Every death embodies a world of loss, but the passing this week of Benjamin Meed at age 88 leaves a void that can never be filled.
A quiet, soft-spoken man in his private life, Meed was a towering presence in the public sphere, combining indomitable will, matchless organizational skill and, most of all, lifelong heroism. Born in Warsaw, he was forced into slave labor by the Nazis and then herded into the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was recruited into the underground by his future wife, Vladka. Together they carried out vital tasks for the resistance against inhuman odds.
But his greatest contribution to the defeat of the Nazis came after the war, when he emerged as an essential figure — many say the essential figure — in the worldwide movement for Holocaust remembrance. The list of his accomplishments is nothing short of breathtaking. He founded the first major postwar survivors’ organization, the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization, or Wagro. He was a key planner of the historic World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1981 in Israel. He founded the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, the main survivors’ representative body, in 1983 and led it almost until his death. He served on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany; in both places he managed, by the force of his personality, to establish the primacy of the survivors’ voice in Holocaust affairs, fighting for their interests and insisting that their views be heard. He was a forceful leader in many other spheres of Jewish life, as well, including our own Forward Association.
It is often said that with the passage of time, the generation of Holocaust survivors is inexorably passing from the stage, leaving the telling of their story to later generations and relegating their nightmares to history. Ben Meed was the very embodiment of that generation. His death leaves us all poorer, and bereft.