By Adrian Hennigan, Tlaxcala, 2, February 2021
A powerful new book, ‘The Light of Days,’ reveals the tragic and audacious stories of fearless Polish women in Jewish resistance movements. Author Judy Batalion explains how a chance discovery helped changed her perception of the Holocaust
It takes something special to be even more astounding than a Matt Gaetz alibi, but Judy Batalion’s new book, “The Light of Days,” achieves that and much, much more.
Even the book’s subtitle – “The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos” – doesn’t do justice to the amazing tales recounted in this labor of love from the Canadian-born New Yorker.
The 20 young Jewish women she spotlights lived remarkable lives during World War II, and it’s easy to see why Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment snapped up the film rights at manuscript stage in 2018.
Batalion, 44 this month, is currently co-writing the screenplay, and while no director is currently attached, many of the true stories here feel like something from the mind of Quentin Tarantino (think “Inglorious Basterds”) rather than a more traditional Holocaust drama like “Schindler’s List.”
Take, for example, the story of Bela Hazan, a fearless 19-year-old from southeastern Poland who took a job working in, of all places, a Gestapo office. This was the perfect cover for her to act as a courier for a rebel group from the Dror youth movement, smuggling news bulletins, money and weaponry across Nazi-occupied Poland. (Dror and other youth movements like Hashomer Hatzair became a de facto Jewish resistance network in the war.)
Then there’s Renia Kukielka, who was just 14 at the start of the war but went on to become a crucial courier ferrying messages between ghettos. Or Zivia Lubetkin, who was in her mid-20s when she played a key – yet long overlooked – role in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943 as part of the Jewish Fighting Organization (also known by its Polish acronym, the ZOB).
“The Light of Days” – the book’s title comes from a line written by a young Jewish girl for a ghetto song contest – is both a profoundly moving and breathtaking read, full of tragic and audacious stories. Yet it also provokes anger that it has taken some 75 years for these stories to themselves see the light of day and for these acts of heroism finally to be acknowledged.
Some of the young women Batalion showcases were partisans, literally fighting the Nazis deep within the forests of Eastern Europe. Many others operated as couriers, bringing news of Nazi atrocities to Poland’s 400-plus ghettos or smuggling in munitions, cash and even fighting spirit.
Why were women chosen for these tasks? Obviously, there was no way for the Nazis to physically prove a woman was Jewish. But equally importantly, many were more familiar with Polish culture than their male peers and could blend in more easily. These were educated young women who could think on their feet and “pass” as their Aryan compatriots.
‘Ode to guns’
“The Light of Days” begins with the war’s most celebrated Jewish resistance fighter, Hannah Szenes. It was while researching a story on her, at the British Library in London in the spring of 2007, that Batalion discovered a very dusty blue volume among the small pile of books about the volunteer parachutist.
She almost set it aside, but the historian in her forced her to pick it up and examine it. It was an unusual book for the British Library to hold, since it was in Yiddish. But that wasn’t the only unusual thing: Batalion actually speaks Yiddish too, so was able to read the 1946 book, called “Freuen in di Ghettos” (“Women in the Ghettos”).
“The last chapter was on Hannah Szenes, but before that were 175 pages of stories about other Jewish women who fought Nazis,” Batalion tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “The chapters had titles like ‘Ammunition’ and ‘Partisan Battles,’ and in one part there was an ode to guns,” she recalls. “It was so not what I expected, and so foreign to the Holocaust narrative I had grown up with. It really startled me.”
Batalion comes from a family of Polish-born Holocaust survivors and grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in Montreal, but says much of her early life was “an attempt to run away from that.” Hence, she found herself in London, performing stand-up comedy and working in the art world, but with questions gnawing away about her Jewish heritage.
But 2007 wasn’t the right time for her to “emotionally commit” to such a mentally exhausting project. “The last place I wanted to be at that time in my life was spending my afternoons in 1943 in Warsaw – emotionally, socially, intellectually,” she recalls. “To write this kind of book, I would have to sit with dozens, even hundreds, of these testimonies, and I wasn’t ready to do that until later in my life.”
