Close your eyes and picture a war hero. What do you see? The protagonists of Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days may surprise you: they are teenage girls with bare feet and ragged clothes. This true story of how a group of young female freedom fighters opposed the Nazis discloses an important but overlooked chapter of Holocaust history.
Batalion brings to life the underground resistance network that existed across the Polish ghettos. The women, many not even twenty years old, were already living with extreme trauma from what they had seen and lost in the war. But no mission was off the table. They spied, built and planted bombs, went undercover to steal and deliver weapons and documents, and killed Nazi soldiers. Famed Warsaw Ghetto leader Emanuel Ringelblum praised the women and stated that their place in history was certain. Yet, as the years passed, their stories were literally left to collect dust in the British Library. Several years ago, while researching Hannah Senesh, Judy Batalion happened upon a trove of material about and by these heroines, few of whom survived to see liberation. In her capable hands, their disparate voices are successfully woven together to create a gripping and horrifying narrative.
The granddaughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, Batalion had a childhood in Montréal that was marked by the intergenerational trauma experienced by many second- and third-generation descendants of survivors. Her first book, White Walls, a memoir about her mother’s compulsive hoarding disorder, puts the concept of inherited trauma on full display. With The Light of Days, she takes us back to the root of the pain. While some of the women’s stories are given more attention than others — the main narrator is eighteen-year-old weapons smuggler Renia Kulkielka — the storytelling is clear and evocative even as it bounces from one character to the next. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for light reading. Details of what the women witnessed and endured, including severe physical torture and sexual violence, could be difficult even for seasoned readers of Holocaust literature. Batalion’s commitment to painstakingly recount each act of bravery and rebellion — one of the women refuses to wear a blindfold at her own execution — makes it an important addition to the genre of Jewish history.
It’s essential to tell more stories like The Light of Days if we are going to have a complete, truthful historical record, with women portrayed not just as girlfriends, assistants, or supporting characters, but as the powerful and effective leaders they are.
Amy Oringel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, and The Forward.