Because you know I didn’t get all that solely from our girl’s memoir. There are rather a lot of books listed here, so for your reference the books are separated into the following categories in the following order: Background(s), Holocaust, Warsaw Ghetto, Warsaw Uprising (1944) and Polish Underground, Gen. World War II, Cold War-Era, and Memory Studies.
In January 1978, thirty-three years after they left Warsaw for what they thought was the last time, Yad Vashem officials invited Vladka and Benjamin back to Warsaw for the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the January 19 Uprising in the Ghetto.
In the days before the ceremony, Vladka and Benjamin explored the city which had once been their home. In the old Jewish Quarter, the familiar streets of their youth were long gone, new, unfamiliar networks of broad boulevards lined with tall, alien, apartment buildings in their place. Some areas were unexpectedly hilly, as though no one had bothered to level the ruins of the Ghetto before rebuilding that quarter of the city.
The entire area, it seemed to them, had been scrubbed clean of its Jewish past. The only thing they could find which acknowledged the Jews who had lived and died in that space was the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.
The monument as Vadka would have seen it in the late 1970s. Note the apartment blocks in the background. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
“It was a powerful monument,” Vladka wrote. “Once it had stood alone in a sea of rubble but now it seemed incongruous—dwarfed by huge, faceless, apartment blocks to which it had no relation. It is as if the monument had come from another time or another world, intruding, almost by force, into the smug grey world of contemporary Polish reality.” Two frozen, wilted flowers sat beside it.
Once a prison, Pawiak, stood in the very center of the Jewish Quarter. During the war years, “it had been the setting of a particularly brutal and bloody chapter of the Warsaw Ghetto.” Standing in its place was a museum. Inside, visitors could tour former prison cells, see the material remains of Nazi torture methods, and view documents and photographs illustrating the Polish struggle against the Nazis. A section was devoted to Polish suffering under Nazi rule. But, Vladka wrote, “nowhere [was] there a photograph, a document, even a single word, to indicate that this was also a place of Jewish suffering and destruction; this despite the fact that within the walls of this terrible prison, thousands of Jews had been tortured and executed. Their lives and their deaths are totally erased, as if they had never been.”
At the site of the Umschlagplatz stood a block of houses. The only trace of the place’s past was a plaque, placed on a low brick wall, and inscribed in Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew with the sentence, “This is the place from which the Nazis sent tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths.”
The Jewish cemetery was largely the same as it had been in 1945. Empty, destroyed, abandoned, and impossible to breach. At Treblinka, Vladka and Benjamin found only “A vast, empty, snow-covered field filled with huge stones of many sizes and shapes, all pointing toward the sky.”
At the commemoration, the purpose of their trip, Vladka, Benjamin, and a few others stood in silence. There were no speeches. There were no Polish representatives. Nobody walking by showed the slightest interest in the small group congregated at the memorial.
Their past in Warsaw was, for all intents and purposes, gone.
They returned to New York.
While this trip was surely, for both Vladka and Benjamin, a traumatic one, made worse through the apparent erasure of their six years of hell, it did not disrupt their work in the United States.
In 1981, Vladka and Benjamin founded the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. Its 1983 commemoration, held in Washington DC (which she chaired) was attended by over 20,000 survivors and their families. The Gathering continues on today, acting as the umbrella organization of all Holocaust survivor groups in North America, and inspired a boom of commemorative action, books, films, curricula, and museums.
Vladka, shaking hands with President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In the year of its founding, the Gathering established the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors as a national registry to document the lives of survivors who came to the United States after World War II. Today, the Registry, located in the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum in the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center, includes over 200,000 records related to survivors and their families from around the world.
As Holocaust education became part of American curricula in the mid-1980s, Vladka worked with the American Federation of Teachers and other groups to train teachers in Holocaust education. In 1985 she, with representatives of the Jewish Labor Committee and New York’s United Federation of Teachers, founded the annual American Teachers’ Seminars on the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance. She remained director of that organization for many years. Because of her work, thousands of educators across the United States received training in Holocaust pedagogy.
Vladka received many honors for her work throughout her life, including the 1989 Morim Award of the Jewish Teachers’ Association, the 1993 Hadassah Henrietta Szold Award, the 1995 Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award, and honorary degrees from Hebrew Union College and Bar Ilan University.
