Because you know I didn’t get all that solely from our girl’s memoir. There are rather a lot of books listed here, so for your reference the books are separated into the following categories in the following order: Background(s), Holocaust, Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw Uprising (1944) and Polish Underground, Gen. World War II, Cold War-Era, and Memory Studies.
In January 1978, thirty-three years after they left Warsaw for what they thought was the last time, Yad Vashem officials invited Vladka and Benjamin back to Warsaw for the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the January 19 Uprising in the Ghetto.
In the days before the ceremony, Vladka and Benjamin explored the city which had once been their home. In the old Jewish Quarter, the familiar streets of their youth were long gone, new, unfamiliar networks of broad boulevards lined with tall, alien, apartment buildings in their place. Some areas were unexpectedly hilly, as though no one had bothered to level the ruins of the Ghetto before rebuilding that quarter of the city.
The entire area, it seemed to them, had been scrubbed clean of its Jewish past. The only thing they could find which acknowledged the Jews who had lived and died in that space was the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.
The monument as Vadka would have seen it in the late 1970s. Note the apartment blocks in the background. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
“It was a powerful monument,” Vladka wrote. “Once it had stood alone in a sea of rubble but now it seemed incongruous—dwarfed by huge, faceless, apartment blocks to which it had no relation. It is as if the monument had come from another time or another world, intruding, almost by force, into the smug grey world of contemporary Polish reality.” Two frozen, wilted flowers sat beside it.
Once a prison, Pawiak, stood in the very center of the Jewish Quarter. During the war years, “it had been the setting of a particularly brutal and bloody chapter of the Warsaw Ghetto.” Standing in its place was a museum. Inside, visitors could tour former prison cells, see the material remains of Nazi torture methods, and view documents and photographs illustrating the Polish struggle against the Nazis. A section was devoted to Polish suffering under Nazi rule. But, Vladka wrote, “nowhere [was] there a photograph, a document, even a single word, to indicate that this was also a place of Jewish suffering and destruction; this despite the fact that within the walls of this terrible prison, thousands of Jews had been tortured and executed. Their lives and their deaths are totally erased, as if they had never been.”
At the site of the Umschlagplatz stood a block of houses. The only trace of the place’s past was a plaque, placed on a low brick wall, and inscribed in Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew with the sentence, “This is the place from which the Nazis sent tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths.”
The Jewish cemetery was largely the same as it had been in 1945. Empty, destroyed, abandoned, and impossible to breach. At Treblinka, Vladka and Benjamin found only “A vast, empty, snow-covered field filled with huge stones of many sizes and shapes, all pointing toward the sky.”
At the commemoration, the purpose of their trip, Vladka, Benjamin, and a few others stood in silence. There were no speeches. There were no Polish representatives. Nobody walking by showed the slightest interest in the small group congregated at the memorial.
Their past in Warsaw was, for all intents and purposes, gone.
They returned to New York.
While this trip was surely, for both Vladka and Benjamin, a traumatic one, made worse through the apparent erasure of their six years of hell, it did not disrupt their work in the United States.
In 1981, Vladka and Benjamin founded the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. Its 1983 commemoration, held in Washington DC (which she chaired) was attended by over 20,000 survivors and their families. The Gathering continues on today, acting as the umbrella organization of all Holocaust survivor groups in North America, and inspired a boom of commemorative action, books, films, curricula, and museums.
Vladka, shaking hands with President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In the year of its founding, the Gathering established the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors as a national registry to document the lives of survivors who came to the United States after World War II. Today, the Registry, located in the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center, includes over 200,000 records related to survivors and their families from around the world.
As Holocaust education became part of American curricula in the mid-1980s, Vladka worked with the American Federation of Teachers and other groups to train teachers in Holocaust education. In 1985 she, with representatives of the Jewish Labor Committee and New York’s United Federation of Teachers, founded the annual American Teachers’ Seminars on the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance. She remained director of that organization for many years. Because of her work, thousands of educators across the United States received training in Holocaust pedagogy.
