Wednesday, June 27, 2012

One of the books we were asked to read prior to our trip was "On Both Sides of the Wall" by Vladka Meed.  She is one of the founders of this teachers' seminar and some of the places we will visit were alluded to in her book.  She spent the war, passing as an Aryan (non-Jew), literally climbing over the wall between Warsaw and the Warsaw Ghetto- helping as many Jews as she could to survive the war. Several times she would be on top of the wall, about to go over, when the Germans would appear and she just had to hope that they wouldn't notice her there.   You understand the stress of what they went through as you read this book- fear of the Nazis finding you out,  fear of someone turning you in, fear of someone close to you turning informant, fear of losing your family through deportation to the death camps and finally fear that all the work you were doing would be for nothing.  As someone in the book cried "Dear God.  Put an end to this misery!"

In 1940, after Germany conquered Poland, Vladka and her family were forced to move into the Warsaw Ghetto.  There she witnessed the deportations (from Umschlagplatz) of most of the Jews in the ghetto, including her family; instances of blackmail, where German soldiers would take money or other valuable possessions from the Jews under the guise of saving them, only to be shipped out anyway and brutal beatings and killings of the Jews right there in the ghetto. For each of these instances, the people had to decide - do you go with the Germans, go into hiding or trust your children with strangers that promise to save them from the camps. Vladka and others were able to save themselves for a while as they were valued workers (seamstresses) for the German military.  One day she was approached by leaders of the Jewish underground and asked if she would be willing to help as she could pass as an Aryan (non-Jew).  For the rest of the war, she pretended to be the average Polish citizen, working to help Jews escape the ghetto, supply those in hiding with food, save the children by getting them to churches and orphanages and provide weapons (revolvers, grenades and material for Molotov cocktails) for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  The most famous of the Jewish resistance attempts, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising lasted for 2 weeks with many deaths on both the German and Jewish sides.  While the ghetto was aflame, "on the balcony of the second floor of a burning house stood a woman, wringing her hands.  She disappeared into the building and a moment later returned carrying a child and dragging a featherbed, which she flung to the sidewalk.  Obviously, she meant to jump, or perhaps to drop the child, hoping the featherbed would break the fall.  Clutching the child, she started to climb over the railing.  Amid the spray of bullets she slumped.  The child dropped to the street.  The woman's lifeless body remained draped over the railing."  (144)  The 70 or so survivors fled into the surrounding woods, where Vladka continued to supply them with food and news.  

Toward the end, as the Russians were battling the Germans over control of Poland, Vladka and her future husband, Benjamin Meed were able to escape and thus survive the war.  However, when they returned to Warsaw in 1978, she was distressed to see that nothing was there to commemorate what happened to the Warsaw Jews or to relate the story of those who courageously resisted the Nazis.  "Nothing.  Nothing was left me of my past, of my life in the ghetto--not even the grave of my father."  With that insight came her lifelong passion of teaching others about the resistance efforts of some.  For me, this part of the Holocaust is sorely missing as students often ask why didn't they do more to stop it?  With this book and the summer seminar, we will learn that they did resist and did so valiantly.

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