Vladka Meed passed away on November 21, 2012 at 90 years of age after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
As you will remember from Part 8, Vladka and Benjamin left Poland for good upon as resurgent anti-Semitic violence made it clear that they had no future in the country of their birth. For, in the immediate post-war years, Polish Nationalists had finally achieved their dream: a Poland in which Roman Catholic ethnic Poles were the majority. But, this dream only came to fruition under Communist rule within the Soviet sphere is influence, not within the bounds of Polish self-determination. With the destruction of the Polish Nationalist underground during Operation Tempest, and the 1944 withdrawal of US and UK support for the Polish government-in-exile, the Communist regime could operate with interference from neither the West, nor the Polish Nationalist parties.
1946 ceremony memorializing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Yitzhak Zuckerman stands on the left-hand side of the speaker. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
As the 1940s rolled on, the Polish government set out to craft a narrative of the war years which downplayed the contributions of Polish Nationalists to World War II. Government officials memorialized the Jewish dead and set up monuments to their martyrdom, while persecuting Poles who had fought the Nazis as representatives of the Armja Krajowa and similar groups.
1948 unveiling of Nathan Rapaport‘s Ghetto Heroes Monument. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Memorial service at the 1948 unveiling. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
Monument close-up. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In the eyes of those Poles who fought and/or supported the fight against the Nazis, this indicated nothing less than a Jewish takeover of the government, intended to suppress all memory of Polish action and oppression under Nazi rule. This led to a period of what was perhaps the worst anti-Jewish violence in the history of Polish-Jewish relations.
Between 1944 and 1947, Poles murdered between 1,500 and 2,000 Jewish survivors as they returned to their homes. Poles bombed the few remaining Jewish institutions in the country, and perpetrated pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. In Kielce, July 1946, a Polish mob attacked a communal residence set up for Holocaust survivors, murdering 42 and wounding more than 100 people. After the Pogrom, many Jewish survivors—like Vladka and Benjamin—concluded that they had no future in Poland, and left. The Jewish population of Poland shrank to under 80,000 individuals. When the government sentenced the perpetrators of the Pogrom to death, Poles protested, arguing that the Pogrom and others like it had been nothing more than Zionist plots to stimulate Jewish emigration. Anti-Semitic violence continued through the 1950s. Between 1956 and 1960, another 40,000 Jews left Poland. By the 1960s, only 30,000 Jews remained.
In 1956, an official named Mieczyslaw Moczar began to accumulate power. A member of the Polish United Workers Party and General in the Polish People’s Army, Moczar was influential in the parts of the government which controlled the police and security forces. In the 1960s, he became leader of the state-controlled veteran’s association, the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (the Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokracje, or, ZBoWiD), an organization with at least 300,000 members. At the same time, Polish political culture was moving away from the hard-line anti-Nationalist Stalinism of the 40s and 50s, to a climate more open to Polish nationalists. In this new climate, veterans of the Armja Krojowa and similar were now able to assert themselves in public. They took up government positions, many of them in the same departments which fell within Moczar’s sphere of influence, and, as the changing climate moved to the ZBoWiD, its ranks swelled as it opened membership to all veterans of Polish organizations which fought the Nazis.
Through his roles in the government, and in the ZBoWiD, Moczar built a power-base for himself made up of newly accepted and emboldened Polish nationalists and Home Army veterans. With this base, called the “Partisans,” behind him, Moczar launched a campaign to take control of the memory of the war years, pulling it from the custody of the earlier hard-line Stalinists into the hands of the Polish Nationalists. This meant pulling it away from a body which emphasized the plight of the Jews, to a body desperate for recognition of Polish action and victimhood.
The campaign began in earnest in 1966. In that year, the prestigious Wielka Encyklopedia Powszehna, the Great Universal Encyclpedia, printed an article which differentiated between Nazi labor camps, in which prisoners were worked to death, and death camps, which existed solely to exterminate prisoners, the majority of which were Jews. The state-controlled press picked up on this, and pundits from every corner of the country were incensed. They accused the Encyclopedia staff of erasing the history of Polish victimization during the War, while emphasizing suffering of the Jews. As a result of the controversy, a new article was printed, this one presenting all Nazi camps as inherently similar, and all existing to murder all victims equally.
In June 1967, days after the Six Day War, Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, having noted that some of Poland’s Jews seemed excited about Israel’s victory in that conflict, made a speech warning of the presence of a “fifth column” in Poland.1 A little over a week later, he made a speech which containeing references to the consequences of the presence of a people with “two souls and two fatherlands” within Poland. The result, as intended, was a widespread perception of Polish Jews not as Poles (not that they every truly were viewed as Poles), but as untrustworthy “Zionist” agents. In 1968, an official named Tadeusz Walichnowski, one of the leaders of the Nationalist faction of the Polish United Workers’ Party, published a highly influential, best-selling books called Israel and West Germany.
