Vladka Meed, a model of resistance during the Holocaust and afterward, died on Nov. 21. She was 90 years old.
Born in 1921, Vladka was one of the first to testify about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. During those days she smuggled children out of the ghetto to safety, carried guns and messages, and lord knows what else. In 1947, after the war, she wrote her memoirs in Yiddish, and she became a moving force behind the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Fighter’s Organization.
I came to know her and her husband, Ben, during that second stage of their life, when they were fighting to preserve the memory and lessons of the Holocaust. I was an activist in the group of survivors’ children called Second Generation- a 2G, to use the term coined by their son, Steve. Later I worked directly with them at the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, an organization that was built by Ben and others, but mostly by Ben.
Every 2G in the land was Vladka’s son or daughter. The thousands of teachers who took her Holocaust courses and traveled with her – they, too, were her children.
Vladka was a force to be reckoned with. No one who knew her, including Steve, would say she was easy. As Steve put it so beautifully at her funeral in Cedar Park in Paramus, she was difficult for all the right reasons. She was a fighter, and she fought hard.
When Ben died about five years ago, people talked about the irresistible force and the immovable object. (You never, ever wanted to get caught between them!) The two of them were determined to give over the legacy and culture of the holy ones who were murdered – never perished, all were murdered – in the Holocaust and to plant the seeds of that Yiddish culture in America.
Vladka was passionate about Yiddishkeit. When she lived in the Bronx, her neighbors were Motl and Chana Mlotek, guardians of Yiddish music, songs, and theater. What they shared was expressed by Vladka in a speech in 1983 at the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their families in the nation’s capital, where she hosted a major presentation-a fantastic variety show that featured the best of our performing arts and literature.
“We are here-eyewitnesses of the Nazi inferno; witnesses to a pulsating Jewish culture that existed, and then was cut down. It was a tradition of splendor. A life full of creativity, of learning, of faith in the rights of the human being and in the righteousness of the world. A tradition cut down but never destroyed.
“In this land where we live today, the spirit of freedom for all was inscribed on the great Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The same spirit was also close to us in the world from which we came. Its sound was heard in the idealistic Jewish youth from political ranks who became the core of the resistance fighters in the ghettos, in the forests, in the camps. They drew their idealism and their strength from the wellspring of our cultural treasures, which gave meaning and exaltation to their lives.”
Just three years ago, Vladka gave one of her final speeches at the Teaneck Yom HaShoah commemoration. Although she had already begun her decline, she still was able to express the passion for her subject, her dedication to her legacy, and was able to do so because she had that strong sense of determination. She was going to get the job done right, no matter what.
Vladka knew what she wanted and she would never give up until she got it. I learned from her that if you can’t get through the wall, you go under, above, to the left, to the right, whatever it takes to get to the other side. She pursued justice, and she was one tough cookie. That’s how she got through everything.
If she wanted to make a point, she would sit you down, grab your hand, and hang on until she made sure you got it. Sometimes she’d make you want to bang your head against the wall – and I could sometimes see dents in other heads as well as my own. But most of the time she was right. And she made things happen.
Vladka and Ben Meed’s efforts to commemorate the Holocaust and teach its lessons so soon after the war led us to where we are today in Holocaust education and commemoration. Almost every commemoration is modeled after WAGRO’s pioneering efforts. The most notable one is the Days of Remembrance, held in the Capitol building in Washington. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Mall and so many other institutions that are devoted to preserving the memory of the Holocaust exist because of them. By remembering with such dignity the lives lost in Europe, by their dedication for facts and accuracy, the Meeds taught all of us to appreciate who we are as Jews.
She said it best: “Even in the very shadow of death, our people continued to create. They studied, they wrote, they learned Torahâ€¦ The souls of the tortured could not be stifled. Poetry still spoke through our lips, and music still came from our throats. Even as the smoke rose from the ovens, our children painted on scraps of paper and wrote poems about butterflies which could no longer be seen in the ghettoâ€¦. Our people struggled to preserve their love of goodness-of humanity-of God.
“We carry this heritage with us everywhere. It has helped us find a new place for ourselves in America where we rebuilt our homes and families. America – the infinite variety of this great land, with its many races, creeds and nationalities – has enriched us all. And our Jewish cultural heritage has enriched America and the entire world.â€¦
“We are here – we Jews who survived. We are here to teach, to learn, to remember, to rebuild – to join hands among ourselves and with all other people in the world in celebration of the continuity of life.â€¦ We maintain the legacy of a people who never gave up, even in the darkest hours, and we shall preserve that memory for future generations.”
Now the obligation to give over that legacy has been lifted from Vladka’s shoulders and transferred to ours. Ben and Vladka are gone. Others are leaving us every day. An era is ending. Our heroes are dying.
Who will lead us?
We will have to lead ourselves. That’s something I learned from Vladka, too.
Vladka Meed is survived by her daughter Anna Scherzer, her son Steven Meed, her daughter-in-law Rita Meed, her son-in-law Joseph Scherzer, and five grandchildren, Jeannine and Michael Scherzer and Jessica, Chava, and Jonathan Meed.