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The Book of the Week is “On Both Sides of the Wall” by Vladka Meed, originally published in 1948. This book detailed the (Jewish) author’s and others’ wartime traumas of people inside and outside the Warsaw Ghetto (around which a wall was built by the German government) and the various groups who tried to minimize their death toll. The Jews were confined inside, and were required to wear white armbands (equivalent to yellow stars in other European locales). The Aryans outside were Polish people free to live their lives.
In July 1942, the Nazis began to deport the aforementioned Jews in vans that went to cattle cars that ended up at concentration camps. The local German authority, called the Judenrat, enlisted Jews– who became members of local law enforcement– to help them do so.
Bureaucratic rules dictated who got deported. Unemployed or sick Jews were the first to go to their deaths. The able-bodied were the last to be deported because they were needed for slave labor in munitions factories and workshops that made necessities (such as uniforms) for the war effort. Working Jews were issued employment cards. Of course, a black market sprung up in the cards, so the Nazis deemed the cards invalid in about a week.
Personal social ties with sympathetic non-Jews became priceless for Jews who went into hiding to escape deportation. Firstly, it was a death-defying feat to leave the ghetto; possibly by bribing guards at one of the wall’s transit-gates, or blending into a labor group leaving for work.
However, German officials inspected the identity papers of, and interrogated, every individual passing through. The officials arbitrarily engaged in beatings, atrocities and on-the-spot murders, or simply muggings or robberies (including of clothing!) of any Jew whose papers weren’t in order.
Further, there were Poles who walked the streets in groups looking for “Jews” (simply people whom they perceived to have Jewish facial features) to victimize and bully. And then there were Jews who joined the aforesaid local police force, who outed their fellow religionists so save their own skins.
The author was very fortunate that she had Aryan facial features. She took off her white armband and was able to get past the ghetto wall unharmed various times during the war years. But she constantly had to look for black-market housing and almost starved to death. Obviously, the fact that she lived to tell her story in this book spoke to her superior survival skills and great good luck. One way she significantly increased her chances of survival was that she joined the Resistance movement. Brilliant acting talent was the most crucial survival skill in that time and place.
In January 1943, a group of Jews finally (!) fought back against their deportations, via mostly hand-to-hand combat. The Jews by that time knew where the cattle cars were going. In April 1943, a Jewish group called the Fighting Organization and others began an offensive called the Warsaw Uprising. They fought against Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Poles who were gathered around the ghetto wall to carry out the last deportation roundup. At the time, the author happened to be among Aryans, outside the ghetto. But she possessed the experience to stay alive.
In August 1944, everyone in Warsaw— Poles, Jews, militias, etc.– cooperated in fighting against the Germans, in the Warsaw Rebellion. They were all sick of the years of oppression. Even so, the Poles committed evil acts against their fellow fighters who were Jews, and against the Jews forced out of hiding. The Germans ruthlessly destroyed Warsaw with weapons and arson, just to get back at their enemies.
Anyway, read the book to learn a lot more about the author’s trials and tribulations.