Vladka received many honors for her work throughout her life, including the 1989 Morim Award of the Jewish Teachers’ Association, the 1993 Hadassah Henrietta Szold Award, the 1995 Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award, and honorary degrees from Hebrew Union College and Bar Ilan University.
Vladka Meed passed away on November 21, 2012 at 90 years of age after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
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.
You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin. I am completely calm. You — my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal — if not completely — then — at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you — stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks.Into eternity, Vilma.
–Vilma Grunwald, moments before she entered the Auschwitz gas chamber, July 11, 1944.
The ruins of the Ghetto, late 1943. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
An endless parade of Nazis patrolled the streets of Warsaw, canvassing every surface with huge posters warning Poles of the “Jewish peril.” The posters decreed that any Jew would be arrested on site, that any Pole found extending aid or shelter to a Jew would be shot. Poles formed vigilante groups to guard Gentile homes against “misfortune,” an obvious euphemism for “Jews.”
Nevertheless, The Jewish Coordinating Committee still existed. Jews remained alive and in hiding in and around Warsaw, including the approximately seventy ZOB fighters who escaped from the burning ghetto. The remnants of the Committee worked as hard as they could to maintain contact with the hidden Jews, hide the ZOB survivors, and keep them all safe. The Committee had some luck protecting those already in hiding, but their reach could only extend so far; the hostile environment of Warsaw and its suburbs worked against
them, killing off the survivors, one by one.1
Stroop’s report to Himmler, stating that “the Ghetto no longer exists.” Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Death and destruction seemed to haunt Vladka’s every step. Abrasha Blum had survived the Uprising. He was hiding out with Vladka until he could secure a new hideout. Yet, someone betrayed them. The Polish police put Vladka and Abrasha under arrest. She managed to bribe a guard into sending word to her comrades, but when their colleagues succeeded in bribing the police into letting Vladka and Abrasha go, they were too late: Abrasha had already been transported to Gestapo headquarters, a death sentence in all but name.
Once out of prison, Vladka was an open target: the Polish police and the blackmailers all knew that she was an underground Jew. Mikolai advised her to disappear for a while.
Vladka left Warsaw for the countryside, posing as one of Mrs. Dubiel’s (the Gentile woman who sheltered two Jewish girls) relatives. Away from the city Vladka spent most of her time alone, in the woods, where she did not have to live under the constant stress of maintaining her perfect Gentile disguise. But, there was little peace to be found. All day she sat wondering why she lived when so many others did not.
“Why was I here…would it not have been better for me to have been deported with my family? At least I would have shared their final agonizing hours….My mind filled with memories, visions—of my parents, my sister, my brother, my friends, my relatives, my comrades…I heard their loud voices, my mother puttering about the kitchen. I saw her…face…she seemed to be
smiling. Yes, she could be at ease now—I was no longer starving, and now I could get enough bread for her too…if only she…stayed with me a while longer. But her face receded and harsh reality returned to engulf me with its full force. My mother was gone—and with her the street, the house, my brother, my sister. Only the gnawing grief lingered…I felt more intensely than ever the naked truth of what had befallen us.”
After five weeks, the Coordinating Committee cleared Vladka to return to Warsaw.
1 An unknown party betrayed four survivors to the Polish police. The Polish police arrested the party and paraded them through the streets in a cart. Attached to the cart was a sign reading: “They will be shot. They are Jewish bandits. That’s how all Jews will be taken care of. Those who help such people will be dealt with in the same way.” The police shot them the next day. Another group perished when their hideout caught fire. Many of the survivors hidden in the woods and suburbs around Warsaw died under questionable circumstances, often at the hands of Polish partisan groups.
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.
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.
”Stories like Behar’s are the reason why I keep looking for traces that will allow me to shine a light on other experiences, outside the heteronormative Holocaust master narrative. Queer studies has been a field that embraces a difficult history riddled with gaps, failures, and difficulties. In the context of Holocaust history, it allows us to see a different kind of history, one that’s unafraid to include ambivalences and hierarchies.”
