On Both Sides of the Wall (Fun Beyde Zaytn Geto-Moyer)

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ON BOTH SIDES OF THE WALL (Fun beyde zaytn geto-moyer)

Memoir by Vladka Meed, 1948

On Both Sides of the Wall, Vladka Meed's only book-length work, is a memoir of the Warsaw Ghetto that was published in Yiddish in 1948 and in English translation in 1971. Meed, a member of the Zydowska Organazcja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization), which led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was able to serve as a courier in the resistance thanks to her "Aryan" appearance and command of Polish. The narrative begins in July 1942, at the time of the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, two years after the Jews of Warsaw had been forced into the ghetto. In December 1942 she was smuggled to the Aryan side of Warsaw to try to obtain weapons, deliver literature for the resistance, and find hiding places for Jews. The memoir proceeds chronologically through July 1944, when the Polish underground organized a unsuccessful revolt against the Nazis, which lasted two months before the Poles surrendered. The last few pages detail the return of Meed and her husband, Benjamin, to Warsaw after the city had been liberated, and the English version of the book includes an epilogue describing their return to Poland some three decades later.

Meed writes little about her life before the days of the ghetto, and thus the memoir does not provide the reader insight into the fabric of her life before the Holocaust. Her inner life is minimized, with the specifics of the larger struggle of the resistance, particularly of the Jewish Fighting Organization, the focus. Meed was a labor activist before Germany's invasion of Poland, participating in the youth organizations of the Jewish Labor Bund, which promoted workers' rights and the perpetuation of Yiddish culture.

In addition to a detailed account of the struggle of the resistance, Meed's memoir is notable for her insightful and sensitive description of the way many Jews came to give up the struggle to survive, whether because of debilitating hunger or because they refused to work longer or to go into hiding if this involved abandoning elderly parents, children, or younger brothers and sisters. The book describes in rich detail the struggle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the efforts of the resistance fighters to offer aid to Jews in other cities and camps. Meed recounts the day-to-day struggles of what was required to carry out the resistance efforts, giving the reader an understanding of the bravery and resourcefulness needed. This included obtaining money from the outside to bribe guards and officials, to painstakingly collecting bottles for Molotov cocktails, to trying to convince sympathetic Poles to shelter those who had to remain in hiding because of their Jewish features. As she makes clear, people took such actions even when doing so was likely to result in their own deaths.

Meed does not sidestep controversial issues, such as the roles of the small number of Jews who comprised the Jewish Ghetto Police and of other collaborators, of the retributions of the Jewish Fighting Organization, or of the collaboration of the Poles and Ukrainians. She writes about the fate of many Jews who, after managing to escape from camps or hiding, sought refuge in the forests, only to fall into the hands of Polish and Ukrainian partisans who killed Jews on sight. She relates the anti-Semitism of the Armja Krajowa (Home Army), the Polish resistance, which not only refused to allow Jews into its ranks but also killed them upon discovery. Meed includes resistance efforts in the labor camps of Czestochowa and Radom and explains how difficult it was for inmates there, away from the greater possibilities of aid from sympathetic Gentiles and the greater availability of hiding places in Warsaw, to organize.

Meed's memoir provides valuable insights into the lives of those survivors who historically have been considered the "lucky ones," those who could "pass" as Gentiles, and poignantly describes their particular struggles. They had to avoid detection by the notorious Polish blackmailers and were subject to constant searches by the Nazis. These people had to adopt a Roman Catholic cultural identity, which included memorizing prayers and attending church, and they had to adopt Polish customs and scrupulously avoid any trace of Jewishness in their speech or mannerisms. Meed describes how exhausting it was to maintain these identities, especially after people had lost their friends and families in the deportations or in the uprising.

This important addition to the Holocaust literature details the story of the Warsaw Ghetto as told through the lens of a young woman who was a committed socialist. Meed's work is in the genre of Gerda Weissman Klein 's All but My Life and Fania Fenelon 's Playing for Time.

—Margie Newman