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

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 Mon­tre­al 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 com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for risk advi­so­ry firm K2 Integri­ty, as well as a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesBusi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Judy Batalion

  1. Chai­ka Gross­man said the Jew­ish girls were the nerve-cen­ters of the move­ment.” What did she mean by that? Did any par­tic­u­lar women strike you as par­tic­u­lar­ly vital to the resistance?

  2. Renia at first seems like an unlike­ly resister: Like so many Jew­ish women across the coun­try, she did not think of her­self as a polit­i­cal per­son. She was not part of any orga­ni­za­tion, yet here she was, risk­ing her life in action.” How does some­one who is not a polit­i­cal per­son” wind up risk­ing her life over and over again? Do you think the not-polit­i­cal peo­ple you know could trans­form them­selves the way Renia did?

  3. What gave women resisters an edge over male resisters? How were they able to turn their gen­der to their advantage?

  4. A fre­quent refrain in the book is Fight or flight?” If – like some of the youth group lead­ers, you’d have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to leave Poland safe­ly – would you have gone? Why do you think they stayed?

  5. Why was female friend­ship so vital to the lives and work of the women in this book? Think of friend­ships like Bela and Lan­ka, Ruz­ka and Vit­ka, and Frum­ka and Zivia.

  6. There are many sto­ries in The Light of Days about how Jew­ish women in the resis­tance dis­guised them­selves as Catholic Poles, either by phys­i­cal means, like bleach­ing their hair, or by assum­ing more stereo­typ­i­cal Pol­ish behav­ior. What does their suc­cess say about the idea of peo­ple look­ing Jew­ish?” How do you con­trast that with the author’s sto­ry of being told her whole life that her looks were tra­di­tion­al­ly Jew­ish but feel­ing that she fit right in on the streets of present-day Warsaw?

  7. Were there any women in The Light of Days who you par­tic­u­lar­ly admired? Whose sto­ries res­onat­ed the most with you per­son­al­ly, and why?

  8. Many Jew­ish resisters — Renia, Bela, Lan­ka — were pass­ing as Aryan and so were jailed and tor­tured as Poles, not as Jews. What does this say about the Nazi regime and its occu­pa­tion of Poland? Would you, like those women, feel con­flict­ed when they wit­nessed the plight of their Jew­ish pris­on­ers while they passed a Poles?

  9. Dis­cuss this book’s sto­ries of soft resis­tance” to the Nazis as well as armed resis­tance: women car­ing for orphans, cre­at­ing libraries, sav­ing impor­tant doc­u­ments and cul­tur­al arti­facts, even sim­ply hug­ging one anoth­er in Auschwitz for com­fort and warmth. How do those sto­ries com­pare with the sto­ries of women assas­si­nat­ing Ger­mans and blow­ing up sup­ply lines?

  10. When describ­ing Cha­j­ka Klinger’s death by sui­cide, Judy Batal­ion writes: Not every­one sur­vives sur­viv­ing.” What does that mean to you, espe­cial­ly as it relates to sur­vivors in this book? Could the same be said of sur­vivors of oth­er wars, dis­as­ters, or traumas?

  11. Renia’s mot­to after the war was: It hap­pened, and it passed.” How did that atti­tude shape her new life in Israel? What are the pros and cons of that approach?

  12. In her epi­logue Judy Batal­ion talks about her research in Poland and writes: “…I also under­stood that the Poles felt mis­un­der­stood. To be held respon­si­ble for the Holo­caust did seem unfair, espe­cial­ly when the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment did not col­lab­o­rate with Nazis and…certainly this claim is unjust to those who risked their lives to help Jews. Then again, there were many Poles who did noth­ing, and, worse. I have tried to under­stand the Pol­ish sen­ti­ment of vic­tim­hood with­out white­wash­ing the anti­semitism, with­out play­ing a game of who suf­fered more.” Do you agree? How did you feel about the role of Pol­ish Catholics and Pol­ish soci­ety as their Jew­ish neigh­bors and com­mu­ni­ties were wiped out?

  13. What did you think of the pho­tos in this book? How did they affect your feel­ings about the sto­ry, or your under­stand­ing of the history?

  14. Pri­or to read­ing this book, had you heard of orga­nized Jew­ish resis­tance to the Nazis? Has what you’ve read changed your under­stand­ing of World War II or the Holocaust?