Mila 18 and Molotov Cocktails and Zivia Lubetkin

That discussion of source analysis led to the second twitter thread of the day, this one about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and memory.

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.

If you want to know why you don’t know her name, why you don’t know more about women’s experiences in the Holocaust, and why you don’t know more about the imperative role of women in the Warsaw Jewish Resistance, these pieces of reading contain part of the story: Why Gender History is Important (Asshole)We Need to Talk About Anne Frank, and, of course, Vladka Meed: Female Courier to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Vladka Meed Part 11: Bibliography and Further Reading

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.


Poland: The First Thousand Years by Patrice M. Dabrowski

God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 1: The Origins to 1795 by Norman Davies

God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Vol. 2: 1795 to the Present by Norman Davies

The Jews of East Central Europe between the World Wars (A Midland Book) by Ezra Mendelsohn

A History of Poland (Palgrave Essential Histories Series) by Anita J. Prazmowska


A History of the Holocaust (Single Title Social Studies) by Yehuda Bauer

The Ethics of Witnessing: The Holocaust in Polish Writers’ Diaries from Warsaw, 1939-1945 (Cultural Expressions) by Rachel Brenner

Holocaust: A History by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt

Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination by Saul Friedlander

Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland by Jan Grabowski

The Holocaust in History (Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry) by Michael R. Marrus

Am I A Murderer?: Testament Of A Jewish Ghetto Policeman by Calel Perechodnik, translated by Frank Fox

Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation Isaiah Trunk

Warsaw Ghetto

The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow: Prelude to Doom (Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) by Adam Czerniakow, edited by Raul Hilberg

Five Years in the Warsaw Ghetto: The Stars Bear Witness (Nabat Series, Vol. 7) by Bernard Goldstein

Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Israel Gutman

On Both Sides of the Wall: Memoirs from the Warsaw Ghetto by Vladka Meed

Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940–1945 by Gunnar S. Paulsson

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto from the Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, translated and edited by Jacob Sloan

A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (A Centennial Book) by Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman

Warsaw Uprising (1944) and Polish Underground

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 by Wlodzimierz Borodziej

Rising ‘44: The Battle for Warsaw by Norman Davies

The Civilian Population and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 by Joanna K. M. Hanson

Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World by Jan Karski

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War by Halik Kochanski

Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising by Alexandra Richie

Gen. World War II

Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower

Britain and Poland 1939-1943: The Betrayed Ally (Cambridge Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies) by Anita J. Prazmowska

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

Cold War-Era

Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957 (The New Cold War History) by Patryk Babiracki

Rebellious Satellite: Poland 1956 (Cold War International History Project) by Paweł S Machcewicz

Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968 by Marci Shore

Memory Studies

Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland by Robert Blobaum

Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation by Jan T. Gross

Antisemitism and Its Opponents in Modern Poland by Jonathan Huener

The Politics of Memory in Postwar Europe by Richard Ned Lebow and Wulf Kansteiner

Bondage To the Dead: Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Modern Jewish History) by Michael C. Steinlauf

For further book recommendations and Bibliographies, please see my Further Reading, Jewish History Bibliography, and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Historical Bibliography Pages. I am currently in the process of adding the above works to their respective reading lists…and probably reorganizing the Europe section.

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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.


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.

Her work remains unfinished.

Vladka Meed Part 8: Not an Epilogue

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.

1 More on this in Part 9.

Vladka Meed Part 5: Aftermath


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.

Vladka Meed Part 4: Uprising

A Nazi column under the command of SS Senior Colonel Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg marched into the Warsaw Ghetto early on the morning of Monday, April 19, 1943. Inside, the column found itself looking out on nothing but empty streets. And then, out of nowhere, grenades began to rain down from above and explode within the Nazis’ unsuspecting ranks.

Earlier that morning, ZOB sentries watched from their attic posts as the Nazis prepared to march into the ghetto, and sent word to Command via courier. Upon receiving the report, Mordecai Anielewicz ordered the fighting squads to their attic posts, as couriers crisscrossed the ghetto, alerting the civilians. The civilians descended into their bunkers as the 750
fighters—500 from the ZOB and 250 from the ZZW, now collaborating with the ZOB—ascended to their attic posts. Each was armed with a revolver, 10-15 rounds of ammunition, and 5 homemade grenades.


Map courtesy of Yad Vashem.

As the grenades exploded around them and bullets rained down, von Sammern ordered his troops to retreat.

Earlier that year, Himmler had sent SS General Jurgen Stroop to Warsaw as reinforcement for von Sammern. After the retreat, von Sammern paid Stroop a frantic visit. All was lost, he said; the Jews had guns, his troops were in retreat, and their forces had already suffered casualties. Stroop called Himmler, who was enraged; Von Sammern had led the failed January roundup, and had made no mention of the presence of an armed Jewish resistance in his reports.2 Himmler dismissed von Sammern on the spot and ordered that all troops be withdrawn from the ghetto. They were to reenter the ghetto, Himmler continued, within two hours under the command of General Stroop.

Outside the ghetto, extra guards were in place surrounding the ghetto wall, making it all but impenetrable. The streets running alongside the ghetto were blocked and patrolled by German police. Ambulances transporting injured Nazis rushed in and out. And Vladka felt the earth shudder beneath her feet as deafening blasts emitted from the ghetto.


