It got me thinking about how the public remembers the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, if they remember it at all. That memory, that collective memory, is masculine. It’s young, strong men holed up in Mila 18. It’s a teenage boy throwing a Molotov cocktail out of a window of a deserted building. It’s a sobbing rabbi. It’s masculine action and tragedy.
There’s no place in this memory for Zivia Lubetkin. You probably don’t know her name, and that’s not your fault. The masculinization of the Holocaust narrative is no one person’s fault. But, allow me to remedy this situation.
Zivia Lubetkin was one of the founders and commanders of the Jewish Fighting Organization, the primary Jewish resistance organization inside and outside of the Warsaw Ghetto; Vladka was a member of this group. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Zivia was stationed in Mila 18, she commanded a group of fighters, and she was the one who led surviving fighters out of the ghetto, and through the sewers to the Aryan side of Warsaw.
That’s just a fraction, just a snippet of Zivia Lubetkin’s life and accomplishments. I could do an entire Fierce Historical Ladies post series on her, but I’m saving that material for…elsewhere.
I originally thought this through in a twitter thread, adapted here in my preferred style with minor changes for grammar, spelling, and clarity. Asterisks denote discussions too big for this post, some of which can be found in my MA Thesis.
In grad school I did extensive research on the Shanghai Jewish refugee community, specifically, by way of reading memoirs. Now I’m doing extensive research on the Warsaw Ghetto, specifically the Jewish resistance in, once again by reading memoirs.
Memoirs are a deeply fallible source, further complicated by their status as published or unpublished, with oral histories requiring a different set of questions altogether. But the strength and joy of working with memoir as primary source for a small, specific, closed communities is that memoir/oral history/diary/ego-narrative can be a surprisingly telling source.
Yes there will be self-aggrandizement, flaws in human memory, repression, mis-ordered remembrance, flattering portrayals of those who do not deserve it, but as a group, as a body of literature, they can come together to tell on odd sort of truth. They can tell the patchwork story of a community, through vastly different points of view, each with their own, unique reason for existing.
Especially in regard to Holocaust narratives, you will see people writing, or speaking, about their experiences for a very specific set of reasons: they understood that they lived through something Big and wanted to record it; they needed to cope with their trauma; they want their children and grandchildren to know their story; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the Shoah Foundation asked for and took their oral histories; they realized many years after the fact that their story needed to be told, etc.
Their motivation for telling/writing will shape, or inform, their narrative. A woman writing for her grandchildren may not write about the time she slept with a Japanese man in return for food money. A Polish man writing for History may not notice that his female comrades in the Jewish resistance had to slip off into the woods for an abortion.
Their motivations for writing, and, of course their gendered experiences and national socialization issues*, will inform the narrative the historian ends up seeing in front of them.
So even though these sources are deeply flawed, and shaped by so many factors and biases on the part of the writers, together they still tell a fairly cohesive story as long as you know how to analyze and interrogate them appropriately.
And, honestly, it’s such a thrill when the same figures and events pop in different narratives; when the same events occur through so many sets of eyes. There are couriers in Aryan Warsaw. The Nazis are liquidating the ghetto. Traumatized camp survivors are disembarking in Shanghai. American planes are bombing the part of Shanghai where the Jews had to live.
Through one point of view, one recollection, these are just stories. But through the eyes of many, they approach something a little bit closer to a cohesive narrative, to a form of truth, perhaps.
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.
As you will remember from Part 8, Vladka and Benjamin left Poland for good upon as resurgent anti-Semitic violence made it clear that they had no future in the country of their birth. For, in the immediate post-war years, Polish Nationalists had finally achieved their dream: a Poland in which Roman Catholic ethnic Poles were the majority. But, this dream only came to fruition under Communist rule within the Soviet sphere is influence, not within the bounds of Polish self-determination. With the destruction of the Polish Nationalist underground during Operation Tempest, and the 1944 withdrawal of US and UK support for the Polish government-in-exile, the Communist regime could operate with interference from neither the West, nor the Polish Nationalist parties.
1946 ceremony memorializing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yitzhak Zuckerman stands on the left-hand side of the speaker. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
As the 1940s rolled on, the Polish government set out to craft a narrative of the war years which downplayed the contributions of Polish Nationalists to World War II. Government officials memorialized the Jewish dead and set up monuments to their martyrdom, while persecuting Poles who had fought the Nazis as representatives of the Armja Krajowa and similar groups.
