Vladka Meed Part 10: A Four-Day Visa

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.

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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.

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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.

Her work remains unfinished.

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 4: World War I and the End of an Era

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

When Europe fell into the First World War, German Jews were enthusiastic about the war effort. They were eager to do their part to bring Germany to victory, and excited to prove themselves as Germans. Some elements of German Jewish society went so far as to call World War I a “Jewish war,” as Germany’s primary enemy was Russia, and German Jews opposed Russian treatment of their coreligionists.

It seemed that non-Jewish society was finally ready to respond in kind; even Kaiser Wilhelm declared, “I recognize no parties anymore, but only Germans.” But by 1916, public opinion turned once more against the Jews as the military effort failed to yield German victories. In October 1916, the War Ministry took a count of the number of Jews in the military, implicitly accusing German Jewry of cowardice and national disloyalty.

At the end of World War I, a civil conflict called the November Revolution (November, 1918-August, 1919) resulted in the replacement of Germany’s imperial government with the Weimar Republic. The November Revolution gave rise to the “Dolchstoßlegende,” the “stab-in-the-back-myth.” The stab-in-the-back-myth was the notion, widely held in right-wing Weimar circles, that Germany did not lose World War I, but was undermined and betrayed from within by civilian groups on the home front—such as Communists, Socialists, Jews, and Catholics—with presumed extra-national loyalties.

While the right-wing elements of Weimar society blamed primarily Communists and the Social Democratic Party (the SPD) for the loss of the War, more mainstream elements of Weimar society drew on age-old money-related stereotypes of Jews to scapegoat them for post-war hyperinflation. This said, the Adolf Hitlers of the Weimar political world were the exceptions, not the rule.

And then came 1933.

When the Nazis came to power, they made the stab-in-the-back-myth an integral part of their official history of the Weimar Republic. The blame which right-wing political elements once placed primarily on Communists and the SPD were appropriated by Nazi propagandists in keeping with Hitler’s fanatical anti-Semitism. Thus, the stab-in-the-back-myth was recast; it was now the Jews, with their extra-national loyalties and their international contacts, who had colluded with the Bolsheviks to bring down the German Empire from within.

Armed with recurring German anti-Semitic tropes and the recast stab-in-the-back-myth, between 1933 and 1938 the Nazi government persecuted the Jews, robbing them of their livelihoods, forcing them out of the civil service, public sector work, and cultural production. They instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933, and barred Jewish men from the workplace in 1938. Nazi legislation made it impossible for Jewish teens to attend high schools, and uncomfortable for Jewish children to attend elementary schools. These are examples from the legal side of the process put in place to transform German Jews from citizens into outcasts; each legal change was aided socially by non-Jewish society.

This transformative process was a long, drawn out one, so drawn out, in fact, that German Jews were not able to see the dangers it posed to them; it took Kristallnacht—a government sponsored, as opposed to popularly incited, pogrom—and the resulting arrests of Jewish men for German Jewry to see the precariousness of their lives in Germany.

The Nazi government rolled out their anti-Jewish legislation with one goal in mind: to make life so unpleasant for German Jewry that they would have no choice but to leave. However, in that policy was the assumption that the rest of the world would be totally down with absorbing those ~half million German Jews. The rest of the world was not, in fact, down with that.

The Nazis came to power in a world stricken by Great Depression. The governments of nations with the ability to receive Jewish refugees feared that the refugees would take away jobs from their citizens and add to the welfare rolls. Even when the worst of the Depression was over, immigration policies remained tight.

At first, many German Jews fled to nearby Western European nations which liberalized their immigration policies out of the belief (shared by the émigrés) that the Nazi regime would soon fall and the refugees would return home. However, they lost hope that such would be the case after the Anschluss. As a result, German Jewry began to look overseas rather than next-door.

The United States government accepted more refugees than other countries: a quarter million between 1933 and 1945. However, the United States had the capacity to accept far greater numbers than it did. The primary reason the United States could not live up to its potential was the quota system, created in 1924. Had the quotas been completely filled between 1938 and 1941, 206,000 German refugees could have entered the United States. The American Congress did not widen the quotas because of popular hostility towards the notion, fueled by Depression-induced nativist sentiments, domestic anti-Semitism, and fears that German Jewish immigrants might be German spies.

Great Britain opened its doors only to those Jews able to enhance Britain’s intellectual, cultural, and business capital. Its restrictive policy was due to a combination of the global economic crisis, domestic xenophobia, and social anti-Semitism. In all, Britain accepted approximately 70,000 refugees, in addition to the 10,000 German Jewish children whom arrived via the Kindertransports. However, Britain did allow a large number of Jews in on visitor’s visas. In 1939 the British government passed the White Paper, which stipulated that Jewish immigration to Palestine was to be limited to 15,000 per year until 1944, letting in approximately 75,000 Jewish refugees.

The British Commonwealth members (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and Newfoundland), more concerned with maintaining their Christian, Anglo-Saxon composition than with saving lives, admitted only a combined total of some 13,000 Jewish refugees.

Latin American Republics, desiring to maintain domestic racial composition, changed their policies to effectively bar Jewish emigration after 1938; Brazil did so by requiring baptismal certificates for all émigrés, and Bolivia simply made anyone of Jewish blood ineligible for entrance into the country. In all, approximately 17,500 Jewish refugees were able to emigrate to Central and South America.

In a 1938 move perceived by Canada as nothing more than an American “exercise in public relations,” President Roosevelt called the Evian Conference—an international conference to be held on July 6, 1938 at the Hotel Royale in Evian-les-Bains, France—to address the refugee problem. He invited twenty-nine European and Latin American nations, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in addition to thirty-nine private organizations. The Union of South Africa, Poland, and Romania attended as observers, Ireland and Luxembourg weren’t invited (though Ireland did crash), the Soviet Union assumed that the conference was a Trotskyist plot, and Switzerland refused to allow the conference be held within its borders. Germany was not invited. Of all the attendees, only the Dominican Republic committed itself to taking a substantial number of refugees.

The Evian Conference accomplished none of its goals, and its failure confirmed to the Nazi government its view that the Jews were indeed an unwanted people.

Why Gender History is Important (Asshole)

This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.

The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.

For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.

German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.

The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.

I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.

So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).

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