Sunday, November 25, 2012


There was a time not so long ago that my Sunday morning rituals included a pot of coffee, a couple of newspapers, and Ella Fitzgerald records. For over 25 years, one of those newspapers was the New York Times. That paper, and worthwhile newspapers in general, are far too expensive to purchase now. This past winter, there was a special discount for the Times' online service at 99 cents per month. I signed up, carefully creating automated notes which would be sent to myself to cancel the account as the deal's expiration date neared. Their gambit has paid off, and I have yet to end my service; even though the price has gone up, it is still cheaper per month than purchasing just two editions of their Sunday paper. One of the differences between the online and newsprint edition is that online some of the features stay around for a bit. And so it was that this morning I read an obituary published yesterday of an everyday woman who did remarkable things.

Her name was Vladka Meed. She born Feigele Peltel in Warsaw, Poland. She was a teenager when the Germans walled off Jewish portions of the city into a over packed ghetto of misery and despair. She was working as a seamstress sewing Nazi uniforms when the round up and deportation of Jews to the Treblinka camp 190 miles away began. When members of her family were taken, she joined the Resistance. With Aryan looks, she was recruited to live on the Christian side of the wall, adopting the code name Vladka. She helped circulate information that something was wrong at Treblinka - trains filled with Jews sent to the camp would return empty, but no food or clothing was being shipped there. She began smuggling goods into the ghetto, and children out. Most of such activity was performed by women who could pass as Aryan - men were readily identified as Jews by their circumcisions. She purchased and smuggled across the wall guns, bullets, gasoline for bombs, dynamite and other contraband which helped arm the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis. Ordered not to take part in the four month uprising's final battle, she watched the smoke rising from the ghetto while pretending to enjoy a ride on a carousel. She would later note that with death all but certain, "there was little left to fear."

After the war, her book, "On Both Sides Of The Wall", was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the uprising published. She and her husband, Benjamin Miedzyrzecki (a resistance fighter who had escaped while on a forced work detail and who smuggled many people, including his future wife, to safety) made their way to the United States with $8.00 between them. Around 1950, they changed their last name to Meed. They worked to make people aware of what had happened in Europe. At a time when most people wanted to forget, they started the reunions and registry of Holocaust survivors, and were instrumental in creating the Washington DC and New York City Holocaust museums and memorials. Benjamin died in 2006; during the last few years Vladka slowly declined into Alzheimer's disease. I wonder if it was a blessing.

When I was younger, I always thought that such action in the face of evil was an easy choice. It never occurred to me to think otherwise. But I recall a shameful moment in the late 1970's, early 1980's. I was walking down 6th Avenue in New York City with friends at 2 in the morning. A young man was walking alone a half a block in front of us. Suddenly two other men crossed the street, and to yells of "faggot!" broke a bottle over the head of the man who had been walking by himself. I yelled "let's get them" and started off after them. My friends grabbed me and held me back, telling me not to get involved. The two bashers ran away while their victim walked steadily forward, never stopping, never looking back. To this day I wonder why I let my friends stop me, why we didn't beat the shit out of the bashers, or hold them for arrest. And it makes me wonder, in similar circumstances to hers, would I really be able to show the everyday courage of a Vladka Meed?


Anonymous said...

If I put that question to myself.....I doubt very much that I would be able to do a fraction of what she did. I would probably hide away shaking in terror. What gives people such courage I wonder?

Austan said...

I like to think I would. Mostly I'm just glad to not have to find out. At least today.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

What an extraordinary woman. I like to believe that in extreme circumstances, ordinary people are capable of demonstrating extreme courage. Most of their stories are never told. It's good that you told this one.

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