1948 unveiling of Nathan Rapaport‘s Ghetto Heroes Monument. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Memorial service at the 1948 unveiling. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Monument close-up. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In the eyes of those Poles who fought and/or supported the fight against the Nazis, this indicated nothing less than a Jewish takeover of the government, intended to suppress all memory of Polish action and oppression under Nazi rule. This led to a period of what was perhaps the worst anti-Jewish violence in the history of Polish-Jewish relations.
Between 1944 and 1947, Poles murdered between 1,500 and 2,000 Jewish survivors as they returned to their homes. Poles bombed the few remaining Jewish institutions in the country, and perpetrated pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. In Kielce, July 1946, a Polish mob attacked a communal residence set up for Holocaust survivors, murdering 42 and wounding more than 100 people. After the Pogrom, many Jewish survivors—like Vladka and Benjamin—concluded that they had no future in Poland, and left. The Jewish population of Poland shrank to under 80,000 individuals. When the government sentenced the perpetrators of the Pogrom to death, Poles protested, arguing that the Pogrom and others like it had been nothing more than Zionist plots to stimulate Jewish emigration. Anti-Semitic violence continued through the 1950s. Between 1956 and 1960, another 40,000 Jews left Poland. By the 1960s, only 30,000 Jews remained.
In 1956, an official named Mieczyslaw Moczar began to accumulate power. A member of the Polish United Workers Party and General in the Polish People’s Army, Moczar was influential in the parts of the government which controlled the police and security forces. In the 1960s, he became leader of the state-controlled veteran’s association, the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (the Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokracje, or, ZBoWiD), an organization with at least 300,000 members. At the same time, Polish political culture was moving away from the hard-line anti-Nationalist Stalinism of the 40s and 50s, to a climate more open to Polish nationalists. In this new climate, veterans of the Armja Krojowa and similar were now able to assert themselves in public. They took up government positions, many of them in the same departments which fell within Moczar’s sphere of influence, and, as the changing climate moved to the ZBoWiD, its ranks swelled as it opened membership to all veterans of Polish organizations which fought the Nazis.
Through his roles in the government, and in the ZBoWiD, Moczar built a power-base for himself made up of newly accepted and emboldened Polish nationalists and Home Army veterans. With this base, called the “Partisans,” behind him, Moczar launched a campaign to take control of the memory of the war years, pulling it from the custody of the earlier hard-line Stalinists into the hands of the Polish Nationalists. This meant pulling it away from a body which emphasized the plight of the Jews, to a body desperate for recognition of Polish action and victimhood.
The campaign began in earnest in 1966. In that year, the prestigious Wielka Encyklopedia Powszehna, the Great Universal Encyclpedia, printed an article which differentiated between Nazi labor camps, in which prisoners were worked to death, and death camps, which existed solely to exterminate prisoners, the majority of which were Jews. The state-controlled press picked up on this, and pundits from every corner of the country were incensed. They accused the Encyclopedia staff of erasing the history of Polish victimization during the War, while emphasizing suffering of the Jews. As a result of the controversy, a new article was printed, this one presenting all Nazi camps as inherently similar, and all existing to murder all victims equally.
In June 1967, days after the Six Day War, Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, having noted that some of Poland’s Jews seemed excited about Israel’s victory in that conflict, made a speech warning of the presence of a “fifth column” in Poland.1 A little over a week later, he made a speech which containeing references to the consequences of the presence of a people with “two souls and two fatherlands” within Poland. The result, as intended, was a widespread perception of Polish Jews not as Poles (not that they every truly were viewed as Poles), but as untrustworthy “Zionist” agents. In 1968, an official named Tadeusz Walichnowski, one of the leaders of the Nationalist faction of the Polish United Workers’ Party, published a highly influential, best-selling books called Israel and West Germany.
In this book, Tadeusz Walichnowski accused the State of Israel of committing genocide under the tutelage of 1,000 former Nazis. This relationship between the Nazis and the Zionists, he argued, dated back to the pre-war years. The Zionists, he continued, needed the Holocaust to happen in order to build support for the creation of a Jewish State, and collaborated with the Nazis to make it happen. Therefore, the real victims of the Nazis were the Poles, while the Holocaust had been nothing more than a German-Jewish, I mean ”Zionist,” conspiracy against the Poles.
Ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 1968. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In March 1968, in a seemingly unrelated turn of events, the government banned a production of Adam Mickiewicz’s play Dziady, due to perceived anti-Soviet themes. Students at Warsaw University went on strike in protest, and the police—rife with Partisans—came down hard on the protesters, jailing or exiling many of them. Seizing on the moment, Moczar made his move. Taking the rage of 1966, the “fifth column” fear mongering of 1967, and the conspiracy theories of 1968, he tied them all together, and placed the blame for the student protests on Zionists.
In his framing of the situation, these Zionist agitators were representatives of an anti-Polish conspiracy in which agents, both at home and abroad, actively worked to to mutilate the memory of the war years, defame the actions of the Polish Nation, and erase wartime Polish martyrdom. Major actors in this conspiracy, he argued, included West Germany, historical institutes in Israel, and centers of “Zionist” activity in the United States—you know, like the organizations Vladka worked with while giving Holocaust lectures. Under Moczar’s leadership, police and security forces instituted a search for Polish officials of Jewish descent. Tadeusz Walichnowski created a card index of all those in Poland of Jewish descent, using a system potentially stricter than that used in the Nuremberg Laws to determine descent.
Beginning in March 1968 and continuing through 1970, across Poland Jewish employees were “unmasked” and dismissed from jobs. Afterwards, it was impossible for them to find work in Poland. Further, these Jews were only allowed to leave Poland under the condition that they give up their Polish citizenship. From there, the government gave them only one thing: an exit permit valid only for travel to Israel.2 As a result of this expulsion-in-all-but-name, another 20,000 Jews left Poland. The Partisans perceived this as “proof” of the Jews’ true, Zionist, allegiance.
The legacy of the Anti-Semitic Campaign lasted through the mid-1980s. In accounts of the war published between about 1968 and 1985, the fate of Polish Jewry during the war was presented as indistinguishable from that of the Poles. Even the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was discussed only in the context of Polish aid rendered to Jewish fighters.
By the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a new generation in Poland, one removed enough from the war that it could look back on Polish history not as something personal, but as something to be learned. Slowly, students and members of the intelligentsia became interested in Jews, Judaism, and Jewish History in Poland. The silence of the post-1968 era was replaced with a collective interest in a long-gone, multinational Poland past. This younger generation of Poles fely comfortable mourning the Jews, and Polish historians and intellectuals felt as though they were able to engage in dialogue with their Jewish and Israeli counterparts. However, this was not simply the product of a generational shift. In Ocotber 1978, Pope John Paul II, born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice, ascended from Archbishop of Krakow, to Pope. During his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow, he had been an important figure in parts of the Catholic community interested in learning about Jewish culture and history in Poland.3 As Pope, he visited Auschwitz and spoke specifically about Jewish victims of the Nazis, identifying them not as enemy nationals, but as the older brothers of the Catholic people.4 He pushed for interfaith dialogue, and remembrance of the specific Jewish experience of World War II.
In 1983, the Polish government, now long past the anti-Semitic campaign, and operating in a new atmosphere of inquiry and dialogue, arranged an elaborate commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The government invited thousands of Jews and Jewish organizations to attend. However, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the ZOB, called for a boycott of the proceedings, arguing that Poland’s martial law and censored press went against everything the Uprising stood for. A state-organized mass commemoration of the Uprising, therefore, could never be anything more than a propagandic farce. As a result, an unofficial memorial ceremony was organizaed, with Edelman’s blessing, to take place a few days before the government’s. Several hundred people attended. Standing before the monument, they made and listened to hurried speeches, laid flowers, and said Kaddish. And then they were dispersed by riot police.
Days later, in front of an audience of thousands, a Military Guard of Honor laid a wreath at the base of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.
1983 memorial ceremony. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
This is not where the story of the Polish relationship with Holocaust history and memory ends, but that’s where I’m going to end the the present discussion. Because, in January 1978, right before new forces took hold of the the memory of Poland’s Jewish past, Vladka and Benjamin returned.