Still, Batalion applied for and received a grant to translate “Freuen” into English, which took about five years (“It was a very complicated translation because, first of all, my Yiddish was rusty – I don’t use Yiddish that much in my daily life. It was also a more Germanic Yiddish, and I grew up with a more Polish Yiddish”). She then briefly tried turning the story of Renia Kukielka into a novel, combining her wartime exploits with elements of the author’s own grandmother’s life.
“And finally, in 2017, it was my literary agent who asked me, ‘Wait, what? This really happened?’ She was the one who told me, ‘You have to write this as a nonfiction book. It’s very important to tell the true story,’” Batalion recounts. And that’s how we find ourselves in the rare position of having to praise an agent for their efforts on our behalf.
“Freuen” was just the starting point for “The Light of Days,” though. That source material was “like a scrapbook,” Batalion says, comprising clippings from different newspapers, obituaries, speeches and memoirs about female fighters from Jewish youth movements. Her own extensive research included revisiting numerous wartime sites across Poland, reading and watching whatever testimonies existed, and interviewing the families of the women who survived the war.
But the biggest initial challenge was to work out the chronology of events and how lots of separate stories might mesh together. “It took me about six months to do a rough first draft,” she says. “I’m writing history out of memoir, so I had to put together what happened, and when. I was working with personal stories: You can have a whole memoir that takes place in one week and the rest of the war takes up one page, so I had to figure out how these stories worked together.”
“The people who had survived, or had survived long enough to write about their experiences, were characters that I could focus on, because they had left more detailed, robust stories,” she explains.
Then there was the small matter of trying to verify stories that haven’t been told in nearly 80 years, if at all, and were sometimes written when typewriters, pens and paper weren’t exactly easy to access.
“The book has 65 pages of endnotes and a lot of them say, ‘I took this from this section and this from this, and this memoir said this and in this testimony it said something a little different,’” Batalion says. “I tried to piece together stories, and a lot of times the details did conflict – what happened in one account isn’t exactly the same as in another account. But the accounts often refer to the same events, which was also exciting as a researcher. They’re all talking about that day in 1942. I had to decide what version seemed the most historically accurate and made sense.”
Another challenge in a book like this is getting the right balance between the “heroes” and “martyrs,” to use the Hebrew term for Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day – which, significantly, occurs on the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
“There were a lot of balances to get right,” Batalion notes. “I’m writing here in the U.S., where a huge percentage of the millennial population doesn’t even know what Auschwitz is,” she says, referring to the 2018 survey that found two-thirds of millennials had never heard of the death camp. “It’s very tricky to tell a story about the Holocaust, because I want to explain the deeply horrific nature of this genocide, but I also want to tell a story of the people that fought it.
“A scholar who wrote a book about humor in the Holocaust wrote, ‘If you want to write about humor in the Holocaust, the danger is that it seems like the Holocaust wasn’t that bad.’ This resonated with me. I didn’t want to make it sound like there was a massive Jewish army who was fighting the Nazis. This was a horrific genocide, and these were teenagers who tried to organize to overcome.”
The author didn’t make life easy for herself by choosing to relate the stories of tens of different women (the film, by necessity, will have to focus on a couple of leading characters), and Batalion says this was her most difficult writing decision. “This wasn’t a story of just two or three women – this was a movement of organized resistance across the country that involved hundreds, if not thousands, and it was important that that came across,” she explains.
‘Strong sense of instinct’
The author’s research uncovered “more incredible resistance stories” than she “ever could have imagined,” but I wonder if she found any common traits among these young women to help explain their apparent fearlessness.
“You know, I’ve thought about this a lot,” she says. “I think their bold and savvy behavior was shaped by their training, by their youth movements and how they were educated – but I also think many of these women had a very strong sense of instinct, and followed it. I’m always obsessed with people that I feel have what I lack.”
She recounts a meeting with Renia Kukielka’s family in Israel a few years ago. “They said to me, just in passing, ‘Renia wasn’t someone who, when she crossed the street, would look left and right, left and right.’ And that stayed with me, because I am someone who looks left and right, left and right, left and right. I think many of these rebels had strong impulses and trusted their gut and just moved.”
