While hunkered down in her apartment with two young daughters, a 9-month-old son and her husband during the COVID-19 pandemic, Judy Batalion has heard rumors from neighbors and friends of marriages on the rocks because of close quarters and unrelieved familial contact. It’s not nearly the same, Batalion declares, but it reminds her of the Jewish families trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
“Families were under high pressure, squeezed together, and studies show that in the [Warsaw] Ghetto, there was a very high rate of divorce,” Batalion says during a call to her apartment in Manhattan. She quips that her own home is “now also a preschool, an elementary school, a daycare, a corporate boardroom and a gym.”
Uncomfortable? Sure. But nothing like the disruption and terror of Jewish life in Poland under the Nazis, which Batalion describes in The Light of Days, her groundbreaking narrative history of the young Polish women at the forefront of the Jewish resistance. “The norms of family life were turned upside down,” Batalion says. “Many of the men were afraid to leave the house. It was easier for women and children to leave or escape, to go out to hunt for food, to smuggle, even to physically squeeze out through the ghetto walls. So there was a cascade of role reversals.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Light of Days.
Those reversals were part of a confluence of events that led a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women—some of them barely teenagers—to volunteer as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland. Batalion first discovered fragments of their stories in a slender, musty book written in Yiddish that she found in the British Library.
Batalion grew up in Montreal, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. After graduating from Harvard, she spent a decade in London earning a Ph.D. in art history and developing a career as a comedian. “In England I was dealing with issues of my own Jewish identity, because being Jewish there seems so rare,” she says. “I wanted to write a performance piece about strong Jewish women, and I wanted a few historical figures to frame the piece.” So she went to the library.
Batalion was stunned by her discovery of the book, whose title translates as Women in the Ghettos. “I knew right away there was something to it,” she says. She was eventually awarded a grant to translate the book into English, but the translation work required significant contextual research. As her research grew, the translation project morphed into a parallel history project that became The Light of Days.
"I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers."
“Very little has been written in English, even academically, about these figures,” Batalion says. “And the bits that have been written read like encyclopedia entries—a snippet here, a snippet there. But those snippets don’t end up meaning anything. It’s hard to remember them. I wanted to tell these women’s stories, and I thought telling it as a story would be more appealing to readers.”
At the center of Batalion’s book is Renia Kukielka, whose commitment to resistance began when she was 15 years old. “She was a woman of action,” Batalion says. “As her children told me, she wasn’t someone who looked right and left and right and left. She just went! She had gut instincts. . . . She was savvy, smart and daring.”
The Light of Days follows the arc of Kukielka’s life through the early 1940s. Along the way, her story interweaves with those of about a dozen other female activists—such as Bela Hazan, who went undercover in a remarkable way. “At the height of the Holocaust, she worked as a translator and served tea to the Gestapo,” Batalion says. There’s even a photograph of Hazan with two other Jewish activists at a Gestapo Christmas party. “She lied to them that her brother had died so she could get a pass to travel to Vilna. The office sent her a condolence card! Later she masqueraded as a Catholic woman to help Jewish people in the infirmary at Auschwitz.”
“This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would?"
Then there was Frumka Plotnicki, who was “an introverted, serious person, a person the whole movement looked to and who refused to [escape the ghetto],” says Batalion. “Time and again she was told to leave, but she couldn’t. She had to be there to fight. She was one of the few who went down shooting.”
When Batalion began working on The Light of Days, she discovered that not even a general narrative history of the Jewish resistance in Poland existed. Working from sometimes contradictory memoirs and recorded testimonies, Batalion’s first task was to create a chronology of the resistance—a laborious but necessary effort that adds context and depth to the story she tells. The book has more than 900 endnotes, down from the original 3,000, and two dozen illuminating photographs.
Batalion acknowledges that the valiant women she portrays in The Light of Days were not the only female Jewish resistors in Poland or Europe. They’re just the first ones we’ll be able to read about in such depth. “It felt so important for me that these stories are told,” Batalion says. “This is not a narrative about the Holocaust that I’d ever heard before. I kept feeling that if I didn’t tell it, who would? In the most difficult, tortuous circumstances, they stood up. The bravery of these very young women inspired me.”