Three captured resistance fighters. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


The Uprising had begun, and Vladka was trapped on the Aryan side.

They—including Vladka’s future husband, Benjamin Miedzyrzecki—gathered in one of the Coordinating Committee’s member’s, Samsonowicz’s, apartment to form a plan. They wanted to, somehow, break through the German lines and get into the ghetto. Mikolai reached out to his contacts in the Polish underground for help breaking in. Later that night, Abrasha Blum
placed a call to Mikolai. “All the groups of the Fighting Organization are participating in the struggle,” he said. “It’s all very well disciplined and organized…For the time being there have been only a few casualties among our fighters. There are more casualties among the Germans,” Abrasha told him.

Abrasha called back two days later. “Michal Klepfisz is dead,” he told them. “He fell in the fighting. We are short of ammunition. We need arms.” And the line went silent.

On April 20, Stroop, unfortunately making a quick study of the ZOB defense strategy, ordered his troops to burn every home in the ghetto. As the Nazis burned their way through the outskirts of the ghetto, they slowly became aware of the bunkers. Now, instead of just burning houses, they had to burn every building in the ghetto in order uncover the bunkers. In turn, the ZOB had to alter its strategy: the ghetto fighters were now fighting to defend both the ghetto, and those hidden in the bunkers.


A bunker interior. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem. 

Indeed, by this point in the Uprising, the bunkers functioned as both hiding places for the civilians, and as fortresses for the fighters. By the fourth day, conditions in the bunkers were not good. As the ghetto burned, those in the bunkers suffered from the terrible heat. The air was so bad that it was almost impossible to light a candle. They were cut off from their water and electrical connections, their food supplies were destroyed in the heat, and chemical fumes from the foundations of the buildings made breathing all the more difficult.


Ghetto fighters, forced out of their bunker. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Outside, Vladka and her colleagues made no progress. The Polish underground was useless, and they still had no way to break in. “Our thoughts were constantly with the fighters in the ghetto. All our plans seemed to have come to naught…Restless and depressed, we idled about the Polish streets, trying to establish contact with the ghetto.”

Adding to their stress was the Polish response. The Poles happily watched the resistance, impressed by the effort, going so far as to refer to the Uprising as “Ghettograd,” after the prolonged siege of Leningrad. They were so impressed that they had trouble believing that the “miserable Jews” had been able to organize a resistance without outside support. “They must have some of our officers over there,” the Poles insisted. “Our men must have organized the resistance.” Some Poles expressed sympathy for the Jews alongside their amazement: “although the victims were Jews, there are after all human beings.”3 However, none of these outpourings of near-admiration motivated the Gentiles to extend any form of
practical assistance to the ghetto.

On the fifth day of the Uprising, Stroop ordered his troops to focus on finding and destroying the bunkers. If they could not reach a bunker, they were to detonate the bunker and burn the house attached to it.


Jews captured in the Uprising led past burning houses to the deportation point. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Hundreds died in the flames and heat. When Nazis found and entered a bunker, its inhabitants refused to leave. They answered the Nazis with bullets, and the homemade grenades and Molotov cocktails; not surrender.

On the sixth day, Vladka managed to get close to the ghetto. She paid a visit to the Dubiels, whose house lay just outside the ghetto wall. The ghetto was fully visible from their window. Vladka hoped to find a way to make contact with the ghetto from their house, even though the Dubiels assured her that that was impossible.

From their window, Vladka looked into the ghetto. She saw a woman trying to escape from a burning house. The Nazis shot her dead as she tried to jump from her second-floor balcony. On the third floor, two ZOB fighters emerged. They fired a few rounds at the Nazis, and then retreated.


A burning section of the Ghetto. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem. 

Vladka remained at the window the rest of the day and through the night in a state of shock. “Dawn came quiet and ghastly,” she wrote, “revealing the burned-out shells of buildings, the charred, bloodstained bodies of the victims…one of those bodies began to move, slowly…crawling on its belly until it disappeared into the smoking ruins. Others…began to show signs of life. But the enemy was…on the alert. There was a spatter of machine-gun fire—and all was lifeless again.”

Forty-eight years later, in 1991, Vladka recounted what she experienced that night to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

“While being there at night, I saw the flames of the ghetto. And I saw also certain pictures which were seared in my mind. Some Jews running from one place to the other and also seeing some Jews jumping from buildings, but I was observing this from a window and I couldn’t do anything. And then flames burst into the ghetto. The Germans couldn’t take over the streets, they start putting block after block on fire. They start burning the…buildings, and this was the uprising which we…the small group on the Aryan side, we tried to get through. We tried to communicate. We decided even to go into…the ghetto to be with them but it was, everything was in vain. We didn’t have any communication. We saw only tanks coming in, tanks going out…”

On the eighth day, the Germans began to use poison gas. They released it into the water mains and sewer canals where civilians and ZOB fighters—flushed out of the houses and bunkers—were hiding. On April 28, the fighters retreated deeper in the ghetto, into the houses the Nazis had not yet burned and the undiscovered bunkers. The Nazis followed, burning deeper into the ghetto, leveling each and every building. They used flamethrowers, tear gas, and hand grenades to forces fighters out of hiding, and released poison gas into the tunnels by night.

Outside the ghetto, the underground issued an appeal in the name of the ghetto. Vladka brought the manuscript to a store which served as their “drop,” and later picked up the printed copies.


The ZOB appeal. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Written in Polish and signed by the ZOB, the appeal stressed the heroism of the fighters and the ferocity of the struggle. “We will avenge the crimes of Dachau, Treblinka and Auschwitz,” the appeal proclaimed. “The struggle for your freedom and ours continues.” But again, it came to nothing.

On May 1 Stroop determined that it was impossible to subdue the bunkers. On May 6 the Nazis returned to houses they had already burned, and searched the ruins for Jews. As of May 11, there were still actively fighting Jews hidden in the sewers, and the ruins of the ghetto. On May 18, hundreds of Jews were still hidden in the bunkers, the burned buildings, the tunnels, and the sewers. Stroop continued to report skirmishes and heavy fighting through May 30. On June 2 he reported that “it seemed as if the situation in the ghetto had become worse.” His troops bombed the sewer canals and blocked the exits. Only approximately 70 ZOB fighters escaped through the sewers without being trapped or murdered.4

Armed Jews were still active in the ruins of the Ghetto as late as October, 1943.

In all, 750 Jewish fighters defied approximately 2,054 German soldiers and 36 officers with armored vehicles, tanks, canons, flamethrowers, armored cars, canons and machine guns.



Clandestine photograph the ruins of the ghetto, taken late, 1943. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“We on the ‘Aryan side’ were bursting with admiration for them,” Vladka wrote, ”but, we were consumed also by a sense of guilt at being outside the Ghetto, in relative safety, while they were fighting and dying. We should have been there with them, amid the roaring fires and the crashing walls.”

2 His preparations for the April, 1943 roundups, however, suggest that he was very much ready for an armed confrontation, as he assembled a larger concentration of police and army troops than had been used in the deportations of summer 1942.
3 And the Germans were embarrassed. A few days into the Uprising, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that: “…a really grotesque situation has arisen in Warsaw…notably hard battles between our police…parts of the army, and the rebelling Jews….the Jews had managed to fortify the ghetto in order to defend it…it has even reached the point where the Jewish senior command issues daily military bulletins… this emphasizes only too well what one can expect from these Jews when they have weapons in their hands. Unfortunately they also have good German weapons and particularly machine guns. Only God knows how they obtained them.”
4 If this image of some young desperate ghetto fighters trying to escape from the burning ghetto through sewers tunnels doesn’t immediately make you want to stage a production of Les Mis against the backdrop of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, then you have no soul and I have nothing to say to you. Cossette is a secret Jew and Val Jean is the only one who knows because he’s been raising her as a Catholic since Fantine died [“Come to Me’]. But the Thenardiers are “Aryan” underworld figures and they want to cash in on it [“Plumet Attack”]. Eponine is a Socialist allied with the Bund, and she crossed the ghetto wall to warn Marius—who was a Bund operative on the Aryan side for a time which is how he and Cossette met —about the approaching Nazis, but she’s shot while crossing the wall [“A Little Fall of Rain”]. Later, Val Jean breaks into the ghetto and rescues an unconscious Marius from a sewer tunnel as the Nazis release the poison gas and carries him through the sewers to the Aryan side as Thenardier is robbing corpses of ghetto fighters [“Bring Him Home/”Dog
Eats Dog”]. And while the Uprising is happening, some Gentiles are all like [“Turning”]. Also, Javert is a Polish policeman and he throws himself into a fire in the ghetto [“Javert’s Suicide”]. I’m still figuring out the rest of Act 1.

Vladka Meed Part 3: Vladka, on the Wall, with Dynamite

As the couriers on the “Aryan” side continued on their work, the ZOB received intelligence indicating that the Nazis were preparing for another round of deportations. The ZOB urged the ghetto to resist. Its members papered every surface with signs reading: “Jewish masses! The hour is close. You must be ready to resist. Do not go to your slaughter as sheep. Not even one Jew is to go to the train…We should all be ready to die as human beings.”

On the morning of January 18, 1943, 200 Germans and 800 Ukrainians marched into the ghetto.

With the same tactics they used in the summer of 1942, they rounded up thousands more Jews and shepherded them to the Umschlagplatz. What the Nazis did not know was that, this time, the ghetto was prepared. Mordecai Anielewicz and twelve ghetto fighters under his command quietly infiltrated the lines of deportees. When Anielewicz gave the signal, the thirteen fighters opened fire on the guards. All of the deportees escaped in the ensuing chaos. Some even stayed behind to fight the Nazi with their bare hands. Fighting continued for four days, at which point the Germans, unprepared for an organized Jewish resistance, retreated.1

Three months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in earnest, the ZOB was already organized and ready to fight. A few weeks prior to the January Uprising, one of Vladka’s missions brought her into the Ghetto. Along the way, she ran into Lusiek Blones, one of the youngest members of the ZOB at just thirteen years of age. He led her to ZOB headquarters: “I trailed after him, crawling through lofts, up and down stairs, and in and out of holes…this devious route…was safer than the streets. Bruised and grimy, we reached our destination, a run-down, fourth-floor flat.”


A group of young Jewish smugglers in the ghetto, 1942. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Inside, Abrasha briefed her on the state of affairs. The ZOB had become the de facto authority in the ghetto as both the ghetto fighters and the “civilians” prepared for open
combat.2 The ZOB urged the “civilians” to construct hiding places—typically underground bunkers—where they could remain, safely and comfortably, even though a protracted siege. The best of these hiding places had bunks, sanitary arrangements, medical supplies, non-perishable food, links to the municipal electric and water supplies, access to fresh air, and access to tunnels leading out of the ghetto.