1 The “fifth column,” for those unfamiliar with it, is a form of xenophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted rhetoric used to target minorities, immigrants, refugees, outsiders, and anyway else deemed unworthy of membership in the nation-state. As applied to Jews, it cast them as inherently untrustworthy, loyal to each other (“International Jewry”) over any state in which they resided. It led to a lot of scapegoating during the Dreyfus Affair, the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Hitler-era American nativist line that Jewish refugees were German spies. After 1948, the trope shifted to convey that Jews living anywhere outside of Israel were loyal to Israel before all else. To illustrate how this works, allow me to give you an anecdote: at a grad school happy hour I toasted “l’chaim” before downing my shot. A colleague across the table sneered at me and toasted “Free Palestine” before downing his shot. This colleague was making assumptions about my politics and loyalties as a Jewish person despite knowing nothing about me or my politics. This is fifth column thinking. And then, of course, there’s our best friend, the cab driver. This all dovetails nicely with Jewish Conspiracy, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion type shit. To provide examples of how this applies to other groups, the 45th President of the US likes to insinuate that all Hispanic immigrants represent MS-13, and that all Muslims are anti-American terrorists. This is fifth column rhetoric in action. It’s gross and highkey ethnic-cleansey. 2 Subtweeting all of Eurasia and North Africa here okay like if you hate the State of Israel and do not want it to exist, then maybe don’t kick out your Jews and/or treat them so horribly that their only choice is go to Israel as a result of international immigration policies/your fucking exit permit???? I mean, I know why, but… 3 In the late 1970s, liberal, educated classes of the Polish Catholic community began to take an interest in Jewish history in Poland. One of their organizations, the Warsaw Club, organized annual Weeks of Jewish Culture. On these Weeks, they would pay visits to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and work on restoring its tombstones, attend lectures on Jewish culture, and participate in similar activities. 4 There’s a whole clusterfuck involving a convent opening in a former Auschwitz gas chamber because Lol Memory, but that happened outside of the 1946-1983 time frame of this post, so that’s a memory clusterfuck I will not be discussing here.
Vladka and Benjamin fled the ruined city in a Polish medical wagon. They rode out, hidden beneath a sheet, wearing Red Cross armbands. Once out of Warsaw, Vladka and Benjamin made contact with some friends hiding on a large estate. Only their expertly forged false documents shielded them from German discovery.
In early January 1945, Benjamin received word through the underground that his parents were alive and looking for him. Benjamin and his parents were reunited in mid-January, and Benjamin and Vladka married shortly thereafter at his parents’ insistence.
Now married, they returned to Warsaw five months after their initial departure. They found nothing. They rubble of the ghetto–all that remained of their former lives–yielded no answers. At the Jewish cemetery, it was almost impossible to find a grave; the place was in ruins: nothing but overturned tombstones, desecrated graves, and scattered skulls as far as the eye could see.
They remained in the deserted city for a short time before moving to Lodz. They tried to build a life there, but realized that they had no future in the country of their birth as Polish anti-Jewish violence rose in the post-war years.1 So, they set out for the United States. Following the circuitous route typical of Jewish refugees in the larger 1933-1950 period, Vladka and Benjamin finally arrived in New York City on May 24, 1946.
Benjamin launched a business in the fur industry, and later opened a successful import-export business. Vladka meanwhile, worked as a writer for the Jewish Daily Forward. In 1948, they had a daughter named Anna, now Dr. Anna Meed Scherzer, and in 1950, they had a son named Steven, now Dr. Steven Meed. Vladka and Benjamin attained their American citizenship in the early 1950s, and formally changed their names to Benjamin and Vladka Meed.
In the late 1940s, Vladka began the work that would dominate the rest of her life. She had seen the Holocaust, seen her world before and after, and she was adamant that no one ever forget what had befallen her people.
She traveled across the United States, lecturing on her war-time experiences in partnership with such organizations as the Jewish Labor Committee and the International Rescue Committee.
Over the course of the next 30-odd years, Vladka and Benjamin would become influential voices in the realms of Holocaust education and commemoration. For example, Vladka led an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to create a Holocaust memorial in Battery Park in the 1960s, and helped to found the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization in 1962.
In 1978, Yad Vashem officials reached out to Vladka and Benjamin to invite them to a memorial service in Warsaw. They accepted, and, through Yad Vashem, received two visas allowing them to return to Poland for four days each. During these four days, they were to find in their former home a radically different relationship with the Holocaust than the one Vladka and Benjamin had dedicated their lives to building in the United States.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.