Noor Inayat Khan in her SOE uniform. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
Perhaps it was the color of her skin, her past work as a children’s book writer, or her calm, gentle demeanor nature which inclined Special Operations Executive (SOE) personnel to doubt Noor Inayat Khan’s (1914-1944) potential as an SOE agent. However, the resistance networks she single-handedly maintained and the German agents charged with her arrest would beg to differ.
The SOE was formed by British Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, on July 22, 1940. Its purpose was to conduct espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe, and to provide aid to local resistance movements in occupied countries. SOE agents—coming from all walks of life, and having gone through a rigorous training process which included instruction on how to kill with your bare hands, how to derail trains, how to escape from handcuffs, and how to parachute—took Churchill’s order to “set Europe ablaze” to heart. They quickly set about destroying bridges needed for German supply lines, bombing the water plant needed to support the German atomic bomb program, and sending supply trains in the wrong direction.
Noor Inayat Khan’s path to the SOE began in Moscow. There, she was born on the first day of 1914 to Hazrat Inayat Khan and Ameena Begum. Her father, Hazrat Khan, was a musician, a teacher of Sufi Islam, founder of the Sufi Order of the West (now the Sufi Order International), and a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in Southern India. Her mother, Ameena Begum (born Ora Baker), was an American woman who met Hazrat during his travels in the US. The family settled outside of Paris in 1920, where her father taught classes, held a summer school, and gave lectures. Hazrat Khan died in 1927, when Noor was thirteen years old.
Khan posing with her mother. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.
As a young adult, Khan studied child psychology at the Sorbonne, and music at the Paris Conservatory. After completing her studies she wrote poetry, children’s stories, and became a regular contributor to children’s magazines and French radio. In 1939 she published a children’s book called Twenty Jataka Tales.
Khan in her family’s home in France with her sitar.Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.
Khan was deeply influenced by the Sufi teachings of her father, which centered on three tenets: that there is truth in every religion, that humanity is one and must rise above the distinctions created to divide it, and that the East and the West must be united for humanity to become one. These teachings of tolerance and understanding very much informed the course of her life after the outbreak of the Second World War.
She trained as a nurse with the French Red Cross as her children’s book was being published. However, her service with this organization was short lived as she fled to England with her family just before the French surrender to Germany in November, 1940. They settled in London. Shortly after their arrival, Khan, eager to do her part to bring an end to Nazi tyranny, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. It was around this time that she began to use the name Nora Baker.
She spent nearly three years training with the WAAF as a wireless operator. Impressed by her technical skill and her fluent French, the SOE recruited Khan into their France division—overseen by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster—in late 1942. During her three months of training, her team, obviously willfully ignorant of her background and abilities, described her as clumsy, fearful of weapons, “not over-burdened with brains,” unstable, and temperamental. However, Buckmaster regarded these comments as the nonsense that they were and allowed her to complete her training.
Khan’s passport photo. Image courtesy of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust.
With her fluent French and her skill as an operator, Khan was perfect for a post in Occupied France. On June 17, 1943, Khan, officially the first female wireless operator to be sent into France to aid the Resistance, landed and reported to her post in Paris.
She worked with the Prosper network (technically called the Physician network, but popularly known as Prosper after the codename of its organizer, Major Francis Suttill), the largest network in Northern France. The Prosper network communicated with England to organize the placement and arrival of SOE agents, locally recruited agents, and aid to the French Resistance. The network was of such importance that Berlin regarded it as the heart of a secret army posing the utmost danger to the security of the Third Reich.
However, only one week after her arrival, the precariousness of the life of a covert agent in Occupied France became uncomfortably clear. The local branch of the Gestapo arrested Suttill, and over the next three months hundreds of agents—including wireless operators and resistance personnel alike—supported by the Prosper network would be put under arrest.