The bunkers, their entrances, and their underground connections formed a complex maze below the ghetto. Meanwhile, Command divided the volunteer fighters into individual fighting units, each retaining the framework of the youth groups in order to keep morale high. Each group was stationed in the attic of a residential building, and, from these posts, were
to attack the Germans. As most of the residential buildings in the ghetto stood at between three and five stories tall, the fighters placed ladders between the attic windows of neighboring buildings, constructing an overhead passageway of sorts. These passageways, combined with the fighters’ intimate knowledge of the ghetto’s built environment—the buildings, factories, and passages between windows above and the cellars, bunkers, and passages below—allowed the ZOB to function within a complex maze impenetrable to the Nazis. As the fighters had no formal military training, let alone training in urban warfare, this impenetrability formed the core of the ZOB’s defensive strategy.

Despite this enormous progress, ZOB remained in dire need of arms, and no good news was coming from the Coordinating Committee. “We are on our own…the world doesn’t want to hear about what’s happening to us…The ghetto is as good as isolated,” Abrasha lamented during one of Vladka’s visits to the ghetto. And another one of her comrades, Yurek Blones, was frustrated. On a trip to the “Aryan” side, he lost his temper: “We, the Fighting Organization, are…constantly on guard; there could be a roundup any minute. Weapons—that is our greatest need!…Are we actually to be left defenseless?” He kept asking, his voice breaking, “Tell me, why are they helping us so little?” No one on the Coordinating Committee had an answer; they knew the isolation and hooplessness all too well.3

The couriers fantasized about being able to produce their own weapons, but that possibility seemed so far out reach. Yet, one night, an oddly excited Michal met Vladka in the cellar
at Gornoszlonska 3. He was carrying a chemistry book. He flung it open and began to read to her from a section regarding the results of mixing potash, hydrochloric acid, cyanide, sugar, and gasoline. This was the formula for a homemade bomb. If it worked, if they could pull this off, they could be self-sufficient and freed from their reliance on dangerous and
unwieldy underground channels. Vladka purchased the chemical components, and they mixed the solution when their landlords were out. They tested their homemade weapons in the lime kiln of Stanislaw Dubiel’s factory. “With a powerful explosion the bottle shattered and the liquid inside burst into blinding flame. We had scored a success!”

They immediately got to work. Michal climbed the wall and organized a series of small “munition plants” inside the ghetto.4 On the “Aryan” side, the couriers traveled far and wide to acquire the chemical components without rousing any suspicions. They sometimes had to transport the checmicals across the city by horse-cart. If discovered, it would mean death. Until the couriers could smuggle the chemicals into the ghetto, they slept with them—the cyanide, the hydrochloric acid, etc—under their beds.

Meanwhile, their steadfast ally, Stephan Machai, was behaving oddly. “Stephan had changed a great deal. He was no longer the kindly person who had collaborated with us for so long…He was hobnobbing with underworld characters.” And at the same time, the Gestapo was finding and arresting their agents, uncovering their hiding places, on a seemingly daily basis. And all those people and places had in common was Machai’s knowledge of them. The Gestapo even came for Michal, arresting him as he walked outside his apartment building.5 Their suspicions fell once more upon Stephan Machai. In addition to his change in demeanor, Machai had suddenly stopped working. He’d taken to “sporting new and expensive clothing, indulging in costly food and drink…We were naturally suspicious. But we could find no incriminating evidence against him.”

The underground workers lived in constant fear, never knowing who would be next. They avoided Stephan, and quietly changed addresses and identity cards. Vladka now carried a passport made out to Michalina Wojczek, and quietly moved into a tiny flat. Vladka’s friend Zoshka Kersh, who’ recently escaped from the ghetto, soon joined Vladka and her landlady. So too did a thirteen year old girl named Krysia Zlotowska, and Michal, who had escaped from custody and returned to his work. Their room was always filled with illegal literature and forged documents. Most of these papers lived hidden, in Vladka’s bed, out of sight of the landlady until they were ready for transport into the ghetto.6

One cold winter morning a loud knock on the door jerked Vladka awake. Michal and Krysia were still asleep and Zoshka had already left for work. The landlady answered the door. A harsh voice asked “Does Vladka Kowalska live here?” Vladka’s heart began to pound. The landlady told the man that there was no one in the flat by that name. Yet, before the she could finish speaking, heavy footsteps marched into the flat, and towards Vladka’s bed. She forced herself to feign surprise as two men—Polish police officers—tore the covers from her bed and stood, menacingly, over her. They demanded her name. “I am Michalina Wojczek,” she told them, but they continued to question her, absolutely certain that a Vladka Kowalska lived

By this point, Michal and Krysia were awake. Michal dressed quietly, while Krysia stared at their landlady in open terror. Finally, Vladka said “Yes [Vladka Kowalska] lives here, but she left for work at least half an hour ago.”7 The police were not convinced. “Get dressed, all of you—and be quick about it!” one of them ordered. “We know who you are. You’re all Jews!” Vladka’s thoughts raced to the forged documents and illegal literature hidden beneath her pillow; if the men searched the room “heaven knew what awaited us. Those who engaged in illegal activities were often cruelly tortured before they were finally put to death.” While she silently panicked, Michal had the
presence of mind to offer the men a bribe. They hesitated for a moment, but accepted upon hearing the amount. As money changed hands, the men offered a compromise. They only wanted Vladka, so, instead of arresting all three of the Jews, they would take one of them as a hostage until “Vladka” handed herself over.

