The Polish Jewish heroines of “The Light of Days” threw off gender norms and ghetto constraints to resist Nazism, and sometimes survived to tell their stories.
A multilingual museum curator and the granddaughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, Judy Batalion first stumbled on their accounts in an unexpectedly riveting Yiddish-language book in the British Library. “I was jolted by these tales of agency,” about “women who acted with ferocity and fortitude — even violently,” she writes.
Batalion’s discovery launched an emotionally fraught 12-year project. Steven Spielberg, whose 1993 Oscar-winning classic “Schindler’s List” also foregrounded Holocaust heroism, has optioned the film rights to her book.
The women Batalion chronicles were couriers, saboteurs, ghetto fighters, partisans, and often masters of disguise. Their names and their deeds — from secreting grenades in menstrual pads to leading men in battle — are little known. “The Light of Days,” whose title is drawn from a Warsaw ghetto song, restores their improbable exploits to history.
Writing with passion and novelistic license, Batalion takes readers deep into the psyches of these women, focusing on members of two Zionist youth groups, Freedom and The Young Guard. Even more vivid are the sights and sounds and smells of the world she depicts, where her protagonists endured starvation, confinement, hairpin escapes, brutal torture, sexual violence, and the slaughter of family and friends.
The couriers she profiles smuggled information, cash, documents, goods, weaponry, and even people to and from various Nazi-occupied Polish cities and their Jewish ghettos. Passing as Christian Poles, they relied on “non-Jewish” looks, fluent Polish, street smarts, and steely nerves. Emanuel Ringelblum, the famed historian of the Warsaw ghetto, praised them in a 1942 diary entry as “heroic” and “indefatigable,” willing to “accept and carry out the most dangerous missions.”
Too often the women were blackmailed or betrayed, captured and beaten. Most of them died, eventually, at Nazi hands. Batalion emphasizes the choice they faced, repeatedly, between “fight or flight.” Many opted not to escape if it meant leaving family or comrades behind.
These stories are complex. The women found allies, though too few, among sympathetic Poles and even Germans, including a Nazi soldier unwilling to murder children in cold blood. Other Nazis, of course, had no such compunctions. In a postwar memoir, Renia Kukielka wrote: “For them, killing a person was easier than smoking a cigarette.”
Kukielka’s story supplies the book’s narrative spine. Described by Batalion as “a savvy, middle-class girl who happened to find herself in a sudden and unrelenting nightmare,” she was just 15 when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. As chaos descended, her family scattered, and Kukielka embarked on a series of darkly picaresque adventures.
At one point, fearing that she had been recognized as a Jew, she threw herself off a moving train. With false identity papers, she found work as a housekeeper, attending church to prove her Christian bona fides. Then, as a member of the Freedom group, she devoted herself to courier missions between Bedzin and Warsaw, transporting forged documents and weapons to the ghettos, and Jews to hiding places. Passing as Christian “was a constant performance,” requiring “an animal instinct for danger, a basal sense for knowing whom to trust,” Batalion writes.
Even when she was taken prisoner and beaten almost to death, Kukielka never revealed her Jewish identity. With the help of other prisoners, as well as her sister, she managed a miraculous jailbreak, trekked across Europe, and landed in Haifa, in present-day Israel.
Batalion never met Kukielka, who died in 2014. But she interviewed her children, who remembered her “joyful demeanor and optimistic outlook” with amazement. Batalion, whose own Polish Jewish grandmother spent the war in Soviet gulags and never shed the trauma, calls Kukielka “the surrogate ancestor I’d wished for.”
Another towering figure in “The Light of Days” is Zivia Lubetkin, from a lower-middle class, religious family in present-day Belarus. Also affiliated with the Freedom group, she helped establish schools in the Warsaw ghetto and became the only elected woman leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization, or ZOB. A symbol of resistance throughout Poland, Lubetkin fought in the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, the most celebrated (but hardly the only) act of armed Jewish rebellion against the Nazis.
Lubetkin survived, along with a handful of other Jewish combatants, by escaping through the sewer system, and participated in the broader Warsaw revolt against the Nazis in 1944. Eventually, she, too, made it to Israel, where she testified at the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann and wrote a memoir.
Batalion’s research is prodigious, and her dedication to her story obvious and moving. But the book’s very scope — its huge cast of characters, geographical sweep, and mix of chronological and thematic organization — may deter less committed readers.
Another challenge is Batalion’s insistence on depicting the pointillist horrors of the genocide. The Holocaust of “The Light of Days” is no mechanized mass murder; it is composed of multiple individual acts of brutality. When Batalion unsparingly describes the bloodbaths in the ghetto streets, or descends into the sadistic hell of Nazi prisons, the temptation is to turn away. These brave women could not.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.
THE LIGHT OF DAYS: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos
By Judy Batalion
William Morrow, 558 pages, $28.99