After the initial arrests, Khan was the only wireless operator left in Paris, making her post the most dangerous one in all of Northern France. The SOE offered to repatriate her to Britain, but she refused to leave her comrades without communication channels. Over the next three months, Noor single-handedly maintained the network which supported resistance activities across Occupied France.
The Prosper network’s last remaining link to London, Khan quickly became the most wanted British agent in Paris. The Gestapo, though they had her full description, knew her only by her code name, “Madeleine.” Under constant pursuit by wireless detection vans, Khan could only transmit for twenty minutes at a time. Even so, she transmitted regularly from the first week of July through to the second week of October.
However in the beginning of that month, either an SOE double agent or a French woman betrayed her to the Nazis. On October 13, 1943, Khan was arrested, and held in the Paris headquarters of the SD. She fought so fiercely upon her arrest that the SD agents were afraid of her. She lied consistently to her interrogators while in custody, though they did uncover copies of her signals, allowing them to impersonate her in wireless communications with London. In addition to her fierce fighting and consistent lies, Khan made two escape attempts during her two month interrogation. One was successful, however, she was quickly recaptured.
After she refused to sign a declaration renouncing future escape attempts, the SD classified her as “Nacht und Nebel” (“Night and Fog”), a designation given only to those prisoners deemed as posing a threat to the security of the Third Reich. She was secretly shipped to Germany by night. Considered a particularly dangerous and uncooperative prisoner, she was kept in chains in solitary confinement during her time in Pforzheim. She continued to refuse to give away any information during this stage of her imprisonment.
On September 11, 1944 the Gestapo transferred her to Dachau. Two days later, an SS officer executed her by a shot to the head.
Her last word was “Liberté.”
Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross—the highest gallantry award for British civilians, as well as for members of the armed forces in actions for which purely military honors would not normally be granted—in Britain, and the Croix de Guerre—a military decoration honoring those who fought with the Allies against the Axis forces during World War II—in France. On November 8, 2012, HRH Princess Anne unveiled a bronze bust of Khan located in the Gordon Square Gardens in London. In 2014, Khan was featured in Britain’s “Remarkable Lives” stamp series.
HRH Princess Anne standing with Khan’s memorial bust. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.
While the British and the French honor Khan’s memory and claim her as one of their own, we must remember that this was a woman who believed passionately in a doctrine stressing the unity of humanity, the need for humanity to rise above artificial divisions, and the need to unite the East with the West. It is far more likely that, rather than fighting for any nation, Khan was fighting against oppression, against disunity, against artificial boundaries, and for her love of humanity.
And let’s be real if she was a dude she’d have a blockbuster action film starring the male equivalent of Freida Pinto out by now.
As of this writing, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars has sold over one million copies, and holds a place on several bestseller lists. The film adaptation of the book has made over two hundred million dollars in the domestic and foreign market. The book and the movie tell the story of two terminally ill American teenagers, and both contain a scene where the protagonists, Hazel and Augustus, share a kiss in the Anne Frank House. John Green made the following statement regarding the scene:
“Anne Frank was a pretty good example of a young person who ended up having the kind of heroic arc that Augustus wants—she was remembered and she left this mark that he thinks is valuable—but when he has to confront her death, he has to confront the reality that really she was robbed of the opportunity to live or die for something. She just died of illness like most people. And so I wanted him to go with a sort of expectation of her heroism and be sort of dashed.”
Here, Green makes it clear that he reads Anne Frank’s death as being from an illness like “most people,” like his protagonist. In doing so, he erases the circumstances under which she contracted typhus. “Most people” are not Ashkenazic Jewish teenage girls who contracted typhus in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This fundamental erasure of the context of her death allowed him, those involved in the cinematic adaptation, and yes, a large portion of his readership, to accept the use of Anne Frank and her death as a prop in this American YA love story. Indeed, when further called on the issue, Green stated:
“I’ve been getting this question a lot. I can’t speak for the movie, obviously, as I didn’t make it, but as for the book: The Fault in Our Stars was the first non-documentary feature film to be granted access to the Anne Frank House precisely because the House’s board of directors and curators liked that scene in the novel a great deal. (A spokesperson recently said, ‘In the book it is a moving and sensitively handled scene.’) Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, had this to say: ‘The kissing scene in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ in the annex of the Anne Frank House is not offensive or against who Anne Frank was. What Anne communicated in her diary was hope. She celebrated life and she celebrated hope.’ Obviously, the Anne Frank House and the ADL do not have a monopoly on Anne’s life or her legacy, but their opinions are important to me.”
