Feiga Peltel-Międzyrzecka (Vladka Meed): courier of the JCO
At POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, we wish to remember those Jews who helped other Jews on the “Aryan side” in occupied Poland. The Yad Vashem Institute does not honour these people with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, as that title is only bestowed upon non-Jews. They, also, are Righteous, as understood in the broad and universal accepted sense of the word – they are people who opposed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. They also defended dignity and human rights. Read the story of Feiga Peltel-Międzyrzecka (Vladka Meed) from the Polish Righteous website section: Jews helping other Jews on the “Aryan side”.
In December 1942, Feiga Peltel-Międzyrzecka (known as Vladka Meed after the war), a liaison of the Jewish Combat Organisation (Polish: Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa, ŻOB), reached the so-called “Aryan side” in Warsaw, where she collected weapons for the Jewish underground movement and helped Jews in hiding. Her tasks included arranging photographs necessary to produce forged identity documents and taking Jewish children out of the ghetto and finding shelter for them. For several months, she operated on both sides of the ghetto wall.
“It was impossible to determine the exact number of [Jews] in hiding. There was talk of thirty or even forty thousand in Warsaw and its environs alone. However, we were not in touch with everyone, there were in fact many people of whose existence we did not even have the faintest idea, not to mention the fact that the Committee [Jewish Coordination Committee – ed.] was unable to provide help to all those who needed it,” she wrote in her memoirs titled Po obu stronach muru (Polish: On Both Sides of the Wall).
Jewish resistance movement in the Warsaw Ghetto
On 20 October 1942, the Coordination Committee was established in the Warsaw Ghetto. It was a federation of the Jewish National Committee and Bund (the General Jewish Workers’ Union). Jewish underground organisations of all political leanings – whether Zionist, socialist or communist – came together in order to start talks with the Home Army (Polish: Armia Krajowa) command about the potential defence of the ghetto, which was to be carried out in response to the upcoming German liquidation action.
“Feigele, you don’t look Jewish,” said Abrasha Bluma, member of the Committee Presidium, while assigning tasks to underground activists. “Good” appearance was not the only advantage of Feiga Peltel, daughter of Shlomo and Hanna, activist of the Tzukunft (Yiddish: Future; left-wing youth offshoot of the Bund) and liaison of the Jewish Combat Organisation during the German occupation. She was also fluent in Polish thanks to her sister, a pupil at a state school, although she herself had graduated from a Yiddish-language Folkshule.
The Coordination Committee needed Feiga on the “Aryan side,” where the Jewish underground was obtaining weapons for the Jewish Combat Organisation in cooperation with the Polish resistance movement. It was also providing assistance to Jews in hiding – they would file applications with the resistance movement, which would then issue false identity documents and look for potential hiding places: “Every sentence [in the applications – ed.] exuded misery and despair, each resounded with an echo of a cry for help: ‘Help us survive! We want to live!,’” reported Feiga.
Underground operations on the so-called Aryan side of Warsaw
“Trams, cars, and bicycles were passing through the streets, all the shops were open, children were going to school, women were carrying fresh bread and running errands. I found myself in another world – a world teeming with life.”
She left the ghetto on 5 December 1942, when the closed district operated in the so-called “residual phase” – it was essentially a forced labour camp, with the work performed both inside and outside the ghetto’s enclosed area. Benjamin Międzyrzecki, Feiga’s future husband, bribed a German guard to let her leave the Jewish quarter. For the first several weeks she stayed at 3 Górnośląska Street, in an apartment inhabited by Michał Klepfisz, a Bund activist. They could not stay on the premises during the day as the flat was visited by the host’s clients:
“[…] All day long, regardless of the weather, we wandered around the city, careful not to get caught by Germans or blackmailers. We would return to our cellar only after nightfall, exhausted from walking […].”
On the “Aryan side” Feiga became Władka (Vladka) – at first she used the passport of Władysława Kowalska and later false documents under the name of Stanisława Wąchalska. “I was soon due to become an integral, active member of the resistance movement,” she wrote.
24 Miodowa Street. The premises of the Jewish resistance movement in occupied Warsaw
“Getting my first revolver was a big event for me. I bought it from a nephew of our host, Heniek Dubiel, for two thousand zlotys. For a while I toyed with the revolver, moving it in my hands as if checking it, although I had no idea how it was supposed to work.”
While on the “Aryan side,” Władka was mainly responsible for finding supply sources for weapons for the Jewish Combat Organisation in the ghetto. She collaborated with Bronka Feinmesser, Inka Schweiger, and Ala Margolis.
“In between our tasks we would try to take a break at Inka and Marysia’s place at 24 Miodowa Street. We would check in there and rest […]. Sometimes […] we would throw a small birthday party for someone, held according to Polish customs, […] it was a perfect cover for our secret meetings. But it would also at times happen that one carelessly uttered word released a flood of long-suppressed emotions, unexpectedly bringing tears to our eyes. None of us needed an explanation – we understood.”
It was in this room at Miodowa Street where she met many prominent Jewish underground activists, including Tzivia Lubetkin, Icchak Cukierman, Simon Ratajzer, and Leon Feiner. “[…] this flat survived even the biggest storms; […] the Polish neighbours did not realise that Jews were holding their meetings there every single day.”
