Remembering Vladka Meed

By Masha Leon

Published February 21, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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“This is a celebration of a life lived,” said David Posner, senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, in his invocation at the February 3 “Memorial and Celebration of an Extraordinary Life — Vladka Meed, 1921–2012,” held at the synagogue’s Lowenstein Auditorium. Vladka Meed was a leader in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; she died in Phoenix on November 21, 2012, just before her 91st birthday. Meed’s son, Steven Meed welcomed the overflow crowd, and her daughter, Anna Meed Scherzersang Yiddish songs accompanied on a keyboard by Zalmen Mlotek, artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene. The grandchildren of Vladka and Ben Meed recalled moments with their beloved grandmother..

“Vladka hardly ever talked of her own family during the war,” said Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., “but in a rare moment, she spoke to me about her mother in the ghetto suffering from such extreme hunger that her face was swollen under her eyes.” Meed also told her that every week, her mother saved slices of bread to give to an old man in exchange for bar mitzvah lessons for Meed’s younger brother, unfortunately, that bar mitzvah never happened. Bloomfield said that Meed told her, “During the war, my mother taught me what it means to be human.” About her own relationship with Meed, Bloomfield said, “Vladka taught me, as she did many people, what it means to be human.” Susan Myers, executive director of Holocaust Museum Houston, added: “She has changed our lives. We’ll never forget her.”

Michael Berenbaum, founding project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, relayed Meed’s biographical details:

“Born Feyge Peltel in Praga — a district of Warsaw — she joined the youth arm of the Jewish Labor Bund at 14 and was thereafter a Bund activist through the time of the creation of the ghetto. She joined the ZOB Jewish Fighting Organization after the great deportations of the summer of 1942, when more than 265,000 Jews were shipped from Warsaw to Treblinka…. Vladka worked as a courier, smuggling arms into the ghetto and helping children escape out of it…. In her writings, she alludes to the loneliness and pressure of her double life….’You can be my friend,’ she says to Benjamin Miedzyrzecki (Meed), who later became her husband, ‘because if I don’t come back, I want someone to know that I was missing.’ Vladka was one of the first survivors to arrive in the United States in 1946…. She traveled and spoke widely as an eyewitness to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and in 1948 she published ‘On Both Sides of the Wall’ in Yiddish. The book, translated into English, remains in print 63 years later.”

Roman Kent, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, extolled Meed’s imperative “to transmit that the “6 million were not just a number.”

Elaine Culbertson, co-director of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program, said of Meed: “It was her brilliant idea to educate teachers about the Holocaust… Nearly 1,000 teachers, from every state in the nation, have attended the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers Program. These teachers have, in turn, influenced many thousands of students in the past 28 years. As Vladka’s generation of eyewitnesses leaves us, those who have taken this on must work even harder to retell and emphasize the heroism of daily life.”

I was asked to speak on the topic “Vladka in her Yiddish World.” In preparing for my speech, I realized that — most likely — I would be the only one present who remembered her from prewar Warsaw; she was my babysitter when she was a teenager. We reconnected in New York in 1946, and she became a treasured friend. One time, when I visited her during her illness, she mistook me for one of her Polish caregivers. When I spoke Yiddish, she seemed to suddenly change, and she spoke passionately about the teachers program she had created and the urgency to spread the message of the Holocaust. When her aide interrupted in Polish, Meed’s memory door suddenly slammed shut.

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