Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A life in the shadows

We've encountered heroes of the Polish and Jewish resistance against Nazi Germany in these pages before.  Now comes word of the death, late last year, of another such heroine.  The Telegraph reports:

Vladka [Meed] was born Feigele Peltel on December 29 1921 and was still a teenager when she and her family were frogmarched into the [Warsaw] ghetto. She recalled that despite all the suffering, ghetto life was rich with clandestine cultural activities. “Some just refused to commit suicide, continued to educate their children in secret, celebrated their holidays,” she wrote in On Both Sides of the Wall (1948), one of the first major eyewitness accounts of the destruction of Warsaw’s pre-war Jewish community.

She attended literature classes, remembering “the atmosphere, the elevation, being together with the people and talking about the writer and the character”. It was, she explained, a way to “hold on to culture and history so that the spirit should not be crushed”. The subsequent uprising had only been possible, she felt, because of this “inner preparation to stand up against the enemy”.

She witnessed the deportations that took place between July and September 1942, when between 250,000 and 300,000 ghetto residents were sent to their deaths in Treblinka, including her own mother, 13-year-old brother and married sister. In an almost unbearably moving account she recalled: “Running behind the last van, a lone woman, arms outstretched, screamed: 'My child! Give back my child!’ In reply, a small voice called from the van: 'Mama! Mama!’”

At first no one knew the fate of the deportees: “Nobody imagined any gas chambers. They thought they were going away to work,” she recalled. “When rumours of the truth began to circulate people did not believe them.”

Feigele Peltel survived because, due to a labour shortage in Warsaw, she was allowed to leave the ghetto to work in a tailor’s shop sewing Nazi uniforms. But as news began to arrive of the true fate of the deportees, she joined the Jewish Combat Organisation (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa), and assumed the personality of Vladka, an ethnic Pole, so that she could move freely on the Christian side of the wall. With her light-coloured hair and Aryan features she was able to maintain the pretence for almost three years. As a woman she had a further advantage: men were often exposed as Jews by the fact that they were circumcised.

For the next few months Vladka bought black market weapons and ammunition, paid for with rings, watches and other valuables, which she then smuggled into the ghetto: “I would smuggle dynamite and gasoline for the bombs past the gates. We would wrap it up in greasy paper as if it was meat. Or sometimes we would just bribe a Nazi guard.”

According to the Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, it was Vladka Meed who brought the news that confirmed the worst – that trains filled with Jews were returning empty from Treblinka, that no food was being shipped into the camp and that there was an all-pervasive stench of burning and rotting flesh.

Vladka Meed sometimes managed to smuggle out Jewish children to be placed with sympathetic Christian families, but she claimed that most ethnic Poles were unsympathetic: “Quite a large number of them were openly anti-Semitic and even, in a way, having satisfaction,” she said in 1973.

Vladka observed the uprising from relative safety outside the ghetto and watched the end of one group of captured Jews: “At the ghetto wall stood a bearded, kaftaned 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 fighting lasted for 28 days during which the bullets and improvised bombs of the Jews were met by the tools of industrial warfare: machine guns, tanks and flame throwers. The rebellion ended in the complete destruction of the ghetto, which Vladka had to watch while pretending to enjoy a fairground ride. “People who participated in the armed resistance knew they were going to die,” she wrote. “What was important to them was they wanted to choose the way they died.”

There's more at the link.

Vladka became well-known after the war for her 1948 memoir, 'On Both Sides Of The Wall'.  Her testimony was recorded by the Shoah Foundation in 1996.  It's over two hours in length, but is well worth the time it takes to watch it, so I've embedded it below.  It's a remarkable testimony to her courage and perseverance.

We are diminished by her loss.  May she rest in peace.


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