April 07, 2021

The Light of Days

By Judy Batalion
Review by
The Light of Days, a scrupulously researched narrative history about young Jewish women who resisted the Nazis in Europe, is a huge achievement.
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As Judy Batalian notes toward the end of her scrupulously researched narrative history, The Light of Days, there were plenty of reasons why the stories of young Jewish women who valiantly resisted the Nazis in Europe during World War II were ignored or silenced after the war. Some of those reasons were sexist, but most weren’t so nefarious. Still, the effect until now has been that bits and pieces of this great story have been scattered through bygone personal memoirs and archived survivor testimonies.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Judy Batalion shares the amazing discovery she made while browsing the stacks at the British Library.

The Light of Days is a huge achievement that brings an overarching coherence to this largely unknown story. Batalian focuses on the lives and actions of about a dozen and a half young women and teenage girls who joined the fray in the Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Bedzin. Chief among these was the spirited Renia Kukielka, who became a courier for one of the activist Jewish youth groups at the core of the resistance. Batalion interweaves the personalities and actions of other young women—messengers and warriors—into the arc of Kukielka’s story. The narrative reaches its crescendo in the spring and summer of 1943, during and just after the dramatic but ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Batalion uses a kind of you-are-there approach that at times feels awkward but dramatically makes its point in the end. 

The Light of Days also offers arresting insights into community life during this perilous time. It is astounding to read about the number and variety of Jewish youth groups that commanded the loyalties of young people. It’s also surreal to learn that mail continued to circulate among Jewish communities even as the Nazi killing machine was roaring down the tracks. 

Batalian interviewed many survivors’ families, and these passages in the book invite us to wonder what it would be like to battle and survive for half a decade, witnessing the loss of friends and family, only to resume a “normal” life after experiencing all that trauma. Kukielka at least seemed to maintain some essential part of herself through it all. Her adult life, Batalion reports, was “happy, passionate, filled with beauty.”

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The Light of Days

The Light of Days

By Judy Batalion
William Morrow
ISBN 9780062874214

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