Without fear or hesitation, before Michal and Krysia could react, before the police could change their minds, Vladka walked to the door and flung it open, marching ahead of the police into the bright, cold morning. As they walked, the police attempted to negotiate with her. “Just tell us where this Vladka is working, and we’ll let you go,” they urged. Vladka repeated, simple, that she did not know. The party continued on in silence. Suddenly, one of the men spoke again. This time his voice was rushed and fearful. “When the Germans interrogate you, don’t tell them we took any money from you. Understand?” Vladka acted confused. “Why shouldn’t I tell them? You’re not afraid, are you?” This stopped the men in their tracks. They began to consult in whispers until, “Go home,” one of them told her, “it is Vladka we want, not you.” And with that, they turned and walked away.

Vladka stood in shock for a moment, and then noticed Michal and Krysia some distance behind her. They had been following Vladka and the police to learn where they were taking her. “Now they embraced me, overjoyed at my narrow escape.” They moved out of their room that same day, and were more certain than ever that this had been the doing of Stephan Machai. “We sent him several letters warning him bluntly that unless he stopped working against us, we would settle accounts with him ourselves.” Celek even talked to some of the leaders of Armja Krajowa, the Polish Home Army (or AK), about having Machai “liquidated.” However, that proved unnecessary; the Gestapo shot him when they’d run out of use for his information.

The underground remained hard at work. On the eve of the Uprising, one of Vladka’s missions took her back into the ghetto. This time, she was to deliver sticks of dynamite. She wrapped them in greasy paper to make them look like packages of butter, and proceeded to Paryowski Place. As usual, she paid the chief smuggler, and climbed the ladder. Crouched atop the ghetto wall, Vladka scanned the ground for Yurek Blones and Yanek Bilak, but they were nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, she heard gunfire somewhere behind her on the “Aryan” side. The
smugglers scattered in every direction, taking the ladder with them. She was now stranded on top of the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, alone, clutching dynamite. Under other circumstances she would have jumped, but this time, she feared that the impact would cause the “butter” to detonate. The gunshots moved closer. Weighing her options, Vladka prepared to jump, and to die in the ensuing explosion. At the last minute she heard a familiar voice. “Vladka, Vladka!” it called, “hold on!” It was Yurek. He helped her down and, with the Nazis in close pursuit, they ran.

Once they’d lost the Nazis, the two of them moved carefully through the streets while Yurek updated her on the state of the ghetto. “Everybody…is busy digging bunkers for themselves…or else they’re partitioning attics and lofts for secret hiding places,” he said. They passed groups clustered around a poster. Moving closer, Vladka stopped and stared in disbelief; it was an open appeal from the ZOB calling on all the Jews of the Ghetto to disregard orders and resist deportation. The ZOB was openly calling for resistance. Their preparations were common knowledge, and that appeal was not the first to openly grace the walls of the ghetto. Moving further in, Vladka noticed that “the mood of the ghetto had changed. Jews now would…defend themselves—at any cost…The ghetto Jews wanted to stand fast, to hold their ground.” The ghetto was practically unanimous in its stand against the Germans, and the ZOB was their unquestioned leader.

When Vladka and Yurek arrived, ZOB headquarters was bustling. Fighters moved about engaged in whispered consultations. Couriers—mostly women and girls of seventeen and eighteen years of age, hailing from Hashomer Hatzair, Dror, and the Bund—came and went, revolvers, grenades, and ammunitions concealed on their persons. One of Vladka’s old friends, a woman named Miriam Shifman, worked for a factory which manufactured German uniforms. She pulled one of these, plus several German caps, out of a package. “There was much joking and an exchange of sarcastic comments as one after another tried the uniforms on.” The next room over played host to the “munitions” plant. Inside the darkened room, two young
men hard at work, stirring a cask, and very carefully transferring the explosive liquid from the cask into bottles. Molotov cocktails lined the wall. One of the young men told Vladka about a recent weapons testing: “A couple of nights ago we tested one of our homemade hand grenades…You should have heard the bang and seen the flash! The German sentry must have been scared out of his wits.” They all laughed.

The happy atmosphere was infectious—Vladka had almost never seen headquarters like this. But, it was getting dark, and she needed to get back over the wall. Before she left, Abrasha told her that they anticipated a roundup at any moment. “On your next visit,” he said, “I will show you a whole row of bunkers. If the struggle should go on for a long period of time, you will know where to find us.”

But there would be no next time.