“The Light of Days” conjures up many indelible images: women hiding razor blades in their hair; secret libraries and makeshift weapons labs being established in ghettos; female couriers donning layers of skirts to hide contraband in the folds; and young women determined not to “go like sheep to the slaughter,” to quote Jewish partisan leader Abba Kovner’s resistance mantra.
Two other things leap out at you. One is to be reminded of the sheer scale of the Nazi killing machine, with the Germans establishing over 400 ghettos across Poland alone. For Batalion, “it’s both the big numbers and the smallness of the places that overwhelm. Over 400,000 Jews were forced to live in the Warsaw ghetto alone. That’s a huge number. I was also shocked by the scope of resistance participation: Over 90 European ghettos had armed Jewish underground movements. I’d had no idea.
“And then, on the other hand, there’s the smallness. When you go to these towns and walk through the streets of former ghettos, they’re just small-town streets. Even some of the camps that I visited, they’re very human in size – in my head they loomed so large. The Gestapo headquarters [in Warsaw] is a four-story building, it’s so regular – which is equally troubling, in a way.”
The second thing that strikes you is the joie de vivre exhibited by so many of these young Jews, despite – or perhaps because of – the horrors of everyday ghetto life. Indeed, a recurring question as you read the book is, when did these people ever sleep?
Batalion: “Every testimony I read, every memoir I read, was just so full of action – they were so alive. These were stories of constant activity, and they drew me in. These women were literally jumping off trains, running between towns, getting dressed up, dyeing their hair. These were stories with so much action, and I think that also just changed the tone of the Holocaust narrative for me. It’s so different from the more staid narrative I had been exposed to.”
It is also impossible not to read “The Light of Days” and see it as the current Polish government’s worst nightmare in light of its controversial, some would say revisionist, stance regarding the role its citizens played in World War II: a book that presents the Holocaust in all its complexities, depicting some non-Jewish Poles as heroes but many others as aiding and abetting the Nazis or committing their own atrocities.
The good news is that “The Light of Days” will be published in Poland next year, so locals will be able to make up their own minds, while Batalion has only good things to say about the Poles who assisted her in the writing process.
“My only reactions have been from people who helped me do research in Poland – translators, research assistants, drivers, fixers – and I honestly felt that they were as interested in this story as I was,” she says. “They were so passionate about it, this was so important to them. To them, this is Polish history; this is their story too. For me too, this is a Polish history book.
“I made fascinating connections in Poland, mainly with young people in their 20s and 30s. At my Polish publisher, I was saying casually that all four of my grandparents were from Poland and they laughed, saying, ‘You’re more Polish than any of us!’ I have a fraught and complicated relationship to Poland, but I was taken by how passionate these young Poles were about my project.”
Three lines in history
Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum, the noted chronicler of Warsaw ghetto life, is quoted in Batalion’s book describing how the women put themselves “in mortal danger every day” to “carry out the most dangerous missions. … Nothing stands in their way. Nothing deters them.” Yet his prediction that “the story of the Jewish women will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war” turned out to be far from accurate.
Why has it taken so long for these stories to finally be told and for these women to get their “three lines in history,” as one young ghetto activist puts it? Batalion has her own theories.
“The story of why I don’t know this story is to me as interesting as the story itself,” she says. “There are many reasons why this tale disappeared – some of them have to do with the Zeitgeist and the interests of the times; some of them have to do with politics. And some of them are very personal. “These women didn’t tell their story. Or they told them right after the war, like Renia, and that was it. The telling was in a sense the therapy, or part of the therapy, and then they had to move on. It was so important to start afresh. As I mentioned in the book, some of these women weren’t believed. Some of them were accused of leaving their families or sleeping their way to safety. Many of these women suffered terrible survivor’s guilt.
“So, things were silenced for many reasons, and a lot of it had to do with these women feeling very determined to create families, to create a new generation of Jews – and they didn’t want to hurt them. They wanted their children to be healthy and happy and normal.”
As her own toddler starts screaming in the background, demanding her attention, Batalion just has time to express her hopes for a book 14 years, or perhaps several lifetimes, in the making: “I just want people to know these stories. I want people to know their legacy. I want people to know the names of these women who fought against all odds for our collective justice and liberty.”