In this book, Tadeusz Walichnowski accused the State of Israel of committing genocide under the tutelage of 1,000 former Nazis. This relationship between the Nazis and the Zionists, he argued, dated back to the pre-war years. The Zionists, he continued, needed the Holocaust to happen in order to build support for the creation of a Jewish State, and collaborated with the Nazis to make it happen. Therefore, the real victims of the Nazis were the Poles, while the Holocaust had been nothing more than a German-Jewish, I mean ”Zionist,” conspiracy against the Poles.
Ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 1968. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
In March 1968, in a seemingly unrelated turn of events, the government banned a production of Adam Mickiewicz’s play Dziady, due to perceived anti-Soviet themes. Students at Warsaw University went on strike in protest, and the police—rife with Partisans—came down hard on the protesters, jailing or exiling many of them. Seizing on the moment, Moczar made his move. Taking the rage of 1966, the “fifth column” fear mongering of 1967, and the conspiracy theories of 1968, he tied them all together, and placed the blame for the student protests on Zionists.
In his framing of the situation, these Zionist agitators were representatives of an anti-Polish conspiracy in which agents, both at home and abroad, actively worked to to mutilate the memory of the war years, defame the actions of the Polish Nation, and erase wartime Polish martyrdom. Major actors in this conspiracy, he argued, included West Germany, historical institutes in Israel, and centers of “Zionist” activity in the United States—you know, like the organizations Vladka worked with while giving Holocaust lectures. Under Moczar’s leadership, police and security forces instituted a search for Polish officials of Jewish descent. Tadeusz Walichnowski created a card index of all those in Poland of Jewish descent, using a system potentially stricter than that used in the Nuremberg Laws to determine descent.
Beginning in March 1968 and continuing through 1970, across Poland Jewish employees were “unmasked” and dismissed from jobs. Afterwards, it was impossible for them to find work in Poland. Further, these Jews were only allowed to leave Poland under the condition that they give up their Polish citizenship. From there, the government gave them only one thing: an exit permit valid only for travel to Israel.2 As a result of this expulsion-in-all-but-name, another 20,000 Jews left Poland. The Partisans perceived this as “proof” of the Jews’ true, Zionist, allegiance.
The legacy of the Anti-Semitic Campaign lasted through the mid-1980s. In accounts of the war published between about 1968 and 1985, the fate of Polish Jewry during the war was presented as indistinguishable from that of the Poles. Even the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was discussed only in the context of Polish aid rendered to Jewish fighters.
By the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a new generation in Poland, one removed enough from the war that it could look back on Polish history not as something personal, but as something to be learned. Slowly, students and members of the intelligentsia became interested in Jews, Judaism, and Jewish History in Poland. The silence of the post-1968 era was replaced with a collective interest in a long-gone, multinational Poland past. This younger generation of Poles fely comfortable mourning the Jews, and Polish historians and intellectuals felt as though they were able to engage in dialogue with their Jewish and Israeli counterparts. However, this was not simply the product of a generational shift. In Ocotber 1978, Pope John Paul II, born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice, ascended from Archbishop of Krakow, to Pope. During his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow, he had been an important figure in parts of the Catholic community interested in learning about Jewish culture and history in Poland.3 As Pope, he visited Auschwitz and spoke specifically about Jewish victims of the Nazis, identifying them not as enemy nationals, but as the older brothers of the Catholic people.4 He pushed for interfaith dialogue, and remembrance of the specific Jewish experience of World War II.
In 1983, the Polish government, now long past the anti-Semitic campaign, and operating in a new atmosphere of inquiry and dialogue, arranged an elaborate commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The government invited thousands of Jews and Jewish organizations to attend. However, Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the ZOB, called for a boycott of the proceedings, arguing that Poland’s martial law and censored press went against everything the Uprising stood for. A state-organized mass commemoration of the Uprising, therefore, could never be anything more than a propagandic farce. As a result, an unofficial memorial ceremony was organizaed, with Edelman’s blessing, to take place a few days before the government’s. Several hundred people attended. Standing before the monument, they made and listened to hurried speeches, laid flowers, and said Kaddish. And then they were dispersed by riot police.
Days later, in front of an audience of thousands, a Military Guard of Honor laid a wreath at the base of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters.