1 The Nazis murdered between 5,000 and 6,500 Jews over the course of those four days.
2 They even levied taxes on the ghetto to support their work. According to Marek Edelman—commandant of all the resistance groups in the factory area of the Ghetto and the Bund’s representative in the General Command of the ZOB—they only “taxed” Jews known to be wealthy, or known to have prospered since the sealing of the ghetto. The ZOB would investgate financial situation of the parties in question before taxing them. When an individual was selcted for taxation, the ZOB would leave them a letter identifying the time and place at which specific amounts of money were to be deposited. Often, the ZOB had to exert pressure while collecting these “taxes.”
3 There were a few reminders that they weren’t alone. A Coordinating Committee member named David Klin owned a radio. He invited his comrades over to listen to the Polish broadcast from London. They all listened to the broadcast, tears running down their faces. There was another world outside Poland, outside Warsaw, a world where people, where armies, where countries were fighting the Nazis. The broadcast called on the Poles to endure, and to never lose hope. In Klin’s flat, the tiny group of underground Jews waited for the broadcast to mention them, to acknowledge them. But there was just a Polish soldier’s song, and the broadcast ended.
4 As they moved forward with this project, Mikolai introduced Michal to a Polish underground officer named Julian, an expert on explosives. He taught Michal the ins and outs of manufacturing grenades, bombs, and Molotov cocktails.
5 Through a contact in the Polish police, the Committee was able to get word to Michal. However, after two weeks, their communication was cut off and they all feared the worst. And indeed, their fears were well founded. The Gestapo marched Michal back to the ghetto, and loaded him onto a Treblinka-bound train. As it started to move, Michal tinkered with the the metal screen covering the car’s sole window. He managed to remove the screen. After squeezing through the narrow opening, he jumped, falling to the ground amidst a hail of bullets from the Ukrainian guards standing atop of the train. When the train was out of site, Michal stood up, wiped the blood off his face, and limped back to Warsaw. One evening, as Vladka and Celek were meeting in the cellar, the door flew open. There stood Michal; bruised, bloodied, and alive.
6 For her part, their landlady “knew that we were all Jews; yet she and her sons accepted the discomfort and crowding in the small room.”
7Actually, it was Zoshka who’d left for work.

Vladka Meed Part 2: The Aryans

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 Part 1: The Ghetto

Vladka Meed, born Feigele Peltel (1921-2012), escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto with a map of Treblinka hidden in her shoe. She smuggled dynamite into the Ghetto, set up covert aid networks in forced labor camps, and journeyed deep into forests filled with partisans—friendly and hostile—to locate Jews who needed her help. Through grief and pain and loss, and at constant risk to her life, she never stopped working to aid her people, even as the Nazis did their best to destroy the world as she knew it.


Vladka Meed c. 1942. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I am, frankly, in awe of her, and I would very much like for there to be some sort of alternative timeline in which she hung out with Hannah Szenes and Noor Khan (also, Peggy Carter even though she’s not real).

But I digress.

Vladka Meed’s story begins in the unique cultural world of interwar Polish Jewry. In 1921, Jews made up 10.5% of the population of Poland; by 1931, they made up 9.8%.1 In the cities, their representation was even higher: by the early 1930s, they made up 30.1% of the population of Warsaw. The Polish Jewish community was uniquely characterized by its deep commitment to Jewish political parties—the three most important of which were the Bund, Agudath Israel, and the Zionists—and their attendant youth movements, which dominated the social and cultural lives of interwar Polish Jewry.

The youth groups in particular played formative roles in the lives of young Polish Jews.2 Vladka, for her part, was a member of the Bund, a secular Jewish socialist movement which understood Polish Jewry as an autonomous nation whose destiny was tied inextricably to that of the Poles. The Zionist movement was split into many separate groups and parties, their politics ranging from far right militarism to far left Marxism. Agudath Israel was a religious party which rejected Zionism and secularism, and united Orthodox and Hasidic Polish Jewry.

When the Nazis marched into Poland, they began their campaign of dispossessing and ghettoizing Polish Jewry.


They initially paid little attention to the youth groups, and in this slight bubble of freedom the youth groups slowly transformed into centers of the nascent Jewish resistance. Vladka, for example, worked on her Bundist youth group’s illegal newspaper, and worked to organize illegal children’s groups.


A page from a 1942 edition of the Bund’s underground newspaper, perhaps one Vladka worked on. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

At first, the youth groups functioned as their own separate, ideologically defined universes. As the Nazis isolated Jewish communities across Poland, the youth groups and their attendant parties, cut off from their members in other towns and cities, reached out to their membership for volunteers to carry information and correspondence to their far-flung comrades. The majority, and most successful of these volunteers, were female, some as young as fifteen.

These volunteer couriers transported papers, documents, forged identity cards, underground newspapers, and money in and out of the isolated Jewish communities—and later ghettos—of
Poland. These couriers had only limited protection from certain death: passing Gentile features or  hair dye and makeup to disguise their traditionally “Jewish” features, forged papers, genitalia which could not betray their Jewish identities, and a manner of gendered socialization which prepared Jewish women and girls to be able to engage with both the Gentile and the Jewish communities.3 These female couriers became the backbones of their youth groups, and, as Nazi policy towards the Jews shifted from isolation to extermination, of the organized Jewish resistance.4

In Warsaw, the isolation began in autumn 1940 as the Nazis ordered the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto on October 2, and sealed it on November 16.


Warsaw Ghetto street scene, 1941. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Between 300,000 and 440,000 people behind lived within its walls, and inside, conditions inside were grim. In 1941, 5123 Jews died of starvation and disease. Included in their number was Vladka’s father, Shlomo Peltel, who died of pneumonia.

