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‘The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos’ took over a decade for Judy Batalion to prepare

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“Rehabilitating the history of women resistance fighters (against the Nazis) unsurprisingly profits from a woman’s touch” in The Light of Days.

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Judy Batalion took “a full twelve years to finally complete this book”. In the dimly lit British Library, she “picked up Freuen in di Ghettos (Women in the Ghettos), published in New York in 1946, and flipped through the pages. In this 185-page anthology […] 170 pages were filled with stories of […] dozens of unknown young Jews who fought in the resistance against the Nazis, mainly from inside the Polish ghettos.”

Captivated, she translated, elaborated, and supplemented the little-known account, which eventuated in The Light of Days.

Foregrounding more than 20 Jewesses, the book limns the harrowing experiences of surreptitious operatives who chose “defense, revenge, self-respect”. These resourceful, resilient agents routinely risked their lives and confronted the constant question—fight or flight?—with both alternatives constituting resistance. Batalion posits that “women were uniquely suited to some crucial and life-threatening tasks; in particular, as couriers.”

Their efficacy was abetted by the fact that “Nazi culture was classically sexist, and women were not expected to be illicit operatives; why would that nice, young peasant girl have bulletins sewn into her skirt or a pistol inside her teddy bear? Plus, a flirtatious smile never hurt. Often courier girls appealed to Nazis with their displays of womanly elegance or ‘little girl’ looks and faux naïveté, even asking them for help carrying their bags—the very bags filled with contraband. It was normal for women to carry handbags, purses, and baskets on the street; these chic accessories became weapons caches.” 

Among the most daring dramatis personae was self-appointed executioner “Niuta Teitelbaum, [who] had been notorious in the Warsaw ghetto. In her mid-twenties, she wore her flaxen hair in braids, appearing like a naïve sixteen-year-old—an innocent disguise that hid her role as an assassin. She walked straight into the office of a high-ranking Gestapo officer, found him at his desk and shot him in cold blood. She pulled the trigger on another officer in his own home, while he was in bed. [S]he killed two Gestapo agents and wounded a third who was taken to the hospital. Niuta, disguising herself as a doctor, entered his room, and mowed down both him and his guard.”

In addition to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April–May 1943), Batalion dilates upon forest partisans, including Jewesses: “Most Jewish women were dependent on men, trading sex for clothing, shoes, shelter. Some felt compelled to have ‘gratitude sex’ with the guide who brought them.” As it turned out, “countless forest romances among Jews who risked their lives for one another lasted for decades.” Later the narrative transfers to the concentration camps where, “despite endless surveillance, maddening thirst, sickening torture, and the threat of collective punishment, Jewish women in concentration camps revolted.”

Why were stories of female resisters sidelined? “There are many reasons the stories of Jewish women in the resistance went underground. The majority of fighters and couriers were killed […] and did not live to tell their tales. But even for survivors, female narratives were silenced for both political and personal reasons, which differed across countries and communities.” 

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Typically, “major histories were written by men, who focused on men, not on courier girls who themselves downplayed their own activity […] only physical combat—which was public and organized—was held in esteem, while other undercover tasks were considered trivial.” Moreover, “women self-silenced. […] Many of these women were in their midtwenties when the war ended; they had everything ahead of them and […] did not all want to be ‘professional survivors.’” For some, endurance itself became unendurable and engendered suicide; as Batalion poignantly avers, “not everyone survives surviving.”

Rehabilitating the history of women resistance fighters unsurprisingly profits from a woman’s touch, as exemplified by this evocative passage: “One can imagine the sisters, […] both donning the modern fashion of the day: berets, fitted blazers, shin-length pleated skirts, and short cut hair pulled back in neat clips. Renia, a fashionista, would have been put together from head to toe, a standard she upheld her entire life. The interwar style in Poland, influenced by women’s emancipation and by Paris fashions, saw the replacement of jewels, lace, and feathers with a focus on simple cuts and comfort. Makeup was bold, with dark eyeshadow and bright-red lipstick, and hairdos and skirts were shortened.” 

Inevitably, The Light of Days presents an extensive litany of woes, and often disturbs through graphic depictions of violence and violation. Indeed, the topic’s particulars factored into the authoress’ prolonged gestation process. And if the narrative seems novelistic, this may be because Batalion’s “reconstructions sometimes enhance feelings that were implied in the original text and take into account multiple perspectives of the same event”. 

Born and raised in Montreal, Judy Batalion is the granddaughter of Polish Holocaust survivors. She worked as a comedian, curator, researcher and actor, among other professions; Light of Days has been optioned by Steven Spielberg for a major motion picture. (Photo: marianopolis.edu)

The Light of Days rescues “women’s histories, stories […] that get lost.” It refills a lacuna in Holocaust studies by valorizing Shoah heroines, and is a puissant retort against the reductive contention that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter.

The book includes a map, 32 black-and-white photographs, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. (April 2021)

The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, by Judy Batalion. William Morrow/HarperCollins, $28.99 USD (576p) ISBN 978-006-287-421-4  

Brandon Marlon is an award-winning Canadian-Israeli author whose writing has appeared in 300+ publications in 32 countries. His most recent book is the Jewish historical reference Essentials of Jewish History: Jewish Leadership Across 4,000 Years. www.brandonmarlon.com

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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