1983 memorial ceremony. Image courtesy of Yad Vashem.
This is not where the story of the Polish relationship with Holocaust history and memory ends, but that’s where I’m going to end the the present discussion. Because, in January 1978, right before new forces took hold of the the memory of Poland’s Jewish past, Vladka and Benjamin returned.
1 The “fifth column,” for those unfamiliar with it, is a form of xenophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted rhetoric used to target minorities, immigrants, refugees, outsiders, and anyway else deemed unworthy of membership in the nation-state. As applied to Jews, it cast them as inherently untrustworthy, loyal to each other (“International Jewry”) over any state in which they resided. It led to a lot of scapegoating during the Dreyfus Affair, the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and the Hitler-era American nativist line that Jewish refugees were German spies. After 1948, the trope shifted to convey that Jews living anywhere outside of Israel were loyal to Israel before all else. To illustrate how this works, allow me to give you an anecdote: at a grad school happy hour I toasted “l’chaim” before downing my shot. A colleague across the table sneered at me and toasted “Free Palestine” before downing his shot. This colleague was making assumptions about my politics and loyalties as a Jewish person despite knowing nothing about me or my politics. This is fifth column thinking. And then, of course, there’s our best friend, the cab driver. This all dovetails nicely with Jewish Conspiracy, and Protocols of the Elders of Zion type shit. To provide examples of how this applies to other groups, the 45th President of the US likes to insinuate that all Hispanic immigrants represent MS-13, and that all Muslims are anti-American terrorists. This is fifth column rhetoric in action. It’s gross and highkey ethnic-cleansey. 2 Subtweeting all of Eurasia and North Africa here okay like if you hate the State of Israel and do not want it to exist, then maybe don’t kick out your Jews and/or treat them so horribly that their only choice is go to Israel as a result of international immigration policies/your fucking exit permit???? I mean, I know why, but… 3 In the late 1970s, liberal, educated classes of the Polish Catholic community began to take an interest in Jewish history in Poland. One of their organizations, the Warsaw Club, organized annual Weeks of Jewish Culture. On these Weeks, they would pay visits to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and work on restoring its tombstones, attend lectures on Jewish culture, and participate in similar activities. 4 There’s a whole clusterfuck involving a convent opening in a former Auschwitz gas chamber because Lol Memory, but that happened outside of the 1946-1983 time frame of this post, so that’s a memory clusterfuck I will not be discussing here.
Vladka and Benjamin fled the ruined city in a Polish medical wagon. They rode out, hidden beneath a sheet, wearing Red Cross armbands. Once out of Warsaw, Vladka and Benjamin made contact with some friends hiding on a large estate. Only their expertly forged false documents shielded them from German discovery.
In early January 1945, Benjamin received word through the underground that his parents were alive and looking for him. Benjamin and his parents were reunited in mid-January, and Benjamin and Vladka married shortly thereafter at his parents’ insistence.
Now married, they returned to Warsaw five months after their initial departure. They found nothing. They rubble of the ghetto–all that remained of their former lives–yielded no answers. At the Jewish cemetery, it was almost impossible to find a grave; the place was in ruins: nothing but overturned tombstones, desecrated graves, and scattered skulls as far as the eye could see.
They remained in the deserted city for a short time before moving to Lodz. They tried to build a life there, but realized that they had no future in the country of their birth as Polish anti-Jewish violence rose in the post-war years.1 So, they set out for the United States. Following the circuitous route typical of Jewish refugees in the larger 1933-1950 period, Vladka and Benjamin finally arrived in New York City on May 24, 1946.
Benjamin launched a business in the fur industry, and later opened a successful import-export business. Vladka meanwhile, worked as a writer for the Jewish Daily Forward. In 1948, they had a daughter named Anna, now Dr. Anna Meed Scherzer, and in 1950, they had a son named Steven, now Dr. Steven Meed. Vladka and Benjamin attained their American citizenship in the early 1950s, and formally changed their names to Benjamin and Vladka Meed.
In the late 1940s, Vladka began the work that would dominate the rest of her life. She had seen the Holocaust, seen her world before and after, and she was adamant that no one ever forget what had befallen her people.
She traveled across the United States, lecturing on her war-time experiences in partnership with such organizations as the Jewish Labor Committee and the International Rescue Committee.
Over the course of the next 30-odd years, Vladka and Benjamin would become influential voices in the realms of Holocaust education and commemoration. For example, Vladka led an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to create a Holocaust memorial in Battery Park in the 1960s, and helped to found the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization in 1962.
