. The Poles hoped that these sounds meant that the German occupiers would soon be defeated and forced into retreat. This hope grew into an enthusiasm so strong that the city hovered on the edge of open rebellion.

For the Coordinating Committee, this introduced a new set of logistical challenges. Those Jews hidden in the suburbs had to return to the perceived safety of the city. As open battle was likely to sever contact between the Coordinating Committee and the underground Jews across Warsaw who depended on them, couriers worked overtime, distributing money and rations.

On the personal level, Benjamin and Vladka decided that it was best to move in together, rather than risk separation in the chaos of battle. “‘We must not be separated now,’ he had declared. It was good to know that he was always close, that we shared the same deep feelings for each other. This knowledge sustained us as we rushed from task to task, keeping in touch with associates, digging trenches in the streets” in preparation for the defense of civilian areas.

Some hoped, or assumed, that as the branches of Polish underground parties rose up against the Germans, the Red Army would march into the city and reinforce their lines. The Armja Krajowa and the Polish government-in-exile, however, hoped to rise against the Germans and liberate the city before the Red Army could march in.1 This was part of Operation Tempest, a series of operations organized between the Polish-government-in-exile and the Armja Krajowa to seize control of Occupied Poland before the Red Army could march in. If the Operation was successful, the Poles would be able to meet the Red Army as equals, not as grateful, liberated civilians. In short, Operation Tempest existed to defend Poland from both the Germans and the Soviets.2

The Polish government-in-exile authorized the Armja Krajowa to begin the fight to liberate Warsaw on July 25, 1944. Eight days later, on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. Factory sirens, gunfire, and shouts of “Na Szwaba! Na Szwaba!”—Attack the damned Germans!—filled the air. People—Vladka and Benjamin among them—poured out of every doorway into
the streets and began to erect barricades to block German tanks.

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Soldiers of the No. 2 Platoon, 4th Company of the Polish Home Army in the courtyard of the captured Police Headquarters on 1 Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw, 23 August 1944. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 31075)

While the Armja Krajowa was the largest Polish underground military with the most resources and the greatest access to the government-in-exile, they were not the only
Polish Underground organization to play an active role in the Warsaw Uprising. Other Polish underground military organizations which fought in the Warsaw Uprising include the Democratic Socialist P.A.L. (Polska Armja Ludowa, or, the Polish People’s Army), and the Communist Armja Ludowa (People’s Army). Jews fought in all of these units, the majority of them with either the P.A.L, or the Armja Ludowa—these organizations had far fewer anti-Semitic elements in their ranks than the Armja Krajowa. Jews fought in every phase of the Warsaw Uprising, serving as soldiers, officers, doctors, and nurses.

As Jews and Poles alike fought with the resistance forces and toiled in the streets, Vladka mused to herself, “How strange that these sweat-drenched young Poles laboring…shoulder to shoulder with us in the common cause of liberation were the same callous and sometimes vicious Poles who had caused us so much pain and sorrow! But this was no time to think—there was work to be done.”

The resistance forces fought with confidence, positive that the Red Army was on its way to relieve and liberate the city. Though they had a clear advantage in weaponry, the Germans lacked the manpower to immediately suppress the uprising. Himmler dispatched additional troops to Warsaw on August 3, and again on August 5, ordering the troops to kill all of the inhabitants of the city.

Meanwhile, the rapidly approaching Soviet offensive halted twelve miles outside of Praga—a suburb about two miles away from the Old City district of Warsaw. It would not resume its westward march until September 11.

When the German reinforcements arrived, they mounted daily bombing campaigns. By August 17, parts of the city lay in ruins. While terrifying and devastating for Polish civilians, this posed perhaps the most danger to the Jews in hiding around the city.

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A Polish civilian woman leaves the building through the hole knocked in the wall. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 105729)

As the German bombs destroyed residential buildings, formerly hidden Jews were exposed to the still hostile
outside world, some of them for the first time in years. As these terrified Jews ran for new hideouts, clustering in the buildings where Coordinating Committee personnel were known to live, surprised Gentiles remarked, “there are Jews here!…Where does this pestilence come from? They were supposed to have been finished long ago.”

In the ranks of the Armja Krajowa, commanders assigned Jews to the most dangerous tasks, while their gentile “comrades” would often shoot them in the back for their troubles. AK guards accused Jews found hiding of being German spies. On some occasions, the AK guards would take a breather from their battle against the Nazis to beat these underground Jews, proclaiming that there would be no place for Jews in a liberated Poland—it was to be judenrein.

