Judy Batalion, a First Class Disrupter
Judy Batalion is a first-class disrupter. In her fascinating—and essential—new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in in Hitler’s Ghettos (HarperCollins, $28.99) she cracks the myth of Jewish victimhood—and in particular Jewish women’s victimhood—wide open, and recounts so many instances of cunning and chutzpah that it will upend everything you thought you knew about the subject.
She talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to write the book and what she learned along the way.
YZM: This was a subject that seemed to find you rather than the other way around; can you explain?
JB: Like most significant things, this book began by accident. Several years ago, I lived in London, and was grappling with my Jewish identity, personally looking for inspiration, for a hero. I decided to write a piece about strong Jewish women. The first to come to mind, someone I’d studied in fifth grade: Hanna Senesh, a young WW2 resistance paratrooper who was caught but looked the Nazis in the eye when they shot her. She was the symbol of courage, the only such woman I’d ever heard of. But who was she really? So I went to the British Library, looked her up in the catalogue, and ordered the few books listed under her name. I picked up my stack and noticed that the book on the bottom was unusual. It was small, hard-backed and bound in a worn blue fabric, with yellowing deckled edges. I opened it, and found 200 sheets of tiny script—in Yiddish. Even more unusual – I happen to speak Yiddish. The title of the tome was Freuen in di Ghettos (Women in the Ghettos). I flipped through the pages looking for Hanna Senesh, but she was only in the last 10. In front of her, 190 pages about and by dozens of young Jewish women who defied the Nazis. These “ghetto girls” paid off Gestapo guards, hid revolvers in teddy bears, flirted with Nazis, and shot them. They carried out espionage missions, distributed underground bulletins, and were bearers of the truth about what was happening to the Jews. I was astonished. Why had I never heard of any of them? I knew this was a story that needed telling.
YZM: You were trained as both an art historian and a historian of science; how did that training come together in this book?
JB: I used to be a researcher for museums. One of my supervisors made me triple check every single detail, even forcing me to phone authors of canonized academic books to make sure they were sure of what they’d published, that they weren’t hiding any new information…. This academic paranoia rubbed off on me. In writing The Light of Days, I was obsessed with historical veracity – at least, as much as possible.
Though my PhD was about creative collaboration among women artists, which seems quite unlike a book about Jewish women who fought Nazis, they are actually remarkably similar projects. In both, I excavated and articulated a woman’s practice. In my PhD, I highlighted 50 contemporary artist groups that never made it into the art history books. In The Light of Days, I give voice to hundreds, even thousands, of young Jewish women who smuggled weapons, flung Molotov cocktails, and blew up German supply trains, and again, vanished from the war narrative. In both cases, I tried to bring a woman’s history to light.
YZM: The notes for this book were extensive and reflect the extent of your research. Can you talk about the process?
JB: The book has over 900 footnotes! It took me six (long, long) weeks just to edit them…I found my original source material in 2007 and spent nearly a decade (on and off) translating it, during which time I had do bits of research so I could understand the context. The bulk of my research really began in 2017. I traveled to Poland, Israel, England, and across North America, researching in archives and living rooms, memorial monuments and the animated streets of former ghettos. I trawled through testimonies, photographs, obscure Hebrew documentaries, small press published accounts, museum displays, and the towns where these heroines were born and raised. I spoke to some fighters who were still alive, and to many of their families.
YZM: Why were you surprised by these stories of cunning and courage?
JB: I’d simply never heard anything like them! Jewish women who dressed up as Catholic girls, dyed their hair, borrowed designer handbags and used them to smuggle ammunition?! Revolvers hidden in loaves of bread and teddy bears… Explosives hidden in their underwear… Jewish teenagers at Auschwitz who stole gunpowder and helped blow up a crematorium?! None of these stories had made it into the tales of the Holocaust that I’d heard from my family (who are survivors), my community, or my Jewish world.
YZM: You described how Jewish women were given, “the right to know.” How does that idea figure into this story?
JB: I mention that Jewish women in Poland were granted “the right to know” centuries ago, meaning that their intellect and curiosity were formally recognized. The invention of the printing press led to a proliferation of Yiddish and Hebrew books for female readers; religious rulings allowed women to attend services; new synagogue architecture included a female annex. There is a long history of Polish-Jewish women’s developing liberation and agency.
In the 1930s, Jewish women were poets, novelists, journalists, traders, doctors, and dentists. In universities, Jews made up a large percentage of the female students, studying mainly the humanities and sciences. Most of the fighter women in my account had attended school, and some went to law school. Many were trained in 1930s in youth group movements where women held leadership roles.
YZM: You’ve written that in the Jewish Holocaust narrative there has been “…an overarching resistance to resistance.” Can you elaborate?
JB: I simply had no idea of the scope of Jewish resistance in the Holocaust. Over 90 European ghettos had armed Jewish resistance units. 30,000 Jews enlisted in the partisans. Rescue networks supported 12,000 Jews in hiding in Warsaw alone. All this alongside daily acts of resilience — smuggling food, friendship, art, hiding, even humor.
These narratives were silenced for both political and personal reasons, which differed across countries and communities. The history of the Jewish underground has generally been suppressed in favor of a “myth of passivity.” In Israel, Holocaust narratives were often shaped by the need to build a new homeland; in Poland, by the fear of exposing wartime allegiances. Early post-war interest in partisans turned into a 1970s focus on “everyday resilience.” A barrage of 1980s Holocaust publications in the USA flooded out earlier tales. On a personal level, these stories were kept private out of guilt, fear and in order to cope and birth “normal” families.
YZM: I’ve read that the book has already been optioned by Steven Spielberg for screen adaption. Which aspects or parts of the book do you hope the movie dramatizes most?
JB: Oh, this is so hard to answer, it’s all so dramatic! Bela Hazzan got a job working for the Gestapo; she stole their documents and brought them to Jewish forgers. Vladka Meed helped support Jews in hiding in Aryan Warsaw, secretly bringing them money, medical help, and trusted photographers to take pictures of them for fake IDs. Niuta Teitelbaum, aka “Little Wanda with the Braids” was wanted by the Gestapo — she’d make pretty, walk into a Nazi office, and shoot him cold in the head. What I hope is conveyed is that these Jewish women were decisive, dedicated and daring, risking their lives time and time again in their fight for justice and liberty.