In 1978, Yad Vashem officials reached out to Vladka and Benjamin to invite them to a memorial service in Warsaw. They accepted, and, through Yad Vashem, received two visas allowing them to return to Poland for four days each. During these four days, they were to find in their former home a radically different relationship with the Holocaust than the one Vladka and Benjamin had dedicated their lives to building in the United States.
With this, the tide of the war slowly but steadily turned against the German forces. By the summer of 1944, the Red Army was quickly advancing across Eastern Europe, pushing the Germans into retreat. The Eastern Front drew close and closer to Warsaw. The sounds of battle could be heard in the streets. The Poles hoped that these sounds meant that the German occupiers would soon be defeated and forced into retreat. This hope grew into an enthusiasm so strong that the city hovered on the edge of open rebellion.
For the Coordinating Committee, this introduced a new set of logistical challenges. Those Jews hidden in the suburbs had to return to the perceived safety of the city. As open battle was likely to sever contact between the Coordinating Committee and the underground Jews across Warsaw who depended on them, couriers worked overtime, distributing money and rations.
On the personal level, Benjamin and Vladka decided that it was best to move in together, rather than risk separation in the chaos of battle. “‘We must not be separated now,’ he had declared. It was good to know that he was always close, that we shared the same deep feelings for each other. This knowledge sustained us as we rushed from task to task, keeping in touch with associates, digging trenches in the streets” in preparation for the defense of civilian areas.
Some hoped, or assumed, that as the branches of Polish underground parties rose up against the Germans, the Red Army would march into the city and reinforce their lines. The Armja Krajowa and the Polish government-in-exile, however, hoped to rise against the Germans and liberate the city before the Red Army could march in.1 This was part of Operation Tempest, a series of operations organized between the Polish-government-in-exile and the Armja Krajowa to seize control of Occupied Poland before the Red Army could march in. If the Operation was successful, the Poles would be able to meet the Red Army as equals, not as grateful, liberated civilians. In short, Operation Tempest existed to defend Poland from both the Germans and the Soviets.2
The Polish government-in-exile authorized the Armja Krajowa to begin the fight to liberate Warsaw on July 25, 1944. Eight days later, on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. Factory sirens, gunfire, and shouts of “Na Szwaba! Na Szwaba!”—Attack the damned Germans!—filled the air. People—Vladka and Benjamin among them—poured out of every doorway into
the streets and began to erect barricades to block German tanks.
While the Armja Krajowa was the largest Polish underground military with the most resources and the greatest access to the government-in-exile, they were not the only
Polish Underground organization to play an active role in the Warsaw Uprising. Other Polish underground military organizations which fought in the Warsaw Uprising include the Democratic Socialist P.A.L. (Polska Armja Ludowa, or, the Polish People’s Army), and the Communist Armja Ludowa (People’s Army). Jews fought in all of these units, the majority of them with either the P.A.L, or the Armja Ludowa—these organizations had far fewer anti-Semitic elements in their ranks than the Armja Krajowa. Jews fought in every phase of the Warsaw Uprising, serving as soldiers, officers, doctors, and nurses.
As Jews and Poles alike fought with the resistance forces and toiled in the streets, Vladka mused to herself, “How strange that these sweat-drenched young Poles laboring…shoulder to shoulder with us in the common cause of liberation were the same callous and sometimes vicious Poles who had caused us so much pain and sorrow! But this was no time to think—there was work to be done.”
The resistance forces fought with confidence, positive that the Red Army was on its way to relieve and liberate the city. Though they had a clear advantage in weaponry, the Germans lacked the manpower to immediately suppress the uprising. Himmler dispatched additional troops to Warsaw on August 3, and again on August 5, ordering the troops to kill all of the inhabitants of the city.
Meanwhile, the rapidly approaching Soviet offensive halted twelve miles outside of Praga—a suburb about two miles away from the Old City district of Warsaw. It would not resume its westward march until September 11.
When the German reinforcements arrived, they mounted daily bombing campaigns. By August 17, parts of the city lay in ruins. While terrifying and devastating for Polish civilians, this posed perhaps the most danger to the Jews in hiding around the city.
As the German bombs destroyed residential buildings, formerly hidden Jews were exposed to the still hostile
outside world, some of them for the first time in years. As these terrified Jews ran for new hideouts, clustering in the buildings where Coordinating Committee personnel were known to live, surprised Gentiles remarked, “there are Jews here!…Where does this pestilence come from? They were supposed to have been finished long ago.”
