Non­fic­tion

The Light of Days: The Untold Sto­ry of Women Resis­tance Fight­ers in Hitler’s Ghettos

  • Review
By – March 26, 2021

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.

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