Vladka Meed, courier for the Jewish resistance during WWII, dies at 90


Vladka Meed was a freedom fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of World War II. She died at 90. (Family photo)
November 22, 2012

Vladka Meed, a courier and weapons smuggler for the Jewish resistance in Poland during World War II who published a harrowing early chronicle of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, died Nov. 21 at her daughter’s home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. She was 90.

The death was confirmed by her son, Steven Meed. The cause was Alzheimer’s disease.

Mrs. Meed was born Feigel Peltel in Warsaw on Dec. 29, 1921. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, she and hundreds of thousands of other Jews were systematically rounded up and forced into a squalid Warsaw ghetto of one square mile.

Thousands starved to death, others fought and died for scraps, and others were beaten and killed by the Germans in mass executions. Rooms in the ghetto were crammed, food allotments amounted to less than 200 calories a day and corpses decayed on the streets.

“To remain a human being in the ghetto one had to live in constant defiance, to act illegally,” Mrs. Meed told the Jewish newspaper the Forward in 1995. “We had illegal synagogues, illegal classes, illegal meetings and illegal publications.

“We were trying to live through the war, the hard times, in the ways which were known to us before the war,” she said. “Nobody imagined any gas chambers. Jewish resistance took different forms and shapes under Nazi occupation. Our defiance of the Germans, who wanted to dehumanize us, expressed itself in varied ways.”

Mrs. Meed was largely on her own after 1942. Her father, a garment worker, died of pneumonia in the ghetto, and her mother and two siblings perished at the Treblinka death camp after a period of mass deportations from the ghetto.

Mrs. Meed joined the Jewish Fighting Organization, known by its Polish initials ZOB. With her Aryan looks and fluency in Polish, she passed as a gentile, using forged identification papers, and lived for extended periods amid the ethnic Polish population. Her code name was Vladka, a name she kept for the rest of her life.

It was horrifying to discover the apathy of most Poles to the fate of the Jews. “I lived among them for a quite a while as a Pole,” she told The Washington Post in 1973. “Most of them were indifferent. Quite a large number of them were openly anti-Semitic and even, in a way, having satisfaction” with the ghetto extermination.

She worked on both sides of the ghetto walls to obtain weapons and ammunition on the black market and find hiding places for children and adults. She also acted as a courier for the Jewish underground, hiding documents in her shoe.

One bulletin confirmed reports that Jews reportedly being “resettled” from the Russian front were in fact being gassed to death in showers at Treblinka. Once, she recalled, she was nearly found out by a guard who ordered her to remove her shoes. She was saved only after another guard suddenly shouted that a Jew had escaped from the ghetto.

The Treblinka message conveyed the urgency of what likely awaited the remaining ghetto dwellers. By the end of 1942, the Germans allowed only 35,000 Jews permission to remain in the ghetto, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Several thousand more remained there in hiding, rather than risk certain death.

A resistance force of several hundred fighters grew. The fighters were armed with homemade bombs and other weapons, and they were determined to put up a violent final stand against the German plan to fully empty the ghetto.

Mrs. Meed smuggled weapons and ammunition in preparation for the uprising that launched on April 19, 1943. Fighting lasted 27 days and ended with the ghetto annihilated.

“We didn’t have any possibility the outside world is going to come and liberate us,” she told a Knight-Ridder reporter in 1993. “So it was doomed from the beginning. . . . We didn’t want to die. No. But we said, ‘This is the way to act. This we have to do.’ ”

Afterward, she helped arrange for hiding places for the survivors. She remained in Poland until the Russians liberated the country toward the end of the war. In 1945, she married Benjamin Miedzyrzeck, another resistance member, and they made their way to American lines.

The next year, they came to the United States on a boat of displaced persons through the aid of the Jewish Labor Committee. They officially changed their names to Benjamin and Vladka Meed in the 1950s.

Ben Meed died in 2006 at 88. Survivors include two children, Dr. Anna Scherzer of Paradise Valley and Dr. Steven Meed of Manhattan; and five grandchildren.

The Meeds landed in New York in 1946 with $8 between them. He eventually started an import-export business and served on a board that helped establish the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

In 1981, her husband co-founded the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and helped compile a national registry of Jewish Holocaust survivors that is now maintained by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

If her husband often played a more public role in Holocaust remembrance, Mrs. Meed achieved a strong legacy through the force of her writing and lecturing for six decades.

She contributed articles to the Forward, became a vice president of the Jewish Labor Committee and in 1984 started a national teacher-training program on the Holocaust that highlighted the role of the Warsaw resistance.

She liked to correct misperceptions that armed resistance was the only type that thrived in the ghetto. Her mother, she told the Forward, performed “an act of spiritual resistance” by continuing her son’s religious-education training in the ghetto and paying the private tutor with scraps of bread.

Steven Meed said such “quiet resistance” was what his mother most profoundly taught him, namely how to “maintain your dignity, educate your children and contribute to society — doing all those things that made you a person in the face of hell.”

In 1948, Mrs. Meed wrote one of the first book-length eyewitness accounts of the Warsaw ghetto and the valiant, desperate and ultimately futile uprising.

She observed the uprising from relative safety outside the ghetto.

“I watched a small group of captured Jews, utterly crushed, drag themselves slowly through the streets of the ghetto, prodded and pushed by an angry group of Ukrainian guards,” she wrote in her book, “On Both Sides of the Wall,” first published in Yiddish. (An English translation appeared in 1972, with a foreword by author Elie Wiesel, followed by translations in other languages including Polish, German and Japanese.)

“At the ghetto wall stood a bearded, caftaned Hassid and his small son,” she wrote. “The guards separated the two, but the boy ran back and clung fiercely to the father. A German raised his carbine, then smiling, separated the two once more. Again the child darted back, and the German burst into laughter. Then father embraced his child in sheer despair. Several shots rang out — and the two remained together, even in death.

“The ghetto fought on. . . .

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”