By August 24, 37,500 were dead. The Red Army resumed its march on September 11. The Polish Underground State briefly gained control over most of Warsaw on September 14. The Germans retreated as Praga fell to the Red Army, but continued their bombardment of the city. The Poles lost ground as the fighting intensified, and the Soviets—actively encouraging the Polish
underground to stage an uprising in Warsaw since beginning their westward march—did nothing.3

The Germans regained control over most of Warsaw on September 24, eventually reducing the Polish perimeter to little more than a few blocks. On October 2, Warsaw surrendered, with AK command broadcasting to the city that they were capitulating. At this time, approximately 12,000 Jews remained alive in the city, while more than 180,000 people—Jews, Poles, fighters, and civilians—perished in the Uprising.

The Poles defeated, Himmler ordered his troops to destroy what remained of Warsaw, even though, by then, it was clear that Germany had lost the war.

Warsaw In ruins, January 1945. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 31081)

The statue of Christ in front of the ruins of the Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, Warsaw. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (HU 105734)

German troops were still destroying the city a few hours before the Red Army marched in on January 17, 1945.

In those three months between the October suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, and the January entrance of the Red Army, Warsaw’s surviving Jews were in crisis, every day struggling to stay alive. Vladka and Benjamin were hiding in a bunker he had dug out in the cellars of ruined buildings. Some Jews did their best to disappear into the columns of soldiers and civilians fleeing the city, while others fled to join the ranks of the Red Army, and others still hid in cellars, surrounded by Jewish and Polish corpses.

Wounded soldiers of the Home Army help each other through the ruins of Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender, October 1944. Image and text courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.© IWM (HU 105728)

The Coordinating Committee was still in operation. Even in these most desperate of circumstances, Mikolai and Henryk continued to distribute American dollars to those in need. Yet, they had little help to offer to their remaining operatives, and most of the couriers had already fled the city.

Vladka and Benjamin agonized over the decision for days, knowing that they had little hope of eluding the Nazis outside of Warsaw without an organizational framework behind them. But, ultimately, they chose to flee. They turned their bunker over to a group of friends and comrades who planned to remain in the city.

It was raining on the day Vladka and Benjamin left Warsaw. Civilians pushing carts and lugging bundles on their backs hurried past. Their friends met them at the bunker. They looked at each other in silence, until someone said, quietly, “You had better hurry along.” Another friend, Clara Falk told them, “When you come back, don’t forget to get us out of the bunker—dead or alive.”

Choking back tears, Vladka struggled to find the right words. Finally, an old expression from the days of the ghetto came to mind. Forcing past the lump in her throat Vladka turned to the group. “Hang on kid,” she told them, harkening back to those old days, “hang on.’”


1 If you’ll recall, the Polish government-in-exile operated out of London.
2 However, the plan assumed that the retreating Germans would be too weak to defend their Polish holdings, and that the Red Army would acknowledge the Poles’ right to the land if they defeated the Germans before Soviet arrival. Neither of these assumptions were based in reality, especially as Stalin refused to recognize the Polish government-in-exile or any party acting on its behalf.
3 In Stalin’s eyes, an Uprising orchestrated by the Polish Home Army would kill both Germans, and those Poles willing to risk their lives for a free Poland; both a potential threat to Soviet designs on the future of “liberated” Poland.

The Amber Room, or, How Russia and Germany Lost the Eighth Wonder of the World

One time, Germany and Russia lost an entire room. An extremely valuable, artistic masterpiece, eighth wonder of the world of a room. It’s quite the epic tale, full of alliances against Sweden, art conservators making poor life choices, and Nazis.

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The reconstructed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

It begins in 1701 when Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia, commissioned a series of amber panels from an international team of master craftsmen. In 1711, Friedrich installed the finished panels in Berlin City Palace.

Friedrich’s son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, assumed the Prussian throne upon his father’s death in 1713. Not long after, Peter the Great paid a visit to the Prussian monarch, and admired the amber panels during his stay. In 1716, Friedrich presented his father’s panels to the Czar in order cement an alliance against Sweden (all this creation and exchange of amber-driven art was happening against the backdrop of Great Northern War, 1700-1721).

