Benjamin Meed z’l

Michael Berenbaum

Benjamin Meed is no longer. He died on Tuesday October 22nd the second of Mar Heshvan 5767, surrounded by his family, his wife Vladka, his son Steven and daughter-in-law Rita, his daughter Anna, his five grandchildren and his beloved sister Genia who arrived in from Israel that morning, just in time.

I learned the Holocaust from Ben and Vladka Meed – not the facts and the book knowledge, but something deeper and ultimately more important. I learned from them, as did millions of others, the human face and human ethos of the Jewish people who lived through that dark time and came out the other side determined to give over the voices, the sounds, the sighs, the courage, compassion and determination of those who were lost.

Benjamin Meed was born Benjamin Miedzyrzecki in Warsaw Poland to a working class religious family that lived in the old Jewish area of Warsaw. At the age of 16, he joined the Jewish Labor Bund. After the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, he obtained false papers and escaped to the Aryan side where he posed as an Aryan, using the code name Czeslaw. His parents lived in a hut on an old Jewish cemetery. At one point Ben thought of going to the Hotel Polski and its promise of freedom; his brother pleaded with him to take his place. Ben consented and his brother David was never heard from again. It was a memory that was to haunt him his entire life. According to German records Benjamin was dead.

On the outside, he met and married Feyge (Vladka) Peltel, also a member of the Bund. After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, he worked with the Bund to provide hiding spaces for other Jews. After the Polish Uprising in 1944, he left Warsaw dressed as a woman.

Ben and Vladka immigrated to the United States in 1946, where he became a businessman and importer.

In 1966, he helped form WAGRO, the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization and devoted the remaining years of his life to representing the survivors and organizing their activities.

As President of WAGRO, he organized the annual Yom Hashoah ceremony in New York City, the largest such gathering in the United States that brought US Presidents and Israel Prime Ministers to Temple Emmau El and once even filled Madison Square Garden on the Sunday before Yom Hashoah.

When the survivors wanted to organize their first gathering in Jerusalem in 1981, Ernest Michel, vice president of UJA/Fed NY, an Auschwitz survivor, turned to Meed to assist him and thus was born the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. Survivors and their children came to Jerusalem, some 5,000 strong, to proclaim their legacy and to pass it on to the world.

That is when the survivor and second generation movement came of age in the United States and Israel. Then in 1983, the American Gathering, the organization founded as a result of his efforts, held a gathering in Washington, where 20,000 survivors participated. Meed hosted President Ronald Regan and Vice-President George Bush at the Capital Center in Landover, MD. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole who addressed the survivors in front of the Capitol and on the National Mall. Subsequent gatherings were in Philadelphia, New York and Miami and again in Washington to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His work was imaginative and determined; he elevated the stature of survivors within the United States for Jews and non Jews alike.

Meed pioneered the Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors, which facilitated reunions between survivors, siblings, relatives and friends long thought lost to the Shoah. In cooperation with the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, the Registry is housed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and contains more than 100,000 original and maiden names and the names of their descendants, as well as current addresses, city of birth, camps of incarceration, cities of post-war habitation.

Meed was instrumental in creating the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum. He served on the Advisory Council of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and later on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council where he chaired the Days of Remembrance Committee and the pivotal Content Committee that assured the presence and participation of Holocaust survivors, most especially after Elie Wiesel resigned as chairman in 1986. Meed’s role became more central as there was fear that without Wiesel the neshama, the soul, the Museum would flounder. Under Meed’s leadership, the Committee brought together scholars and survivors, communal leaders and Council members to assure the intellectual, aesthetic, historical and spiritual content of the Permanent Exhibition.

I had the honor of working with Ben for the last twenty seven years of his life. Therefore some personal reflections.

Only death could have stilled Benjamin Meed. He was a human whirlwind. He was often agitated – in a creative and constructive way.

Anyone who visited with him in his office at 122 West 30th can testify how conversations would be interrupted by urgent phone calls from Senators or Congressmen, officials from Washington or Jerusalem, regarding the Museum or the Gathering. His secretary would come in with letters to be signed or urgent faxes or Fed Ex packages that had just arrived. In the middle of one issue, Ben would think of something that he had left undone or would bring you to the other room to show you a project his staff was working on.

When his staff was small, he would enlist others, recruit others, draft others. So many of us well know it was difficult to say no to Ben. He would work night and day. He knew no boundaries and worked well beyond his endurance.

When attendance at the World Gathering had reached a thousand, he wanted two or three thousand. When the American Gathering reached 5,000 he wanted 10,000, when it reached 10,000 he wanted twenty and when it reached twenty—and only when it reached twenty—did he begin to ask the question where are we to put these people; no auditorium was large enough, no facility big enough, the new Convention Center was filled to capacity… beyond capacity.

This was true of events large and small. Attendance at Los Angeles exceeded the capacity of even the Century Plaza Hotel; in Miami he outgrew the vaunted Fountainbleu; the Registry reached 10,000 names, 20,000, 50,000 and now holds more than 180,000 records.

