December 29, 1921, is the birth date of Vladka Meed, smuggler extraordinaire for the sake of Warsaw’s Jews during the Holocaust.
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As a young woman in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, Meed became a courier for the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ZOB), smuggling children and information out, and guns, money and dynamite in to the ghetto. After World War II, she became an early and leading Holocaust witness and educator.
She was born as Feigele Peltel to Hanna and Shlomo Peltel, in the Warsaw neighborhood of Praga. Shlomo was a garment worker. Feigele was educated in the Folkshul, a secular Jewish school whose language of instruction was Yiddish. She joined the Zukunft, the youth movement of the Jewish Labor Organization, or Bund, and also learned fluent Polish, a skill that would serve her well in the resistance..
The Germans established the Warsaw Ghetto in the fall of 1940. In the second half of 1942 they began the process of deporting at least 254,000 of its inhabitants to the Treblinka death camp. These included Feigele’s mother, sister and brother, all of whom died in the camp. Shlomo Peltel died of pneumonia in the ghetto.
Little left to fear
After losing her entire family, Feigele, who worked as a machine operator for the occupiers, was filled with despair. But according to Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum, a close friend of Feigele and her husband, she regained spirit after hearing Abrasha Blum, a member of the Jewish Coordinating Committee (which sought to unite the ghetto’s disparate political organizations) talk about the need for armed resistance. At that point, she told Berenbaum, “there was very little left to fear.”
With her knowledge of Polish and her “Aryan” appearance, Feigele was a good candidate to be a courier, as she could move freely outside the ghetto without attracting much suspicion. Adopting the nom de guerre of Vladka, she began ferrying information about the ghetto and the deportations — as well as a map of Treblinka — to the outside world, returning with money, guns and explosives. She also helped spirit out of the ghetto Jewish children, who were placed with non-Jewish families.
When the final battle of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt took place, in late April 1943, Vladka was outside, pretending to enjoy a ride on an amusement-park carousel while watching smoke rising from the ghetto.
After the war, Vladka and her husband, Benjamin Meed, whom she had met in the ghetto and recruited into the ZOB, immigrated to the United States. They reached New York on the Marine Flasher, the second ship to bring Jewish survivors to America, in May 1946. There, Benjamin Meed launched a successful import-export business.
In 1948, Vladka published a memoir in Yiddish. Called “On Both Sides of the Wall,” it was based on a series of articles she wrote in 1946-47 for The Forward.
She remained active in the Jewish Labor Committee, the American equivalent of the Bund, in New York, and became a leader in Holocaust education. Beginning in the 1980s, she collaborated with teachers’ groups on a program to bring educators to Poland and Israel to learn about the subject. In 1981, she and Benjamin started the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, a large umbrella organization for survivors. Under its auspices, they organized regular meetings in both the United States and Israel.
Benjamin Meed died in 2006. Vladka Meed died on November 21, 2012, after suffering for some time from Alzheimer’s disease.