She worked with Wanda Woronowska – a Polish woman who employed her in her tailoring workshop:
“Not only did it provide me with work and a warm place to stay in the winter, but it was also a useful cover for my underground activities.” Woronowska provided help to an entire group of Jews. “Whenever I met with her, she would immediately pull me aside to talk about ‘her’ poor Jews, insisting and trying to convince me that ‘her’ people needed to be helped as soon as possible.”
False “papers” and hideouts. Aid for other Jews
One of Władka’s tasks was to support Jews hiding on the “Aryan side.” She provided their photographs to the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, which would use them to issue false documents. It was just as risky to visit a photography studio as it was to invite a photographer to a Jewish hiding place, so Władka needed to find a trustworthy person. She eventually started to collaborate with a photographer from the studio located at the corner of Żelazna Street and Złota Street.
“I got the impression that one of the workers there might be Jewish. I did a little background check on her and my suspicion turned out to be correct. […] For an extra fee, she agreed to go around our hiding places with me to take photographs. She would then return to the studio to have them developed and retouched.”
She passed documents and photographs on to a certain Mr Julian, also a Jew. He maintained contacts with a covert printing press. “I often saw various familiar faces in the corridor leading to his room. We passed each other, rarely exchanging a word, but nevertheless we were all fully aware of the reason and purpose of our presence there.”
When the Ghetto Uprising broke out in April 1943, Władka was operating on both sides of the ghetto wall. She started to sneak children out of the ghetto and look for a shelter where they could be hidden. Although the Jewish underground could never be certain of the fate which awaited children on the “Aryan side,” its activists wanted to believe that there was a better chance of survival beyond the closed district. Władka never quite forgot the emotions which accompanied the Jewish families deciding to separate:
“[…] during one of my visits to the ghetto, Abrasha and I spoke to Mania, the wife of Artur Zygielbojm,” she recalled. “‘Mrs Mania,’ I explained to her. ‘We can take care of your Artek. However, we are struggling to find a shelter for the two of you.’ Mania turned pale. […] ‘No, I can’t do that, I can’t part with Artek. Believe me, I can’t, my son has no one else but me. He is the apple of my eye. We have been through so much misery and misfortune together. Without me, he will simply die.’ I wanted to explain to her that all things considered, Artek would be safer alone behind the wall than with her in the ghetto. But I was unable to utter a single word.”
A flat on the “Aryan side.” Support from Benjamin Międzyrzecki
While helping other Jews, Władka had to remain in hiding herself.
“If it hadn’t been for Benjamin, I would have moved out in an instant,” she described her state of mind after moving to 36 Twarda Street. “The place was gloomy and dark, and the tenants next door were unpleasant. I felt like I was suffocating. […] However, thanks to his skills in building hiding places, [Benjamin] effortlessly transformed this hole into both a comfortable flat and an excellent den. […] His words of comfort successfully dispelled my despondency on many occasions, and in those terrible times I often turned to him for spiritual support. I am convinced that it was only thanks to him that I did not break down in the most difficult moments.”
In 1943, using a fake ID with the name Czesław Pankiewicz, Benjamin found a hiding place for his parents, Izrael and Rywka Międzyrzecki, in the Orthodox (Old Believers) cemetery in Kamionek. They were given shelter on the right side of the Vistula by the cemetery caretaker and gravedigger Jakub Kartaszew and his wife Anna. Before the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944, Benjamin and Władka often stayed there overnight.
Vladka Meed. Feiga Peltel-Międzyrzecka after the war
The Warsaw Uprising forced the couple to leave the city. They returned to Warsaw in January 1945, but they left Poland forever just a year later. Władka had no one left – her father had died of pneumonia in the ghetto, her mother and siblings had been murdered in the Treblinka extermination camp. Benjamin’s family had migrated to Palestine.
In 1949, the Międzyrzecki couple settled in the United States and adopted the surname Meed. They devoted their efforts to educating Americans on the Holocaust, with a particular emphasis on the history of Jewish resistance. Vladka’s started to work for the Jewish Forverts magazine and eventually decided to write a memoir. Benjamin (Ben) was one of the main founders of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in Washington, D.C., in 1993.
Karolina Dzięciołowska, ed. Mateusz Szczepaniak, March 2021
- Jews helping other Jews on the so-called Aryan side | Read selected stories of rescue »
- Jews hiding on the so-called Aryan side | See the conditions of hiding in occupied Poland »
- Situation of Jews in occupied Poland | Learn more on the Holocaust »
- Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute, Righteous Among the Nations, call no. 349/24/1107, File of Jakub and Anna Kartaszew.
- Władka Meed, Po obu stronach muru. Wspomnienia z warszawskiego getta, pref. Elie Wiesel, transl. Katarzyna Krenz, Wydawnictwo „Jaworski”, Warszawa 2003 [English: Vladka Meed, On Both Sides of the Wall. Memoirs from the Warsaw Ghetto, New York 1979].
- Paweł Szapiro, Żydowska Komisja Koordynacyjna [in:] Polski Słownik Judaistyczny, vol. 1, Wydawnictwo Pruszyński i S-ka, Warszawa 2003.
- M. Urynowicz, Zorganizowana i indywidualna pomoc Polaków dla ludności żydowskiej eksterminowanej przez okupanta niemieckiego w okresie drugiej wojny światowej [in:] Polacy i Żydzi pod okupacją niemiecką. 1939-1945, Studia i materiały, ed A. Żbikowski, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Warszawa 2006.