The Passing of Two Titans
Just hours after Sigmund Strochlitz’s family rose from shiva to reenter the world of the living, Ben Meed died and trauma again reverberated through the survivor community. Two giants had fallen; their contributions were singular and monumental. Together they had done so much to advance the cause of remembrance. Their backgrounds and their experiences were different; their commitment to remembrance wholehearted and passionate.
Benjamin Meed was born Benjamin Miedzyrzecki in 1922 to a religious working-class family in Warsaw. At the age of 16, he joined the Jewish Labor Bund. After the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, he escaped with his parents using false papers. Posing as a non-Jew, he joined the underground and met his future wife, Feyge Peltel, a courier for the Warsaw Ghetto resistance who used the nom de guerre of Vladka, a name she later took as her own.
Sigmund Strochlitz was born in the Polish city of Bendzin in 1916. He was raised in a Zionist home and attended a Hebrew High School before entering Krakow’s Jagiellonian University. In 1939, he escaped to the Soviet zone of occupied Poland. He could not, however, bear to be separated from his family, so he returned to Bendzin and was deported to Auschwitz with his family in August 1943. His parents, sisters and wife were killed upon arrival. He spent 15 months in Birkenau and was forcibly evacuated on the death marches in January 1945, first to Stuthoff, later to Hailfingen, Dautmergen and ultimately Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated by the British army in April 1945. Others will write more of their backgrounds, their personal lives, their survival. Permit us to concentrate on their public achievements.
Ben Meed was the unquestioned leader of the survivors’ movement to which he dedicated the last third of his life with every fiber of his being. He was a founder of the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization and through it organized the largest single Yom HaShoah Observance in the United States. With Vladka, his devoted wife of 63 years, and his comrades, he organized the transition of memory so that survivors no longer mourned alone, but were joined by the entire Jewish community and later by powerful civic and religious leaders from all faiths and the general public.
Ben was best known in the survivor community for his role in the “gatherings” of survivors and their descendants. The World Gathering, in Jerusalem in 1981, was conceived in the hell of Auschwitz by Ernest Michel, who with his friends dreamed of one day bringing the survivors together in Jerusalem. To help him realize his dream, he turned to Ben for assistance, for support and, above all, to help him bring the survivors. Ben dove into the project with all his passion, complete dedication and inexhaustible energy. The result was that 5,000 survivors and their descendants from all over the world came together in Jerusalem, to laugh and to cry, to reminisce and to remember — above all, to pass on the survivors’ legacy to their now-adult children. For many, the event brought closure and a measure of peace.
It was then the highest moment in Ben’s life; he never felt better, more alive, more needed and more useful. He wondered if he could do more, achieve more. So when the World Gathering was over, he founded the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors (which now officially includes the addendum “and Their Descendants”) and set about organizing a gathering in Washington, where the survivors could give thanks to America and the new lives it gave them.
Two years later, 20,000 survivors came to Washington, and they captivated the town. President Ronald Reagan addressed them at the Capital Center; Vice President George H.W. Bush spoke to them on Capitol Hill. The newly opened convention center was filled beyond capacity. A “Survivor’s Village” was at its center, organized country by country, city by city, town by town; survivors reunited with their landsmen. A revolutionary computer database of survivors’ names and biographical information was created to facilitate reunification, the brainchild of Ben, a man who could not type and who could barely operate a VCR. The database became the Ben and Vladka Meed National Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It contains 180,000 records from those who survived and their descendants.
Ben was unique. Truly a man of the people, he was more comfortable sitting in the center of a room than on the dais and preferred living in the Bronx with fellow survivors than moving to Manhattan. Disorganized to the core, he kept everything in his head and organized magnificent events involving thousands of people by sheer force of vision and charisma.
Gatherings followed in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. Then there were two special events in Washington — the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the 10th anniversary of its opening, which celebrated the survivors and all they had achieved in America.
Ben worked closely with Sigmund Strochlitz on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and later at the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. While Elie Wiesel was the council’s chairman, Sigmund was indispensable as Wiesel’s eyes and ears. He was Wiesel’s most trusted lieutenant and advisor — who tried to bridge Wiesel’s vision and the tangible challenges of building a museum from the ground up. Strochlitz accomplished those difficult tasks with dedication and skill, utter reliability and absolute selflessness.
Sigmund’s major personal initiative was to lead the effort to establish the Days of Remembrance, the annual commemoration of the Holocaust in the nation’s capital and in states, cities, towns, schools and universities across America. Sigmund put together a simple 90-minute program that has become the universal model for Holocaust commemorations.
Sigmund also discreetly led the campaign, well below the radar screen, to have the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Wiesel. He traveled everywhere and met with anyone he thought could be helpful and gave unsparingly of himself to bring this award to his friend and fellow survivor. He left no written record of these efforts and took the stories with him to the grave.
When Wiesel resigned as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council on the eve of accepting the Nobel in 1986, a crisis ensued. Who could succeed him? Who had the stature to guarantee the museum would be adequate to its task and faithful to Jewish memory? When Baltimore philanthropist and developer Harvey Meyerhoff was appointed chairman in 1987, the crisis deepened. Surely, Meyerhoff would be able to construct a building and funds would be raised, but who would provide the link to the Shoah? Who would provide spiritual leadership and credibility? Who would rise to the challenge?
Ben Meed stepped forward and made the most difficult and most important decision of his public career. He risked his reputation, his good name and, more importantly, the trust of the survivors — for he had to make good on his promises to them. He assumed the chairmanship of the council’s content committee, composed of survivors and scholars from all over the world. He never let those working with him forget his promise to his fellow survivors to make sure the museum reflected the specifically Jewish character of the Holocaust. He became the neshama, the soul, of the project.
Last week, hundreds of survivors and their descendents gathered once more, in New York’s Park East Synagogue, for Ben’s funeral. They flew in from Israel, from California, from Texas and Florida and South America. As they sat in the sanctuary, listening and watching his family members and comrades speak, there was the realization that an era is coming to an end. A generation of titans is being stilled.
Ben Meed and Sigmund Strochlitz grew in public life. They rose to prominence in the Sixties and Seventies, and as they did more and gave more, they became more.
Today, the survivors are aging and many are frail, but the task of insuring the legacy of the Holocaust and the centrality of its Jewish memory has not ended. It will need to be assumed by the generations that follow, more collectively than individually, together rather than alone. We will need to learn how to lead as they did, and we will have to move all too swiftly, as the march of time takes us from the realm of personal memory to that of historical memory.
Miles Lerman is chairman emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and Professor of Theology at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.