Women fighters in Hitler’s ghettos | Sunday Observer

Women fighters in Hitler’s ghettos

8 August, 2021
Judy Batalion
Judy Batalion

Title - The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos

Author - Judy Batalion

Publisher – William Morrow

We have heard about millions of stories by survivors of Nazi concentration camps. But have we heard about the stories of women fighters in Nazi ghettos? Judy Batalion chronicles such stories this year as ‘The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos’. It has become an international bestselling book and was optioned by internationally renowned cinematographer Steven Spielberg for a major motion picture.

About the author

Judy Batalion is a granddaughter of holocaust survivors and was born and raised in Montreal. She grew up speaking English, French, Yiddish and Hebrew. She studied the history of science at Harvard then moved to London to pursue a PhD in art history.

Niuta Teitelbaum

Apart from her research works, she writes essays and articles for various newspapers and publications such as ‘New York Times’, ‘The Washington Post’, ‘Vogue’, ‘The Forward’, ‘Salon’, ‘The Jerusalem Post’. Her stories about family relationships, the generational transmission of trauma, pathological hoarding and militant minimalism came together in her book White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess, published by Penguin in 2016.

How the book came about

As a granddaughter of holocaust survivors raised in an environment surrounded by holocaust survivor families with stories of loss and suffering, Judy Batalion suffered from various mental traumas. She found it as a result of the holocaust. “My genes were stamped — even altered, as neuroscientists now suggest — by trauma,” she writes in ‘The Light of Days’. “I grew up in an aura of victimization and fear.” So she started to research on intergenerational trauma at the British Library in London, and there she incidentally spotted an unusual-looking book published in 1946, written in Yiddish — a language she happened to understand.

Inside were nearly 200 pages of information about dozens of Jewish women who fought the Germans from inside ghettos — separate districts that German occupation authorities created during the Holocaust to isolate Jews from non-Jewish communities. Dozens of those “ghetto girls” did not ask “for pity” or flee the Nazis. Instead, they stayed and fought them. Or flirted with them, then shot and killed them. They also led groups of Jewish fighters into combat against the Wehrmacht. These details along with chapter titles like Weapons, Ammunition, and Partisan Combat, entirely stunned and changed Judy Batalion’s focus to this subject area – women fighters in Nazi ghettos.

Women fighters

When researching Batalion found there were hundreds of women fighters in Nazi occupied Poland. Of approximately 750 young Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, nearly 200 were women. She wanted to meet still alive survivors of these Polish “ghetto girls” for her book. In fact, she could meet some of them who were in their age of 90s and collected sufficient information about the women fighters in Poland.

Batalion centers her book on a group of exceptional women, some as young as 15, all part of the armed underground Jewish resistance that operated in more than 90 Eastern European ghettos, from Vilna to Krakow. The stories are revealing and a new experience for the reader. As she describes in the book these ghetto girls knew there would be no mercy in capture other than torture and a brutal death. So they bribed executioners; smuggled pistols, grenades and cash inside teddy bears, handbags and loaves of bread; helped hundreds of comrades to escape; and seduced Nazis with wine and whiskey before killing them with efficient stealth.

Stunning stories

According to one story in the book, Niuta Teitelbaum, a 24-year-old Jewish woman who studied history at Warsaw University, strolled into a Gestapo apartment on Chmielna Street in central Warsaw and faced three Nazis. She was likely now dressed in her characteristic guise as a Polish farm girl with a kerchief tied around her braided blond hair.

When she faced them, she blushed, smiled meekly, but then she pulled out a gun and shot each one. Two were killed and one was wounded. Niuta wasn’t satisfied. She found a physician’s coat, entered the hospital where the injured man was being treated, and killed both the Nazi and the police officer who had been guarding him.

However, the standout woman of the book is Renia Kukielka, whom Batalion describes as “neither an idealist nor a revolutionary but a savvy, middle-class girl who happened to find herself in a sudden and unrelenting nightmare.”

In September 1939, when the Germans came to the Polish town of Chmielnik and burned or shot a quarter of its people, Renia saw how only one Jewish boy tried to confront them. Outraged, she vowed to join the resistance. She went on to lose her family, her home, her friends and her money, but never her iron will.

Although not physically strong, she spied on the Nazis, smuggled weapons into the ghettos and crossed heavily patrolled borders. When tortured by the Gestapo to the brink of death, she remained defiant. In fact, Renia, at the beginning, could escape from Poland when the Nazis occupied the country, but she volunteered to come back to engage in the resistance movement.

Joining Renia are other women who served as couriers, armed fighters, intelligence agents, and saboteurs, all who put their lives in mortal danger to carry out their missions. Batalion follows these women through the savage destruction of the ghettos, arrest and internment in Gestapo prisons and concentration camps, and for a lucky few — such as Renia, who orchestrated her own audacious escape from a brutal Nazi jail — into the late 20th century and beyond.

In the larger context of the war, these people’s victories were small and their sacrifices great. But the spirit of their resistance was, as Batalion rightly notes, “colossal compared with the holocaust narrative I’d grown up with.”

In this way, powerful and inspiring, featuring twenty black-and-white photographs, ‘The Light of Days’ is an unforgettable true tale of war, the fight for freedom, exceptional bravery, female friendship, and survival in the face of staggering odds.

Post war situation

Batalion also describes the post war situation of these women fighters. As she expounds many of the rebels went on to pursue “caring careers” as nurses, nursery teachers, social workers and in aiding refugees. Some drew on skills gleaned in forest combat and ghetto battles (such as relying on intuition, or bonding dissenting parties under extreme duress) to become innovative psychologists, humanitarian activists and politicians fighting for equality. Even those who did not become professional do-gooders inspired their families.

Legacy of resilience

In Batalion’s views, all the mental health issues of the family members of the women fighters derive from generation to generation and that they are results of the holocaust horrors experienced by her grandparents. And on the other hand, she argues that not only traumas, they also inherit their grandparents’ strength too. She says her research on women fighters helped her to see the holocaust in a different way:

“I now see it as a story of constant resistance, and resilience, and struggle, and fight,” Batalion claims. “And I truly feel proud to come from this legacy.”