I am mindful – deeply mindful – that I began working with Ben only when he had reached the age that I am today, a time that for others would be the end of a career, the twilight of a life. In his late 50s and early 60s, he opened what became the most important chapter in a life of significance; it was the moment he made his greatest of contributions to the Jewish people, to the memory of the Holocaust.

He looked to the future and he shaped the future precisely by remembering the past.

Ben gave his heart and soul, every ounce of energy, every fiber of his being to the survivors’ movement. He was a leader, but unlike many leaders in the Jewish community, he had followers, colleagues, compatriots—he had what in politics they call troops.

Survivors trusted him and he truly felt most comfortable among then. He liked to sit in the center of the room and not on the dais. He lived in the Bronx long after he had the resources to move to Manhattan and well after his long hours and hectic schedule made the commute burdensome, for he wanted to live among his people.

When Ernest Michel turned to him to help realize the dream of the World Gathering, Ben responded fully, completely, totally. When the World Gathering ended he had experienced a high, an intensity, a purpose so deep that he could not let it pass. As a result he took the survivors on journeys they never dreamed possible, empowering them with the voice of moral authority.

Many time I heard him say that he had reached the apex of his achievements, but then he went higher.

He had a vivid, brilliant untrained imagination.

Think of the settings at the Gatherings were convened. The Western Wall at night was the scene for the passing of the Torch of the Legacy of Survivors to the Second Generation and future descendants; Capitol Hill at High Noon was where the keys to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were handed over to its keepers. Survivors gathered at the Liberty Bell to protest a presidential visit to an SS cemetery and the Statue of Liberty was where they stood up to say thank you to their homeland.

Ben’s sense of largesse rivaled that of the great showmen, the great political stage managers. Sometimes it was over the top. Ben did not peacefully face boundaries or limitations. He could not easily say no. He didn’t want to disappoint so he sometimes said yes too often. In exasperation I once told him, “It is good Ben that you are not a woman for you would always be in a family way.â€? He did not get angry; he howled with laughter.

Ben was integral to what we affectionately called “the Gang of Fiveâ€? the lay leaders who were truly responsible for making the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a reality. Ben was the neshama, the soul of the exhibition; he never forgot it and never let us forget it. Bill Lowenberg, Harvey Meyerhoff and Albert Abramson were developers who could build buildings and make something important rise where nothing had been. Miles Lerman was the fundraiser par excellence, negotiated for the artifacts that gave the Museum the material with which to create an exhibition and built the Museum dollar by dollar, artifact by artifact.

Ben’s greatest contribution came when he made a decision that took great courage and opened him to tremendous criticism, challenging all that he had achieved in life, all that he stood for. It was a moment when the stakes were absolute. When Elie Wiesel resigned as chairman of the Holocaust Commission in 1986, on the eve of his trip to Oslo to accept the Nobel Prize, the Museum was turned over to real estate developers and philanthropists whose reputations were not established because of what they knew about the Holocaust or on their service of memory. No one had Wiesel’s stature. No one could speak with his eloquence; no one could take his place.

With Elie gone, Ben refused to resign or step away. He redoubled his investment of time and energy and chaired the Content Committee composed of survivors and scholars to oversee the professional work of the Museum staff. He accepted “personal responsibilityâ€? to make sure the Museum would faithfully represent the Holocaust, that it would include representations of the non-Jews without diluting the Jewishness of Holocaust memory. And because he stayed with it, and because he was trusted by amcha, because he was true to his word and made good on his commitment, the Museum was able to navigate the narrow ridge where truth is found amidst the abyss of falsification, trivialization, dejudaization and kitsch.

His contributions to the Museum were legion. For a decade and half he chaired the Days of Remembrance Committee that ensured the civic commemoration of the Holocaust in our nation’s capitol and in each of the 50 states. He chaired the annual Yom Hashoah Observance in New York, the largest of its kind in the United States. He gave the Museum the National Registry and gave his fellow survivors and their families a respected presence in the United States and marked their unique and central place in the national memorial to the Holocaust, He built his record survivor by survivor, name by name.

Vladka was his partner, his conscience, his inspiration and his disciplinarian. She led the Teacher’s Program on Holocaust and Resistance to Poland and Israel each summer and built a cadre of teachers and followers throughout the country.

She and Ben met under unusual circumstances; Ben helped Vladka, her nom de guerre – Feyge Peltel was her name at birth – to escape from the ghetto. Vladka alludes to the loneliness and pressure of her double life only in passing: “You can be my friend,â€? she told him, who was “passingâ€? as an Aryan, “because if I don’t come back, I want someone to care that I am missing.â€? Their first marriage ceremony was brief but it confirmed a bond that was to endure for sixty four years. It took place in the hut at that Warsaw cemetery, when his mother Rivka Halberstadt Miedzyrzecki took off her ring and gave it to Ben to give to Vladka and said: “Let it be with mazal.â€?

Ben you can go in peace. You were given many gifts but you gave back more than you were given. You accomplished much, much more than you could have imagined as a young boy in Warsaw, even so much more than you could have imagined in 1979.

Your life’s journey is complete. Your task is not.

It will take a community joining together to carry on the task. None among us is large enough to assume it alone.