In the ranks of the Armja Krajowa, commanders assigned Jews to the most dangerous tasks, while their gentile “comrades” would often shoot them in the back for their troubles. AK guards accused Jews found hiding of being German spies. On some occasions, the AK guards would take a breather from their battle against the Nazis to beat these underground Jews, proclaiming that there would be no place for Jews in a liberated Poland—it was to be judenrein.
By August 24, 37,500 were dead. The Red Army resumed its march on September 11. The Polish Underground State briefly gained control over most of Warsaw on September 14. The Germans retreated as Praga fell to the Red Army, but continued their bombardment of the city. The Poles lost ground as the fighting intensified, and the Soviets—actively encouraging the Polish
underground to stage an uprising in Warsaw since beginning their westward march—did nothing.3
The Germans regained control over most of Warsaw on September 24, eventually reducing the Polish perimeter to little more than a few blocks. On October 2, Warsaw surrendered, with AK command broadcasting to the city that they were capitulating. At this time, approximately 12,000 Jews remained alive in the city, while more than 180,000 people—Jews, Poles, fighters, and civilians—perished in the Uprising.
The Poles defeated, Himmler ordered his troops to destroy what remained of Warsaw, even though, by then, it was clear that Germany had lost the war.
German troops were still destroying the city a few hours before the Red Army marched in on January 17, 1945.
In those three months between the October suppression of the Warsaw Uprising, and the January entrance of the Red Army, Warsaw’s surviving Jews were in crisis, every day struggling to stay alive. Vladka and Benjamin were hiding in a bunker he had dug out in the cellars of ruined buildings. Some Jews did their best to disappear into the columns of soldiers and civilians fleeing the city, while others fled to join the ranks of the Red Army, and others still hid in cellars, surrounded by Jewish and Polish corpses.
The Coordinating Committee was still in operation. Even in these most desperate of circumstances, Mikolai and Henryk continued to distribute American dollars to those in need. Yet, they had little help to offer to their remaining operatives, and most of the couriers had already fled the city.
Vladka and Benjamin agonized over the decision for days, knowing that they had little hope of eluding the Nazis outside of Warsaw without an organizational framework behind them. But, ultimately, they chose to flee. They turned their bunker over to a group of friends and comrades who planned to remain in the city.
It was raining on the day Vladka and Benjamin left Warsaw. Civilians pushing carts and lugging bundles on their backs hurried past. Their friends met them at the bunker. They looked at each other in silence, until someone said, quietly, “You had better hurry along.” Another friend, Clara Falk told them, “When you come back, don’t forget to get us out of the bunker—dead or alive.”
Choking back tears, Vladka struggled to find the right words. Finally, an old expression from the days of the ghetto came to mind. Forcing past the lump in her throat Vladka turned to the group. “Hang on kid,” she told them, harkening back to those old days, “hang on.’”
1 If you’ll recall, the Polish government-in-exile operated out of London. 2 However, the plan assumed that the retreating Germans would be too weak to defend their Polish holdings, and that the Red Army would acknowledge the Poles’ right to the land if they defeated the Germans before Soviet arrival. Neither of these assumptions were based in reality, especially as Stalin refused to recognize the Polish government-in-exile or any party acting on its behalf. 3 In Stalin’s eyes, an Uprising orchestrated by the Polish Home Army would kill both Germans, and those Poles willing to risk their lives for a free Poland; both a potential threat to Soviet designs on the future of “liberated” Poland.
After the Uprising, the Jewish Coordinating Committee turned its efforts to providing aid and attending to the welfare of ZOB survivors, Jews in hiding inside and outside of Warsaw, and Jews interned in forced labor camps.1
Vladka once more undertook dangerous and harrowing missions in support of these efforts, traveling across the city smuggling false identification documents to underground Jews, posing as a smuggler to bring relief to Jews in hiding outside of the city, and working to set up covert aid networks in the labor camps.
Vladka on one of her missions, 1944. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Still struggling with feelings of hopelessness in the aftermath of the
destruction of the Ghetto, Vladka often turned to Benjamin Miedzyrzecki—her Coordinating Committee comrade—for strength. His “words of comfort,” she wrote, “dispelled my despair more than once…It was only thanks to him that I did not break down.”
