- Benjamin Meed (born Benjamin Miedzyrzecki) is the son of Israel and Rivka (Rybak) Miedzyrzecki. He was born February 19, 1918 in Warsaw, where his father worked a tannery. Benjamin had three siblings: Stella (b. 1916), Mordecai (b. 1922) and Genia (b. 1934). Benjamin grew up in a religiously observant home. His father, who was a member of the orthodox, Agudat Yisrael party and the religious Zionist Mizrahi movement, sent him to cheder [religious primary school] for his first years of schooling. From the age of eight, however, Benjamin attended public, Polish schools, where he learned to feel at home in the Polish language and culture. During his high school years Benjamin moved in social circles whose interests were focused on cultural matters. Though he was comfortable in Polish society, Benjamin was well aware of its anti-Semitic undercurrents, particularly the efforts of right-wing groups to segregate Jewish students in the classroom. He was bitterly disappointed when his Polish friends did not actively oppose these measures. After graduating from high school in 1938, Benjamin began a course of studies at a Warsaw business school, which was interrupted by the outbreak of WWII.
Already in February or March of 1940, Benjamin was approached by a youth movement leader to join the Jewish underground. He soon became the head of a cell of five people whose main project was the organization of a lending library to help entertain the Jews of Warsaw, who were confined to their homes for long hours by the early evening curfew. When the ghetto was established in November 1940, Benjamin's family home on Pawia Street was included within its boundaries. Though the Miedzyrzeckis did not have to relocate at this time, they did have to take into their apartment more and more members of their extended family.
Late in 1940, Benjamin was pressed into a forced labor battalion consisting of some 100 Jewish men, whose job it was to remove bricks from bombed out buildings in Warsaw and prepare them for shipment to the Reich. After working in the same battalion for several months, he developed a relationship with one of his German overseers which allowed him to smuggle saleable goods out of the ghetto and food back in. Soon Benjamin became known among the leaders of the ghetto underground as the person to turn to when one needed to arrange passage into or out of the ghetto. In that capacity he met his future wife, Feigele Peltel, for the first time in the late fall of 1942. She was instructed by the underground to seek his help in crossing over to the "Aryan side," where she was to start work as a courier. Benjamin discovered only much later that Feigele was then smuggling a diagram of the Treblinka death camp to members of the underground outside the ghetto.
In September 1942 Benjamin's father was rounded-up during a deportation action and taken to the Umschlagplatz. Immediately, Benjamin contacted his older sister, Stella, who had important connections due to her position as the secretary of a leading Jewish businessman in the ghetto. Stella and her husband Yitzhak Blachowicz returned at once to the Miedzyrzecki apartment only to be apprehended by the Germans. The couple was presumably deported to their death in Treblinka, though their fate was never confirmed. In the meantime, Benjamin's father returned home after bribing a policeman at the Umschlagplatz.
A few months later, Benjamin, who could pass as a Pole, left the ghetto and went into hiding in "Aryan" Warsaw. With the help of a Polish woman, Juliana Larisz, he found shelter in an attic above her family's sausage factory. Benjamin then went back to the ghetto to persuade his family to join him. Initially after crossing to the "Aryan side," the Miedzyrzeckis lived together with another Jewish family behind a false wall in the room above the sausage factory. When this became too dangerous, they found shelter in a shack on the grounds of a small Russian orthodox cemetery in the Praga district. The cemetery was run by a sympathetic Polish caretaker named Jakub Kartaszew. The hiding place was tiny and uncomfortable but relatively safe.
After Benjamin left the ghetto he assumed the name of Czeslaw Pankiewicz. He was anxious to become reacquainted with Feigele Paltel (then known as Vladka) and asked acquaintances to put him in contact with her. After their first few meetings a close relationship developed that had to be carefully concealed from her colleagues in the underground, lest it compromise her trustworthiness in their eyes. At first Benjamin was not involved in the Jewish underground, but gradually he was drawn into its work through his contact with Feigele. She soon became aware of his skill in the design and construction of hiding places and informed her colleagues. Because so many of the Jews who crossed to the "Aryan side" had to remain concealed because of their Jewish appearance and lack of fluency in Polish, the underground increasingly relied upon his services.
During the Warsaw ghetto uprising Benjamin posted notices printed by the Polish underground proclaiming solidarity with the Warsaw ghetto fighters. In reality, though, there was no overt support, and Benjamin as a hidden Jew had to remain idle and feign indifference as the ghetto burned before his eyes. This proved especially difficult when on Palm Sunday Benjamin attended a church service that took place in full view of the besieged ghetto. No one in attendance made mention of the plight of the Jews, and afterwards the holiday was celebrated outside the church with food and music and a carousel for the children that callously ignored the smoke and gunfire coming from the nearby ghetto. About seven to ten days into the uprising, Benjamin received a call from the burning ghetto from his brother Mordecai. He had returned to the ghetto a few days before Passover in order to obtain matzah for his religiously observant father. Mordecai placed his call to the home of Juliana Larisz, where Benjamin was living in hiding. The telephone was in Juliana's living room, where she was then entertaining a group of German officers. When the phone rang, she deftly excused herself to get Benjamin, whom she identified as a neighbor, and he talked to his brother for a few minutes in the presence of the Germans. Mordecai called to tell Benjamin that he was alive and trying to evade capture, but a few weeks later Benjamin learned that his brother had been deported to the Poniatowa labor camp. With the help of an acquaintance of Juliana, Mordecai was able to escape (in the uniform of a Polish policeman) and return to Warsaw.
