Judy Batalion’s richly detailed homage to the Jewish women who resisted Nazism is now available in an edition for young readers. Batalion carefully explains her purpose: bringing to light the little-known stories of female freedom fighters whose unparalleled courage has been nearly lost to history. Although many of these women did not survive the Holocaust, and others were unable to accomplish their goal of fighting the Nazis and saving Jews, they approached their mission with a philosophy of defiance. Even if they ultimately failed, they would die with dignity, proving to the world that Jews, faced with virtually impossible odds, would try to defend themselves.
Each woman resistance fighter in the book has her own story, with several of them overlapping. Batalion offers important information and corrects misperceptions that young readers may bring to the subject. There was a range of activist groups representing Europe’s Jews both prior to and under Nazi occupation. The social Bund was important, but so were the Labor Zionists of Freedom and the Young Guard’s Marxism blended with Zionism. Some groups incorporated religious customs while others ignored them. Batalion’s thorough research, as well as her commitment to honor her subjects, illuminates Jewish history by accurately reporting the diverse nature of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Both in her introduction and epilogue, Batalion carefully discusses the framework for her study. Academics have contrasted resistancewith resilience; she focuses on those who actively fought against the Nazi regime. At the same time, she acknowledges that there were others who could only try to preserve their humanity in the face of degradation. Batalion does not imply that the women who actively resisted were innately superior to those who could not. She emphasizes that the women resisters were constantly playing a role. Some assumed the identity of Christian Poles and often capitalized on gender stereotypes to appear helpless or compliant. Many were initially involved in educational activities, promoting knowledge of Jewish history and working collectively on local kibbutzim to prepare for future migration to Palestine. As conditions worsened, the women’s mission transitioned to overt resistance. Some served as couriers, delivering documents. Others committed acts of sabotage to at least slow the Nazi assault. There were many who carried arms and killed those who were engaged in genocide against the Jewish people.
Books about Jewish resistance to the Nazis begin with the premise that most readers know the outcome: attempts to save any significant portion of the Jewish people will ultimately fail. Batalion meets the challenge of giving meaning to these women’s lives. When they were engaged in their struggle, almost all did initially believe that their persistence would lead to a positive outcome. Others came to terms with the truth, that they had nothing left to lose. After the war, those who survived confronted emotional challenges and the reluctance of even some Jews to hear about their experiences. With the distance of time, we have come to recognize that even those who did not survive succeeded, shattering the image of Jews as passive victims and proving that women could show unprecedented strength.
This highly recommended book includes a glossary, additional sources, and a list of all the women discussed.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.