Benjamin Miedzyrzecki on the “Aryan” side, 1943. Both images courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One of the missions she undertook in this period was the reinstatement of Coordinating Committee contact with a group of twenty-three survivors of the Czestochowa Ghetto Uprising hidden in the town of Koniecpol.2
To begin, she boarded a train—sans travel permits—to Koniecpol. With her, she carried a smuggler’s sack full of “merchandise,” and letters and paper money from the Coordinating Committee concealed beneath her belt. Over the course of fifteen hours of travel, she’d had to dodge Nazi inspections, and bribe several Polish officers
to make them forget that she was traveling without permits.
After arriving in Koniecpol, Vladka walked to the group’s hideout. Their landlady—an elderly Gentile woman—led Vladka to a dark barn where thirteen young Jews lay hidden beneath piles of old straw stored on the tiny hayloft; the other ten Czestochowa Jews were dispersed across two other hiding places.
The group was in desperate need of blankets, medicine, food, and money. When Vladka reached them, they were overjoyed to learn that their comrades in Warsaw had not forgotten them. She spoke to them one by one, noting their needs, distributing the money and letters, and taking down the information of those in need of false documents. “Don’t forget about us!” they called out as she left.
Vladka returned to Koniecpol twice a month with money and supplies. Later that year the Coordinating Committee experienced problems receiving their funds from overseas. Without money, Vladka could not travel, and she lost track of the Czestochowa group. When the Committee resolved its pipelines issue, Vladka returned to Koniecpol to find that the group’s landlady had evicted them when they ran out of money.
Once out of their hiding place, the group was almost immediately subject to harassment at the hands of the Polish police and hostile members of Polish partisan groups. They retreated deep into the woods, and when Vladka found them, they resembled “living skeletons, bags of bones who could hardly stand.” Luckily, Vladka, newly arrived Committee funds in hand, quickly located
new hiding places for the group, and secured documentation from the Armja Krajowa stating that the Koniecpol group was officially under their protection. She remained in contact with the group through the end of the war.
Three Jewish partisans in Wyszkow forest near Warsaw, 1944. Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Meanwhile, across Poland, the Nazis were slowly working pockets of isolated Jews to their deaths in forced labor camps. It was Vladka’s mission to infiltrate these camps and set up covert aid networks.3
One major labor camp was in Czestochowa; it held approximately 10,000 Jews.4 Vladka traveled to Czestochowa by train and walked to one of the factories known to exploit Jewish labor. Trusting her instincts, Vladka stopped a few workers as they passed, asking them to deliver a note to a party inside the factory in exchange for money. Eventually, an elderly Polish worker took her up on the offer. Three days later, he returned with a response.
In it, the Jews of Czestochowa wrote that they could hardly believe that Warsaw had not forgotten them. It was signed ‘Jacek’—the code-name of a young Zionist working in the factory. Jacek included in the response the address of a contact: Jan Brust, a Polish factory worker who could serve as a liaison between the Coordinating Committee and the Czestochowa
Jews. Vladka easily established contact with Brust, and went back to Warsaw. A few days later, she returned to Czestochowa with letters and money. Jan Brust smuggled them into the factory, and then collected responses and other communications for Vladka on his way out.
Vladka visited Brust every few weeks with money and letters. Through Brust, she also smuggled medicine, food, and illegal publications into the labor camp.5 Her skill at covert operations was so great that many of the aid recipients never even knew that the supplies were coming from outside the camp. Vladka maintained this aid network until the Red Army liberated the city in January 1945.
The military center of Radom, however, posed more of a challenge. The Jews of Radom, ghettoized beginning in 1941, lived in wooden barracks on the outskirts of town.6 Every day armed guards escorted groups of Jews from the barracks to their work assignments, typically at either the print shop or the munitions plant. Vladka had no contacts in
Radom, and there were too many Nazis in town for Vladka to be able to simply recruit a messenger from outside a factory. This time, she would have to make direct contact with the Jewish workers.
When Vladka arrived in Radom, money and letters concealed on her person, she walked straight to the printing plant. Finding it closed and its entrance guarded, she began to walk the perimeter of the factory. Finally, she located some Jews.
To her luck, the guard on duty was neither a German nor a Ukrainian, but a member of the Jewish police.7 Vladka hurried over to him and asked for a woman named “Meltzer.” When he returned with the woman in question, Vladka whispered to her that she had letters and money from Warsaw. Tears sprang into the young woman’s eyes as she realized the meaning of Vladka’s words: the Jews of Radom were no longer alone.
