Review of BATTALION, JUDY. Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. WILLIAM MORROW & CO, 2022. 558 pp. Price: $ 28.99
In Judy Batalion’s Light of Days, readers are introduced to previously unrecognized female heroes of the Holocaust whose stories have otherwise been buried and lost. These women’s stories relate their stunning bravery in fighting the Gestapo by seducing and assassinating Nazi officers and guarding Jewish hiding spots. These resistance fighters were constantly in danger, fearing they would be discovered at any second, a discovery that could result in their capture, torture, or death. The “classically sexist” Nazi culture allowed them to use their skirts, teddy bears, and other traditionally female objects to hide bulletins, notes, and weapons, and this aptitude for utilizing Nazis’ weaknesses ultimately saved thousands of Jewish lives.
Renia Kukielka, an 18-year-old Jewish woman from J?drzejow, is one of the most prominent women featured in Batalion’s book. She was forced to rely on nothing more than her Aryan looks to deceive people into thinking her to be Catholic or otherwise having a non-Jewish background. Renia, bereft of any fake documentation or identification that could give weight to her deception, constantly feared for her life and could not trust anyone. While seeking shelter in Warsaw, Renia arrives at an address to which a Catholic girl has given her the password to enter, but she nearly fails in her attempt to enter the house upon her conversation with the landlady. “Her voice was calm, childlike, but she was sweating. . . Could this landlady somehow see through the layers of her skirt, to the secrets sewn into its fabrics?” Renia’s anxiety about the landlady’s discovering the money and fake ID in her clothes goes beyond her personal safety; she would also fail in her mission to obtain information on the battles in Warsaw to warn her fellow Jewish people.
In addition to the physical and emotional distress she suffered at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis, Renia also had to erase her identity and outwardly deny both her values and her trauma. “They had fake IDs, fake backstories, fake purposes, fake hair, and fake names. Equally important, they had fake smiles. One could not walk around with sad eyes – an instant giveaway. Courier girls were trained to laugh, laugh loud, laugh a lot.” A courier could never truly be comfortable or relaxed no matter where she was. In order to blend in with other Polish citizens, the women had to disguise their gestures, demeanor, and, perhaps most arduously, they had to disguise their sadness and emulate their Polish neighbor’s obvious distaste for Jews. Women compare hiding their true identities and their emotions to a never-ending performance: “We couldn’t cry for real, ache for real, or connect with our feelings for real. We were actors in a play that had no intermission, even for a moment, a stage performance with no stages.”
Batalion’s inclusion of the women’s personal accounts is often difficult to read because of the heartbreaking reality of Hitler’s ghettos and the unbelievable torture Jews endured. Renia’s comrade Bela Hazan described a typical afternoon at Pawiak Prison: “Nazis beating Jewish children to death, then bludgeoning an older man who’d pleaded with them to stop. After they shot him, his son said, ‘Kill me too, I have no reason to live.’” However, at some points, Battalion seems to overcompensate for these harsh realities by using language that seems out of place, and even inappropriate at times, to describe the Jewish experience. One woman named Frumka was particularly well known for saving Jewish lives and helping the imprisoned escape. Batalion describes her accomplishments by writing, “Each time she achieved a goal, she was giddy; her passion touched them all.” This description seems more fitting for a college student conducting a particularly interesting research project, not for women risking their lives and being forced to perform gruesome atrocities, such as cutting off a Jewish refugee’s severed finger bone to save him from further pain and infection.
Additionally, Battalion writes, “The poise and composure required for this kind of work were superhuman.” The term “superhuman” suggests that a person possesses gifts and talents beyond that of a typical person. However, using this comic book-like term in the context of these women is ill-suited because their courage arises from their ordinary humanity and vulnerability, which the term “superhuman” eradicates. Concrete, realistic language would be much more effective. While Batalion’s prose is beautiful, even poetic in some chapters, there are instances in which it seems as though a different author altogether is writing some parts of the book.
These largely untold stories of women resistance fighters are inspiring accounts of people who were often afforded a way out of the ghettos and out of the direct “line of fire” because of their appearances, linguistic abilities, or other physical traits, but who chose fighting for their communities and preserving Jewish traditions over personal interest, and, often, survival. One woman who tragically did not survive was Bela Hazan’s sister, Lonka Kozibrodska, who died in a Polish prison after being tortured by the Gestapo and refusing to give up information on other resistance fighters. While men undoubtedly played a huge role in the Jewish resistance fight, as one fighter named Vitka wrote, sometimes, “‘The women were stronger than the men. The women were guided by a moral code. Not only were they as capable fighters as the men, but they also did not relent, took risks, and rarely made excuses to get out of things.’”
Batalion’s Light of Days is an excellent, moving book for fans of historical nonfiction, or for any reader interested in an honest, compelling account of influential women during the Holocaust. While these events took place nearly a century ago, the idea that any person is capable of making genuine, lasting change in a time where many have given up hope is universal and timeless.
This post was written by: Kelli Martin