Since the founding of the USC Shoah Foundation in 1994, more than 56,000 survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have recorded their testimonies for our Visual History Archive. As we mark our 30th anniversary year, we highlight some of these remarkable stories by sharing a curated selection from our Voices from the Archive series.  A version of this article originally appeared in 2021 connected to an event on women resistance fighters (watch the event and read more profiles here).

She Smuggled Love, Hope, and Dynamite Over the Ghetto Walls

Tue, 03/12/2024 - 10:40am

Not long after Feigele (Vladka) Peltel’s father died of pneumonia in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, the 17-year-old found herself at a lecture about Yiddish author I.L. Peretz hosted by her social democratic youth group, Tsukunft (The Future). She doesn’t precisely remember the talk, but she does recall the energy in the room.

“I still remember the atmosphere, the uplift, that in the ghetto—with so much starvation and the typhoid epidemic which started and hunger and misery—we were talking about literature. And a young girl was talking to older people, and they were listening... And this kind of hope was constantly in the life of the ghetto.”

Vladka saw “this kind of hope” in the secret schools that arose after the Nazis prohibited Jews’ access to education. She saw it in the way youth groups organized in the Warsaw Ghetto, which at its height held 500,000 people. And she saw it in her mother, in the way she kept their home neat and her children fed despite having no money, no soap and hot water, and no husband.

“It was not the guns and the revolt. But it was the inner strength, it was the tradition, the morality, the ethic which our mothers lived and our generations before us lived, and it was expressed in simple, little things, in 1,000 instances of resistance [that] we take it for granted,” Vladka said in a 1996 interview for the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.

In her testimony, Vladka said much of that initial hope felt in the Warsaw Ghetto was crushed on July 22, 1942, when the deportations from Warsaw began, and, building by building, block by block, the Germans began clearing out the ghetto. Between July and September 1942, the Nazis deported more than 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. Vladka’s mother, Hanna, her younger sister, Henia, and her little brother, Chaim, were among those forced out of their homes and taken away in cattle cars.

By October 1942, when deportations paused, more than 20 youth groups and underground units had coalesced into a united front. And Vladka channeled her despair at losing her family into fighting the Nazis.

With her light complexion and high cheekbones, Vladka was asked to operate outside the ghetto, disguised as a Polish woman. Over the next few months, Vladka bribed guards and used secret passages to sneak in and out of the ghetto. She smuggled weapons in phony bottles and dynamite wrapped in greasy paper to look like butter. What she smuggled out of the ghetto was just as important: information that had come through the underground, including the first reports that nearly everyone deported to Treblinka was killed on arrival — a devastating realization for Vladka about her own family’s fate.

She had one of the first maps of the Treblinka death camp in her shoe when she met Benjamin Miedzyrzecki (later shortened to Meed), whom she recruited to work for the resistance. The two fell in love, even among the death and despair around them.

“It was very important that I knew that I have somebody so close who cares, who, if I will not exist, is a person who will find out maybe, who will look for me,” Vladka said.

When the Nazis restarted deportations from Warsaw in January 1943, Jewish defiance disrupted German efforts. The resistance received word of a final deportation just before Passover, and on April 19, 1943, some 700 young Jewish fighters fought back at German troops entering the ghetto.

When the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started, Vladka was outside of the ghetto, still disguised as a Pole. She managed to get in contact with uprising leaders, and she began working to distribute appeals for help to resistance organizations outside the ghetto. But in the process, she and uprising leader Abraham Blum were arrested. With the help of her Polish collaborator, Vladka was able to get away. Abraham Blum was murdered by the Gestapo.

After weeks of hand-to-hand combat, the Germans began burning and leveling buildings. From the balcony of an apartment outside the ghetto walls, Vladka heard the gunfire, saw black smoke, and watched people jumping from windows.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was quashed after 27 days. Some 7,000 Jews were killed, and 42,000 were deported. On May 16, the Nazis blew up the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, once the largest Jewish house of worship in the world. The entire ghetto had been destroyed.

Over the following months, Vladka and Benjamin worked to extricate fighters from underground bunkers in the rubble and those in hiding outside the ghetto. They helped get money and provisions to Jews in hiding, to partisan units, and to resistance cells in camps and ghettos around Poland.

In August 1944, Vladka fought alongside Poles in the Polish Uprising in Warsaw, a two-month battle between the Polish Home Army and the Germans. Vladka, Ben, and his parents survived disguised as Christians for the remaining few months of the war in a small village.

After the war, Vladka and Ben went back to Warsaw to find the few Jews who had survived in hiding and then moved to Łodz, where Vladka became the director of the Jewish Cultural Department, which was responsible for organizing the Jews who were trickling back into the city to look for lost family members.

Among those survivors in Łodz, Vladka saw the same signs of hope she had seen in the early days of the Warsaw ghetto—survivors still willing to pray, still wanting to live, to love, to sing.

“None of my family survived. Absolutely nobody. But…I organized at that time, the first Jewish event of…survivors for survivors. I did it with all my soul, what I still had in me.  And with Jewish songs,” Vladka said in her testimony.

Vladka and Benjamin married in 1945 and moved to New York City the following year. A series of 27 articles Vladka wrote for the Yiddish Daily Forward became one of the earliest chronicles of the Holocaust. In 1948, she published a book, On Both Sides of the Wall, which was translated from Yiddish in 1972.

Benjamin, who died in 2006, gave his testimony to the Visual History Archive in 1999. Vladka and Benjamin had two children and five grandchildren and were founders of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, were involved in the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and created numerous educational, remembrance, and survivor resource organizations.

Vladka died in 2012.

For all the valor Vladka saw among the resistance fighters, in her testimony it was her mother and other mothers, she wanted to honor.

“We talk about uprising. We talk about resistance. …But about these simple, quiet, and dedicated souls, we give very little attention. And I think history has to see them a little bit more sharp, as they were.”

Read about resistance fighter Faye Schulman.

Read about resistance fighter Anna Heilman.

See Vladka Meed’s full testimony here.

Vladka Meed’s story was featured in The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion. Watch Judy Batalion in conversation with Nancy Spielberg at a June 2021 event hosted by the USC Shoah Foundation, in partnership with Writer's Bloc and Holocaust Museum LA.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.