In the summer of 1943 Benjamin received one of the new South American visas that were becoming available for purchase in Poland from the Gestapo. Although he was deeply suspicious that the sale of these visas was a ruse by the Germans to lure Jews from their hiding places, Benjamin accepted the favor extended to him by David Guzik, former head of the Polish branch of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who was a friend of his father. After receiving the coveted document at the Hotel Polski, Benjamin was asked by his brother Mordecai if he might take the visa instead. Benjamin agreed. Tragically, Mordecai fell victim to the Germans when they sprang the trap at the Hotel Polski. Instead of being transported to France or Switzerland, he was shot along with several hundred other Jews at the nearby Pawiak prison.
For the next year Benjamin continued his work for the Jewish underground constructing hiding places for Jews. He generally received his assignments through Feigele, who by then was one of the underground's chief couriers. Benjamin often had much time to pass during the daylight hours when it was too dangerous for him to return to his family's hiding place. He therefore took to spending long hours at the local zoo near the Vistula River, where he would bring food to feed the animals so as not to arouse suspicion.
When the Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944 Benjamin and Feigele joined the crowds gathering in the street but were careful not to reveal their Jewish identity. Benjamin took advantage of the chaos to move his family out of their hiding place in Praga. He was afraid that since the cemetery was situated between two large factories the area might be targeted for bombing by the Germans, who were plotting to blow up all the bridges and factories in Warsaw prior to the advance of the Red Army into the city. After relocating his family to another part of town, Benjamin returned to Feigele's apartment. The following day German troops took up positions along the main road leading from the bridge over the Vistula, thus dividing the city of Warsaw and separating Benjamin from his family for the duration of the uprising. In the first week of October the Germans ordered the evacuation of the city. Fearing that he would be sent to a labor camp, Benjamin bandaged his head to look as if he had been wounded. As he and Feigele walked out of the city, a Pole driving a medical wagon motioned for them to get on. He promptly covered them with a sheet and gave Feigele a Red Cross armband. Later they escaped from the wagon and found temporary refuge in Pruszkow. When this shelter became too risky, they sought out a Jewish friend living in hiding on a large farm near Kurczowa Wies. However, upon their arrival they discovered that the estate was under the command of the German army. Fortunately their identification papers were in good order, and they were allowed to live and work on the estate until the liberation. Shortly before the area was liberated on January 16, 1945, Benjamin received word through the underground that his parents were living in Opocznow and desperately looking for him. He found them shortly after January 16. A few days after their reunion, at his father's instigation, Benjamin and Feigele were married in a Jewish ceremony attended by eleven people in Warsaw. They remained in the deserted capital only a short time before moving to Lodz, where Benjamin opened a leather goods store.
The Miedzyrzeckis quickly realized that resurgent Polish anti-Semitism would make it impossible for them to remain in Poland. With the help of Dr. Emanuel Patt, Feigele's former youth movement leader who had fled to the United States via Japan in 1941, Benjamin and Feigele made plans to go to the United States. Instructed by Patt to go to Belgium, the family left Poland in February 1946. During their flight they were arrested by British police at the border between Germany and Belgium. For a month during the spring of 1946 they languished in a German prison in Aachen, where they received only a tiny ration of bread each day. Ultimately, they were released by a British rabbi who was serving in the area. They were in such poor health at the time of their release that they had to be taken to a convalescent home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. After their recuperation the family moved to an apartment in Munich. There, Benjamin was approached by an UNRRA official who asked him to put together a list of fifty Jewish survivors, including himself and Feigele, who would be sponsored by an international relief committee affiliated with the Jewish Labor Committee, to immigrate to the United States. American visas in hand, the group sailed from Bremerhaven on May 24 on board the SS Marine Flasher. Benjamin's parents chose to remain in Munich, and ultimately followed their daughter, Genia, to Palestine. One month after their arrival in New York, Benjamin was already involved in launching his own fur business, while Feigele had become a writer for The Forward, a Yiddish daily. A few years later, Benjamin opened an import-export business, which became very successful. Benjamin and Feigele had two children, Anna (b. 1948) and Steven (b. 1950). When the Miedzyrzeckis were sworn in as American citizens in the early 1950s they formally changed their names to Benjamin and Vladka Meed.
[Interviews with Benjamin Meed, October, 2000-October, 2001]