On July 19, 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. It went like this: the Nazis and their Ukrainian troops surrounded the living and working quarters in the Ghetto, building by building, and ordered all Jews to exit. Upon rounding up a large enough group, the Nazis either marched them or sent them via truck or streetcar to the assembly and deportation point (the Umschlagplatz). There, the Nazis loaded the rounded up Jews into sealed freight cars bound for Treblinka.


Jews make their way to the deportation point. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Jews assembled at the deportation point, 1942. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Train platform at the deportation point. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The deportations ended on September 12, 1942. Only 10% of the ghetto’s original population remained. That 10% generally consisted of men between the ages of 15 and 50, and strong, healthy young women able to perform labor. These individuals, initially cleared for survival because of their youth and strength, were generally the only remaining members of their families left in the ghetto. Vladka was no exception: her mother Hanna, her fifteen-year old brother Chaim, and her sixteen-year old sister Henia all perished in Treblinka that summer of 1942.

Those who remained asked themselves how this had been allowed to happen, how 50 Germans and 400 supplementary Ukrainian and Latvian policemen had been able to ship 350,000 of their friends, families, comrades, coreligionists, and loved ones to their deaths without encountering a lick of resistance.5

In the early days of the deportations, few knew where the trains were headed. The youth group and party leadership knew. So did the Polish underground and their allies in the Bund.
But Nazi disinformation campaigns easily overtook the power of these “rumors.” Warsaw Jewry was desperate for any shred of hope; when the Nazis forced Jewish prisoners to send cheery postcards homes from Treblinka, their friends and families clung to the false promises contained within these missives. And as they did so, they reacted with anger and hostility towards any Jews spreading information to the contrary, including the stories of those managed to escape from the death camps and make their way back to the ghetto.

Further, it was not, and is not, true that no one tried to resist. In mid-March, 1942, Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of Dror—one of the labor Zionist youth groups—called a meeting between himself, the representatives of the other Left and Center Zionist youth groups, party leaders, and the Bund to discuss the formation of a cooperative resistance group.



Yitzhak “Antek” Zuckerman. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

However, the attendees feared that any attempt to resist would be met with collective retaliation, and the Bund representatives were comfortable with neither the idea of acting apart from the Polish underground, nor with the Zionist undertones of the meeting. The meeting ended, with little accomplished.

When the deportations began in July, the Center/Left Zionist groups decided to move forward without the Bund, and founded the Jewish Fighting Organization (the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ZOB) on July 28, 1942. The ZOB’s first months were riddled with failure and tragedy. Those few Jews aware of their existence distrusted them, perceiving them as dangerous provocateurs. The Nazi captured, executed, and/or deported many ZOB leaders in these early months, and many more of the party and youth group leadership—including those who had called the March meeting—fled the ghetto on the eve of the deportations. These losses, combined with the enormity of the deportations, left the remnants of the ZOB shocked, hopeless, and despondent.

But in a perverse way, it was the magnitude of the deportations which allowed the ZOB to flourish. Those who remained in the Ghetto could no longer view the ZOB as dangerous, because the ghetto had already suffered the worst. Further, the party leaders who fled before the deportations—Mordecai Anielewicz, Yitzhak Zuckerman, and Zivia Lubetkin (the Hero of Another Story/FHL post)—returned to the ghetto in September.



Mordecai Anielewicz. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.


Zivia Lubetkin. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

In this new atmosphere, the ZOB was finally able to create a military and political framework for an organized Jewish resistance. The ZOB remained the military arm of the organization, while the Jewish National Committee—which included in its body representatives from all of Warsaw’s Jewish parties and youth groups—acted as the organization’s political arm.

In addition, the Bund soon re-entered talks with the ZOB. To bring the Bund, and its contacts in the Polish underground, into the fold, the ZOB developed a third arm: the Jewish
Coordinating Committee. The Jewish Coordinating Committee governed the resistance, and spoke on the behalf of the ZOB and the Jewish National Committee in negotiations with Polish underground representatives and potential Gentile allies. By the end of October, 1942, the Jewish underground had achieved what was impossible only a few months earlier: solidarity between and within the Jewish political and ideological streams of Warsaw.6

As October moved into November, Abrasha Blum, one of the leaders of the Bund, called a meeting of all remaining members of the Bund and its youth group.


Abrasha Blum. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

He opened the meeting with the news of the organization of a joint resistance effort, and the creation of the Jewish Coordinating Committee. Abrasha then briefed them on the goals of the resistance: to smuggle women and children out of the ghetto, to smuggle weapons and dynamite into the ghetto, and to train and organize fighting groups in preparation for an uprising against the Nazis when they, inevitably, returned to complete the liquidation of the ghetto.

When he finished speaking Abrasha began to assign missions to all of those present. Finally, it was Vladka’s turn. He noted her distinctly Gentile looks (in her own words, “a rather small nose, grey-green eyes, straight light brown hair”) and made her an offer: if she chose to accept it, her mission would be to cross into the “Aryan” side of Warsaw, and act as a courier in support of the goals of the resistance. Vladka, of course, accepted.

She was to tell no one of her mission, and wait quietly to receive her orders. Two or three weeks later, one night in early December, Michal Klepfisz, an old Bundist colleague of Vladka’s already stationed outside of the ghetto, appeared at her door. “I’ve come to take you away, Feigel,” he said.