I take issue with this response. Here, Green is divesting himself of responsibility for the scene, and communicating to his critics that he is not to blame, because the Anne Frank House board of directors, curators, and a Holocaust survivor approved of it. In other words, he is drawing these peoples’ assumed authority to silence criticism, and to avoid taking responsibility for the filmed version of a scene he created.
The Anne Frank House, for all the wonderful work it does, is a museum. Like all museums, it must work to attract and reach out to potential patrons. In other words, museums have to advertise because they require patrons and revenues to exist. Therefore, I read the official approval of the Anne Frank House simply as a targeted attempt to reach out to and attract a pool of untapped, younger patrons. They chose to support the filming of a sympathetic romantic scene about terminally ill teenagers in their institution to reach out to young people. While that is a sound business decision, I would argue that it’s hardly an ethical one for the Anne Frank House, an institution devoted, as per their website, to:
“the preservation of the place where Anne Frank went into hiding during the Second World War, and to bringing the life story of Anne Frank to the attention of as many people as possible worldwide with the aim of raising awareness of the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination and the importance of freedom, equal rights and democracy,”
to support the filming of this scene. For, in Green’s own words, that scene had nothing to do with the context of Anne Frank’s death, and therefore, it did nothing to bring Anne Frank’s story to life. And it hardly raises awareness of contemporary European anti-Semitism.
As for the ADL, I very much agree with Mr. Foxman’s assessment of Anne Frank. However, what she celebrated in her life and her writings have little to do with what she has come to mean in within public memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Her narrative has been used by nations and educational systems to the extent that for many, she is the Holocaust; she is the face of the Holocaust. But what we inherit from her isn’t the experience of the Holocaust. That experience and her death at Bergen Belsen take place outside the pages of her diary. Readers are never forced to experience the Holocaust through her eyes; they are able to embrace the tragedy of the Holocaust through her story while remaining removed from its experiential realities. Thus, Anne Frank becomes the Holocaust without forcing anyone to experience it. Her name can be invoked to summon tragedy, without forcing anyone to feel it.
While Anne Frank may be the face of the Holocaust of European Jewry, the memory of the experiential reality of the Holocaust is male. The way we conceptualize and remember the concentration camp experience is constructed by male narratives. More Jewish men survived the Holocaust than Jewish women. Due to attitudes towards education in the interwar period, more male Jewish survivors had the education and literary capital needed to craft enduring narratives of their experiences than did female Jewish survivors. There are three foundational male Holocaust survival narratives: Night by Elie Wiesel, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and Maus by Art Spiegelman about his father’s Holocaust experience. Never have I seen those three men and their narratives used as a joke, or a meme, or a cheap narrative device, or as self-promotion by an American pop star.
These men are revered, and their narratives taken extremely seriously. And none of them, none of them have been used in a prop in a story about terminally ill gentile American teenagers. They survived, in perhaps the type of heroic arc a John Green protagonist would yearn for. Yet Augustus doesn’t look to them. He doesn’t share a kiss with his girlfriend at Auschwitz. He shared a kiss with her in the Anne Frank House.
Anne Frank is not a prop. She is not a symbol, she is not a teenager who happened to die of an illness, and she is not one of the canonical Jewish male survivors. She is one of many millions of Jewish women and girls who were industrially murdered like livestock, incinerated, and left in an unmarked grave. That is the story of the Holocaust of European Jewry, and that is the story of the persecution and murder of all Europeans (the disabled, Romani, Irish Travelers, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists) who failed to fit into Nazi racial and ideological constructs.