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The Light of Days: The untold story of the Jewish resistance’s women fighters

Book review: The unspeakable is succeeded by the unthinkable in this passionately written history

The Light of Days: Women Fighters of the Jewish Resistance, Their Untold Story
The Light of Days: Women Fighters of the Jewish Resistance, Their Untold Story
Author: Judy Batalion
ISBN-13: 978-0349011561
Publisher: Virago
Guideline Price: £20

“Heroic girls” the historian Emmanuel Ringelblaum called them, writing in 1942 from the misery of the Warsaw ghetto. “Nothing stands in their way. Nothing deters them. The story of the Jewish woman will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war.”

Ringelblaum was wrong. Throughout the second World War groups of Jewish women acted as couriers, smugglers, spies and partisans in the armed resistance to Nazi rule in Poland, but their stories have disappeared from that history. Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days is a conscious attempt to restore that missing page.

The women in Batalion’s book had grown up as members of socialist Zionist groups in Poland, once a haven for Jewish communities (its Hebrew name, Polin, means “here we stay”). Young idealists would meet at summer symposia to discuss cultural progress, equality and the foundation of a Jewish nation. Many had just returned home from socialist summer camp when, on Septemer 1st, the Nazis invaded Poland. It was a moment that rent their lives in two, cleaving the till-then from the ever-since.

Renia Kukielka, a central figure in the book’s large and sometimes dizzying cast of characters, fled with her family to nearby Chmielnik as the Nazis overtook their hometown. When the invasion arrived at their new safe haven, the assault was merciless. The butchery went on through the night. The next morning, a quarter of the Jews in town had been burnt alive or shot.


Outside the ghettos they acted as couriers, braiding messages into their hair and sewing transmissions into the hems of their skirts

Batalion writes history that seeks to emphasise the agency and resistance of the human spirit in the face of oppression. It’s natural, though, that the structure of her narrative should fall into the stages of the accelerating genocide. After the invasion, the next horror was the sequestering of Jewish communities in walled ghettoes.

Men were liable to be kidnapped by roaming guards, so women became invaluable to the resistance. Risking their lives to escape the ghettos, they used the mist of male chauvinism as cover, flirting with Nazi policemen or meekly asking passing soldiers to help them with their bags: bags that were heavy with contraband and smuggled weapons. Some smuggled pistols in teddy bears, or carried grenades in their menstrual pads. Outside the ghettos they acted as couriers, braiding messages into their hair and sewing transmissions into the hems of their skirts. Inside, they became tacticians and organisers, as well as black-market experts.

Outside these groups, the will to solidarity was overpowered by brute necessity. Food was scarce and everyone was bargaining for their lives with what they had; in some ghettos, a loaf of bread cost $60 in today’s money. “If you saw a dead body in the street,” said one survivor, “you took its shoes.”

In 1943, during the revolt of the Warsaw ghetto, these groups fought guerrilla-style for five days with astonishing success, sustaining almost no casualties. As they regrouped and staked out new positions, they began to smell the smoke. The Nazis had begun to burn the ghetto to the ground. It’s a sequence of events that mirrors the broader pattern of the book: the many battles that individuals fought against despair give way to a terrifying uniformity of fate. The unspeakable is succeeded by the unthinkable.

After the ghettos, the Polish resistance fought on in ever-smaller groups. These women were forced to conceal their Jewish identity even from other fighters. Their status as women offered less protection now. Instead, it made them vulnerable to new forms of torture. Rape and sexual humiliation were commonplace throughout Poland.

Women in hiding traded their bodies for safety; they gave birth in silence or had abortions without anaesthetic, praying they wouldn't cry out in Yiddish. But even here there were still tiny spaces for human joy. One fighter lived with a man and another woman ("I sleep in the middle," the man told another fighter). When someone asked her why she had joined the resistance, she replied, "For the sex!"
"I was not like my comrades," wrote one resistance fighter. "I was a Jew and a woman."

Yet they were not all women. Many were still girls. Renia Kukielka resisted from the early stages of the war, fighting and carrying messages. She was imprisoned for months, starved and tortured; she never gave away her comrades. With the help of her female comrades, she escaped prison half-dead, going first to Slovakia and then to Hungary. When she arrived in Palestine, in 1944, she was still only 19 years old.

Batalion’s book is passionately researched and written with the quick-cutting thrust of an action film. (Steven Spielberg is developing it for the screen). If it has a flaw, it’s that at times her characters feel too much like one woman. They have a saintly, faceless quality, and though I read this book in awe of their heroism, I finished it having never quite met their eyes.