It is a short day in February 1943. Winter has a cold grip on the Jewish ghetto in Bedzin, a city in Poland occupied by Nazi Germany. Amid overcrowded houses stands a special building: the heart of the Jewish youth organisation Freiheit (English: freedom) – and the headquarters of Jewish resistance against the Nazis.
On this day, women and men have come together in this building to make a momentous decision. They were able to obtain documents that will permit them to smuggle some of them out of the occupied territories. Should their leader, the Jewish-Polish woman Frumka Plotnicka, use these papers to travel to Den Haag and represent the Jewish people before the international criminal court?
All eyes turn to Frumka.
“No,” she says. “If we must die, then let us die together. But let us strive for a heroic death.”
There is a young woman in the same room: Renia Kukielka. Together, these women will go on to become the face of female Jewish resistance to the Hitler regime in occupied Poland.
This is how the historical events of that night are portrayed by historian Judy Batalion in her book The Light of Days. The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. Over the course of ten years, Batalion has recovered and analysed countless eyewitness reports, memoires, legacies and archival documents, she has talked to survivors of the Shoah and their children and grandchildren all over the world.
Through this painstaking work, she has managed to reconstruct a history that had been lost for decades, in fact, never been properly told: how Jewish women resisted the Nazi occupation in Poland. With tenacity, courage, and sometimes violence.
Sabotage, firearms, camouflage
Batalion, who is the granddaughter of a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Shoah, lives in New York but discovered the untold stories of these women at the British Library in London. When looking through a number of historical documents, she chanced upon a copy of the Jiddish book Freuen in di Ghettos (English: women in the ghettos). She was expecting another “boring” elegy on female strength and courage. What she found instead were “women, sabotage, firearms, camouflage, dynamite.”
The ten years of subsequent research and writing produced remarkable results: A great number of Jewish women were actively resisting the Nazis in occupied Poland, in all senses of the word, from ghettos in Będzin to Warsaw. They smuggled weapons, sabotaged the German railway and exploded major TNT charges. Frumka Plotnicka died in combat against the Nazis, Renia Kukielka and numerous other women acted as “messengers.” Constantly risking their lives, they used their “non-Jewish” appearance to transport people, money, information, munition and firearms in and out of the ghettos.
Other women fled the cities and joined guerillas in the forests, or foreign resistance groups. They built rescue networks to help other Jews to hide or flee and engaged in “moral, spiritual and cultural resistance.”
One such example of cultural resistance is provided by Batalion through the biography of Henia Reinhartz, a young woman in the ghetto of Łódź. Together with other women, she rescued stacks of Jiddish books from the library in the city and smuggled them into the ghetto. “It was an underground library,” she wrote down herself many years later.
Reading was a way to escape into “another world,” a “normal life in a normal world, not one like ours that is all about fear and hunger.” Poignantly, Batalion adds, Henia was reading the US-American novel Gone with the Wind while hiding to escape deportation.
A rare gem of a book
Judy Batalion too seeks to use culture and literature to reinvigorate the memory of the Jewish women resistance fighters. Her book is an achievement: as rigorous as it is gripping. With great acument and firm narrative instincts, she recovers an important part of history that has, for too long, been ignored.
The German translation of the book is published in August 2021 and comes at a time of ongoing debates about how to keep the memory of the Shoah alive as eyewitnesses grow increasingly older and pass away. The translator Maria Zettner underlines how important it is that this history is told in particularly in Germany in a telephone interview with the DW:
“While I was translating the book and reading about what the Germans had done to these Jewish women, I felt a great sense of shame. We have a responsibility as Germans to ensure that these memories are not forgotten, that they are passed on to the next generation. We have a responsibility to do all we can so that something like this will never happen again.”
In this case, two stories were repressed, as Judy Batalion points out to the DW in a video interview. “The first is the story of Jewish resistance in general, in particular in Poland, that is talked about so little,” she explains from her flat in New York.” And the second is the experience of women in the Holocaust, which has been addressed more and more in recent years, but certainly not before that.
A new chapter of Western feminism
The historian observes a great hunger for these stories at the current moment: “It is the place where we are in our feminist trajectory, in the history of feminism.” When she talks to friends and colleagues, she says her impression is that “we are so excited to learn about these legacies, that we come from this. It is so deeply exciting for women to know that that’s what our foremothers did. Women are achieving so much right now.
That she is a woman figured greatly in the genesis of the book, she tells the DW: “I am a historian, I am a woman. There haven’t been many generations of me.” She goes on to explain: My editor is a woman, the editor who commissioned this project, who paid for it, is a woman, my agent is a woman. I am able to do this work because of other women who paid me and supported me professionally to carry out this type of work. 25 years ago, I don’t know how many women historians would be pitching to women agents and women editors who would have been supportive.”
‘I feel grateful’
The hard work of so many women has paid off: The Light of Days is already a New York Times and international bestseller, Steven Spielberg has optioned the film rights, there is interest from documentary filmmakers and playwrights. This is a visible source of pleasure to Batalion, but the historian remains humble in her conversation with the DW: “I just hope this story gets told to as wide an audience as possible.”
What does it mean to her to have written the book? The question gives Batalion pause, who has so far been a quick conversationalist, having more to say than could possibly be fitted into a thirty-minute interview. She looks away. A silence ensues. “It just felt like something I had to do,” she finally says. There is a clear sense of what she is thinking: That this isn’t about her. “I feel grateful to Renia for leaving such detailed accounts that enabled me to tell the story. I simply did what I felt I had to do.”
Featured image credit: Twitter/@BnaiBrith