Meltzer ran to fetch her husband and his brother, and the four of them discussed the organization of a clandestine relief pipeline. Vladka gave the Meltzers the money and letters from the Coordinating Committee, and they wrote a letter back to the Committee stating the community’s needs.
Vladka returned to Warsaw with their letter, and the next time she traveled to Radom she brought 50,000 zlotys, illegal literature, and more letters from the Coordinating Committee with her. That day, there were no Jewish guards on duty. So, Vladka hid her contraband, hitched a smile onto her face, and approached one of the Ukrainian guards to ask permission to buy something from the Jews.8 Though initially brusque, the guard quickly thawed, becoming increasingly chatty and, apparently, into it.
The guard allowed her to approach the fence. She asked the nearby Jews for someone with the surname “Meltzer.“ The guard joined her, loudly inquiring as to whether anyone had any shoes to sell. When Meltzer appeared, Vladka sent another Jew over to distract the guard. When his back was turned, Vladka slipped Meltzer the contraband. He hid it beneath his prison clothes, and promptly
vanished. As he disappeared, another Jew approached with a pair of shoes for sale. Vladka tried them on, continuing her cheerful flirtation with the guard. When his attention was called away, one of the Meltzers slipped Vladka a letter. With this, her mission was complete.
As she left, the guard stopped her to ask if she wanted to hang out later that night. She said yes, but obvs she ghosted. The network she set up with the Meltzers supported the Jews of Radom through the end of the war.
1 To support these activities, the Coordinating Committee received money from the Polish government-in-exile in London and contacts abroad. These parties sent them American dollars through the Polish underground and Gentile allies in Warsaw, and the Committee then converted the dollars into zlotys on the black market. 2 The Czestochowa Ghetto too staged an Uprising, this one on June 27, 1943. The Nazis put it down after four days. Two-thousand died in and from the fighting. The Nazis sent 3900 to labor camps, 1200 to death camps, and shot 400. 3 Slave labor was a large part of the German war economy, and Nazi use of Polish Jewry as slave labor began almost immediately following the occupation of Poland. Though at first, Jewish labor gangs marched to and from work assignments, by 1943 the Germans set up camps specifically for Jewish laborers, generally on the sites of liquidated ghettos, or in barracks set up near major factories and industrial plants. Living and working conditions in the overcrowded camps were harsh, dangerous, and filthy. Jewish laborers were treated in line with the Nazi policy/ideology that Jews, and therefore Jewish workers, were expendable non-humans to be treated in accordance with the goals of the Final Solution; even as the Germans realized that Jewish labor was essential to the war economy. 4 Approximately 28,500 Jews lived in Czestochowa before the War. The Germans established the Czestochowa Ghetto between April and August 1941. At its height, the ghetto contained close to 40,000 people between its walls, comprising both residents of the city and Jews from surrounding areas. The Nazis liquidated the ghetto from September through October 1942, leaving behind some 5,000 male laborers and their families, all deemed capable of work. These laborers lived in a camp built on the remains of the ghetto. They worked in ironworks, ammunitions, textile factories, and a variety of smaller factories and workshops. In late 1944, early 1945, the Germans “evacuated” the Jews to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck ahead of the Soviet lines. 5 Unfortunately, a German guard caught Brust in the act of smuggling, and Brust sustained a fatal wound. Vladka located a new Gentile contact, named Mendzec, who continued to smuggle letters and supplies to the Jews of Czestochowa. 6 The Nazis set up two ghettos in Radom between March and April 1941: the 27,000 person “Main Ghetto” in the city, and the 5,000 person “Small Ghetto” in a nearby suburb. The Nazis liquidated the ghettos between February and August 1942. By the end of August, 2,000 Jews remained in Radom. The Small Ghetto then functioned as a labor camp. In November 1943, the Nazis transferred the surviving workers into 20 shacks, holding a total of 2,450 men and 400 women. The Nazis deported most of them to Auschwitz in June, 1944, and only a few hundred of the Jews from Radom survived the war. 7 The Jewish Police were a Thing that I can’t properly address within the confines of this post. 8 By this point in the war, it was known that a wide variety of clothing items could be cheaply purchased from Jews. It was illegal, and one of the few remaining means by which Jews could make money.
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.
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.”
1 INTERCHANGING MIND CONTROL/COME LET THE/REVOLUTION TAKE ITS TOLL/IF YOU COULD/FLICK A SWITCH AND OPEN YOUR THIRD EYE/YOU’D SEE THAT/WE SHOULD NEVER BE AFRAID TO DIE/SO COME ON 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.
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.
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.