The amber panels arrived in Russian in 18 large boxes. After their installation in the Winter House in St. Petersburg, the panels underwent a renovation and expansion which concluded in 1755. Shortly thereafter, Czarina Elizabeth ordered the Amber Room moved to a larger space in the Catherine Palace. This move required that additional amber be shipped from Berlin, and by the time its transfer was complete, the Amber Room covered about 180 square feet, containing six tons of amber, gold leaf, and other semi-precious stones.

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Photograph of the original Amber Room. Source and date unknown.

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Photograph of the original Amber Room, taken in 1932. Image courtesy of the Novosti Press.

The Amber Room led a fairly quiet domestic existence after that. Czarina Elizabeth used it as a private meditation chamber, Catherine the Great used it as a gathering space, and Alexander II, an amber connoisseur, used it as a trophy space. The Soviets maintained it after the Revolution, though by the 1940s the amber had become dry and brittle.

Which posed quite a problem to the curators tasked with its removal.

On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa launched some three million German soldiers into the Soviet Union. Knowing the Nazi proclivity towards art theft, the curators responsible for the removal and protection of Leningrad’s treasures understood that they had to act fast. But as they removed the panels of the Amber Room, the amber began to crumble.

Caught between fear of the approaching Nazis, fear of destroying the Amber Room, and fear of the Nazis taking the room, the curators decided that the best solution was to cover their world famous charge in mundane wallpaper.

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The Catherine Palace post-Amber Room theft. Image date and source unknown, taken from the Daily Mail.

The Nazi Art Theft Division was, shockingly, not fooled, and disassembled the Amber Room in less than two days. On October 14, 1941, they packed it into 27 crates, and shipped it to Konigsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad) for storage and display in the city’s castle museum. There it remained until January 1945, when Hitler order the removal of all looted objects from Konigsberg.

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The Amber Room in Konigsberg, Germany in 1942. Image courtesy of Alamy.com.

There are a lot of stories about what happened next. Some claim that Hitler’s orders were followed, and that the Amber Room was packed into crates for transport. A group of eyewitnesses claims to have seen the crates at a railway station. Others hold that the crates were loaded aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship sunk by a Soviet submarine. Others still insist that the crates were buried in a secret location long since forgotten. In 1997, a group of German detectives received a tip that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. The seller was the son of a deceased German soldier whom had helped pack up the room; the fragment is now in the hands of the Russian government.

It is most likely that the Amber Room was destroyed during the April, 1945 Battle of Konigsberg. The city’s German administrators fled as Soviet forces advanced on the city, and the ensuing Battle of Konigsberg, which lasted from April 6-April 9, 1945, left 80% of the city in ruins.

In June, 1945, Alexander Brusov, the chief of the first formal Soviet mission to find the Amber Room, wrote, “Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945.” Brusov later retracted this statement, most likely under pressure from other Soviet officials wishing to obscure the possibility that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for the room’s destruction. Indeed the Soviet government continued to search for the Room despite their own experts’ conclusions, most likely for the very same reason.

Interestingly, the Soviet government restricted access to the remains of the Konigsberg Castle after the war, even to archaeological and historical surveys. In 1968, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the demolition of Konigsberg Castle, making any onsite research of the last known home of the Amber Room all but impossible, and destroying any pieces of the room which may have survived.

In 2004, British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy set out to find the Amber Room, or at least, to determine its fate once and for all. The two authors concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed during or in the aftermath of the Battle of Konigsberg.

Since the book’s release, Russian officials have rather defensively denied its conclusions. Adelaida Yolkina, a senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate stated that “It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed.” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, stated that “Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is the fault of the people who started the war.”

Regardless, somewhere between the Wallpaper Incident, the Nazi belief that the the Amber Room was made by and for Germans, the likely non-removal of the room before the Battle of Konigsberg, and the 1968 Soviet destruction of the last known home of the Amber Room, the room disappeared, and was never seen in public after 1945. In the end, I guess Sweden got the last laugh, as it remained passive aggressively neutral throughout World War II. That’ll teach Prussia and Russia to exchange anti-Swedish alliance art.

In 1979 the Soviet government decided that it was high time to resurrect the almost lost art of amber carving and construct a new Amber Room. It took 24 years, millions of dollars (including a sizable German donation), and consultations of drawings and black and white photographs of the original Amber Room. In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder presented the new Amber Room.

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The Reconstructed Amber Room. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user jeanyfan.

The new Amber Room is housed in the Catherine Palace, and is open to the public for viewing.

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.

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“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.