Michal Klepfisz. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“Get ready; you’ll be leaving the ghetto within two days.”7 He instructed her to conceal a copy of the underground newspaper (which included a detailed map of Treblinka) on her person, bribe a leader of one of the labor battalions employed in a factory outside of the ghetto, and leave the ghetto with the battalion, posing as a member. She was then to meet him outside the
gates on the Aryan side of Warsaw at 8am.

Two days later, at 6am on the morning of December 5, 1942, Vladka left her apartment for the last time, the illegal literature concealed within her shoes. Following orders, she bribed a leader of one of the labor battalions and joined their ranks. Unfortunately, she was immediately conspicuous of one of the few women in the group. Suspicious, a guard ordered her to stop, and report to a small wooden shack for questioning.

With no other recourse, Vladka obeyed. Inside, she waited in a small room, its walls papered with maps, charts, and pictures of half-naked women; all were spattered with blood. A guard entered shortly, and ordered her to strip in order to search her clothing for contraband. Vladka tried to keep calm; she assured herself that everything would be fine so long as he did not order her to remove her shoes. But, of course, he did. Vladka stalled, unlacing her shoes as slowly as possible. The guard had no patience for this. He ordered her to hurry up, and began to advance on her with a whip. At the last minute, a second guard ran breathlessly into the room. Another Jew, it seemed, had fled the premises. Vladka’s guard swore, and the two ran out of the room, leaving Vladka alone with her partially unlaced shoes. She hurriedly dressed, and slipped out of the room. A third guard stopped her outside the shack, but she convinced him that she had passed inspection.

When Vladka returned to the labor gang, all of its members were shocked to see her emerge alive, unscathed and in one piece; most of those sent into the shack never came back out. She marched with them through the gates, into the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. Outside the ghetto, the battalion members boarded a wagon, their transport to their work assignment. When the ghetto walls were out of sight, Vladka, at the urging of the rest of the gang, who knew that she was on a mission of some sort, removed her white armband (all Jew were required to wear one) and jumped (in 1991, she recounted this experience in an oral history).


Two Jewish men at work in a ghetto factory, c. 1941/1942. Note the armband worn by the man in the background right. All Jews had to wear it, and it is what Vladka pulled off before she jumped. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.

She was free, but it was an odd sort of freedom, “…it was as if nothing had happened in the last two years. Trolleys, automobiles, bicycled raced along; businesses were open; children headed for school; women carried fresh bread and other provisions. The contrast with the ghetto was startling. It was another world, a world teeming with life.”

Michal Klepfisz had waited for her outside the gates with his Gentile landlord and ally to the Jewish underground, Stephan Machai for hours. Finally, they had returned home, hoping that Vladka had noticed how strict the guards were that day and retreated. Yet, early that afternoon, they heard someone banging on the door of the cellar of Gornoszlonska 3—the address Michal had had her commit to memory before leaving the ghetto. A blonde woman opened it, and there, to her relief, stood Michal Klepfisz.

Her life as an underground operative for the Jewish resistance began. In a period of five months, she would encounter more danger, isolation, fear, and intrigue than she ever dreamed possible as she worked single-mindedly to prepare the Warsaw Ghetto for an uprising.

1 They made up the largest Jewish population in non-Communist Europe.
2 The 1930s were not a good time for young Polish Jewry. Global economic downturn threatened everyone’s future, while renewed anti-Semitism gave way to public
violence, and segregation from and within universities and professional organizations. In short, Polish youth seemed to have no future. Those traditional centers of authority: the family and the rabbis, could not seem to offer any solutions to the problems of young Jewish people. So, they turned instead to the youth groups. Whole classes of Jewish children and adolescents joined one group or another, and looked to the group and party leadership for guidance and authority. These groups even ran school and summer camps.
3 In that time and place, Jewish girls typically attended secular academies taught in Polish—this gave them the ability to speak fluent Polish without the Yiddish inflection so easily identifiable to gentile Poles. Their mothers and communities socialized these girls to be able to maintain a household, raise their children in line with both Polish and Jewish cultural values, and to potentially run the family business. In short, these women were socialized to be able to comfortably navigate the world inside and
outside of the Jewish community. Jewish boys, on the other hand, typically attended religious academies taught in Yiddish, and were socialized to dedicate their lives to religious study, and the small number of trades and occupations open to Jews. In short, Jewish boys were socialized to operate primarily within the Jewish sphere of Polish life. There was also the matter of circumcision: if a Jewish man were caught and ordered to drop his pants, his body would clearly betray his Jewish identity. Women’s bodies could not give them away in this matter. Please note that these gender norms reflected social ideals, not lived realities. For more on these particular gender roles, see Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History: The Roles and Representation of Women (Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies) by Paula E. Hyman.
4 The article, The Female Couriers During the Holocaust, provided me with much of this information on the female couriers. Definitely worth a read.
5 In addition to those sent to their deaths at Treblinka, 11,580 were sent to forced labor camps, 8,000 escaped to the Aryan side of the city, more than 10,000 were murdered in the streets during the roundups, and 20,000-25,000 successfully evaded capture; the Nazis referred to the latter group as “illegal residents.”
6 Mostly. Betar, the youth arm of the right-wing Zionist Revisionist party, did not join. It could not agree with the ZOB on issues of tactics and leadership, and founded its own, independent resistance group: the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowski, or ZZW).

7 All direct quotations in this post series are from Vladka Meed’s 1948 memoir, On Both Sides of the Wall unless otherwise noted.