Ben Meed, 88; Holocaust Survivor Advocate
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006; B07
Ben Meed, 88, a resistance figure in Poland during World War II who became a leading force in creating a reunion of other Jewish Holocaust survivors, died Oct. 24 at his home in Manhattan. He had pneumonia.
Mr. Meed, a leather and textile businessman after the war, helped start the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1981 and was its longtime president. Every few years, he organized gatherings that attracted thousands of people to discuss their shared experiences. At its peak, in 1983, more than 20,000 survivors and their descendants attended a reunion in Washington.
Mr. Meed also compiled a national registry of Jewish Holocaust survivors who settled in the United States. He contacted rabbis and scholars who would put him in touch with survivors and later worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which he helped establish, to maintain the registry.
More than 195,000 people have contributed to the registry, from brief biographies to vivid accounts of the war. To find relatives, visitors can organize database searches by prewar communities and other methods.
Museum director Sara J. Bloomfield said that Mr. Meed's chief legacy was creating a movement of Holocaust survivors at a time when many Jews desired to forget the experience.
To a point, Mr. Meed was sympathetic. "Our vengeance was rebuilding life," he once said, meaning, like himself, many other Jews placed a priority on having children and moving on.
As he gained recognition as a movement leader, he spoke out on issues of importance to the dwindling number of survivors.
He denounced President Ronald Reagan's 1985 visit to Bitburg, the German cemetery where Nazi SS are buried. At a congressional hearing in 1998 into the loss of Jewish property during the war, Mr. Meed said the war was not only a genocide, but also "the greatest human robbery."
He wrote of the $5.2 billion compensation package from the German government to Nazi-era slave and forced laborers: "There is a measure of justice -- whatever we are getting is a measure of justice. . . . It's too little too late."
Benjamin Miedzyrzecki was born Feb. 19, 1918, in Warsaw, where his father worked in a tannery, sold lottery tickets and was an informal arbitrator of conflicts within the Jewish community. Benjamin and his three siblings were raised in Orthodox Jewish tradition but grew fluent in Polish culture and language at public school.
At the start of the German occupation, he was detailed to a work crew near the Jewish ghetto. He later described his work as "cleaning up the old burned-out buildings and sending the bricks back to be reused by the Germans."
A compact and vigorous man, he was selected as a leader in the underground, smuggling food, munitions and information into the ghetto and taking out items that could be sold on the black market. Sometimes working with his future wife, Vladka Peltel, he became a specialist in finding places to hide Jews outside the crowded ghetto.
Mr. Meed, using a pseudonym, found he could pass as a non-Jewish Pole. Still, he lived in constant suspicion, saying that informers would turn him in for peanuts, vodka and butter. Two of Mr. Meed's siblings were killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Although he developed a strong facade, he later told an interviewer he felt great anguish during Palm Sunday in 1943, which coincided with the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
"Not a word was mentioned that across the street people are fighting, dying by the hundreds, and fire," he said. "I was just like a good Christian listening to the whole sermon. . . . Across the street was a carousel with a playground and the music was playing and . . . the people took the children on the carousel, beautifully dressed.
"From time to time we heard screaming, 'Look! Look! People are jumping from the roofs!' Others will make remarks, 'Jews are frying.' . . . And it was very heartbreaking for me that here I am, helpless, I can do nothing, and I gotta see and watch, and I cannot even protest, I cannot even show my anger."
His parents and a surviving sister left for the British mandate of Palestine, and Mr. Meed and his wife came to the United States through the aid of the Jewish Labor Committee. In 1946, they arrived in New York with $8.
He started off as the night cleaner at a leather and fur factory and negotiated with a boss to keep the leather scraps. He would then sell the scraps to small businesses that manufactured pocketbooks and wallets. Within a few years, he started an import-export concern specializing in leather and textile goods.
His wife wrote for the Yiddish-language newspaper the Forward and created a teacher-training program on the Jewish Holocaust.
Mr. Meed had long commemorated the Warsaw ghetto uprising at ceremonies in New York, and he increasingly spent his retirement years in the 1970s involved in Holocaust remembrance activities.
He was on the advisory board to the President's Commission on the Holocaust, which led to the creation of the Washington museum in 1993. He spent 24 years on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the museum's governing board.
He also was a founder of the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, which opened in Manhattan in 1997.
Survivors include his wife, of Manhattan; two children, Dr. Anna Scherzer of Paradise Valley, Ariz., and Dr. Steven Meed of Manhattan; a sister; and five grandchildren.Category: Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust