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.