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

By – January 12, 2022

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of HarperCollins

  1. How sig­nif­i­cant was it that Renia was born into a mid­dle-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly that pri­or­i­tized edu­ca­tion (3)? What advan­tages did this offer her?

  2. Why did the Kukieł­ka fam­i­ly decide to move to Chmiel­nik (8)? Why return to Jędrze­jów to set­tle under Ger­man rule, instead of press­ing for­ward to free­dom (11)?

  3. Frum­ka and Zivia shift­ed their focus from help­ing only Free­dom mem­bers to help­ing all Jews (17). Why was this impor­tant, and did it align with Freedom’s values?

  4. Why would the Nazis pit Jew against Jew by cre­at­ing the Juden­rats” (18)? What did the Jew­ish peo­ple who were select­ed as Juden­rat offi­cials hope to achieve?

  5. Free­dom and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions pri­or­i­tized giv­ing War­saw ghet­to res­i­dents access to edu­ca­tion, sports oppor­tu­ni­ties, and the­atri­cal per­for­mances (30). Was this an act of resis­tance? Why, or why not?

  6. Why were books so impor­tant to Free­dom and sim­i­lar orga­ni­za­tions (31)? What was sig­nif­i­cant about the books and plays that Free­dom start­ed to print?

  7. What impact did the sto­ries about the Nazis’ behav­ior have on Jew­ish peo­ple liv­ing in the War­saw ghet­to (38)? How did those sto­ries lead to the estab­lish­ment of the Jew­ish Fight­ing Organization?

  8. Renia met escapees from a near­by vil­lage who were spared by a Nazi sol­dier after their moth­er hid them around the house (42). What rea­son did the Nazi sol­dier give for spar­ing their lives?

  9. The Nazis round­ed up the Jew­ish peo­ple of Będzin and tried to divide them into three lines, but the Jew­ish peo­ple fought back by cre­at­ing chaos (60). What were some of the oth­er things that the Jews of Będzin did to pre­vent the Nazis from tak­ing peo­ple dur­ing the selec­tion? Did their actions help save lives?

  10. There were sev­er­al aspects to Kraków’s Fight­ing Pio­neers” pledge (67). What were some of the ways that it addressed the many types of resistance?

  11. How did the upris­ing at the War­saw ghet­to that was led by the Jew­ish Fight­ing Orga­ni­za­tion (75), chal­lenge the Nazis’ per­spec­tive of the Jew­ish peo­ple? Why was the effort, which only last­ed a short time, con­sid­ered a success?

  12. Renia’s role as a kashar­it, or couri­er, meant that she was respon­si­ble for car­ry­ing news to dif­fer­ent cities (90). Why was Renia’s mis­sion of wit­ness­ing and report­ing the things that were hap­pen­ing to Jew­ish peo­ple so important?

  13. Like many of the women who fought in the resis­tance, Zivia felt a great deal of guilt for the com­rades that she wasn’t able to save (109). How did emo­tion­al trau­ma play a role in Zivia’s actions dur­ing the war, and how did it impact the rest of her life?

  14. The couri­ers were able to smug­gle weapons, bribe offi­cers, and meet secret con­tacts (116). How did they use their gen­der to avoid suspicion?

  15. Cha­j­ka befriend­ed Ger­man sol­diers in Będzin and told them about the hor­rif­ic things that were hap­pen­ing to the Jew­ish peo­ple (157). Why did she do that, and what impact did she hope to have?

  16. Bela and Lon­ka were able to recon­nect after they were both cap­tured and brought to the Paw­iak prison (170). Why was it dan­ger­ous for Jew­ish women to iden­ti­fy each oth­er when they were impris­oned in jails or at con­cen­tra­tion camps?

  17. Gus­ta wrote her mem­oirs using scraps of toi­let paper sewn togeth­er with thread (195). Was that an act of resis­tance? Why?

  18. Renia wor­ried that Jew­ish peo­ple in Pales­tine wouldn’t be able to under­stand what Euro­pean Jews went through in the Holo­caust (210). Why was this a con­cern? How did the lack of under­stand­ing impact the way the couri­ers and resis­tance fight­ers assim­i­lat­ed into the new land?

  19. How were the women like Faye Schul­man (218), who spoke pub­licly about their expe­ri­ences dur­ing the war, still par­tic­i­pat­ing in the resis­tance even after the war was over?

  20. What were some of the rea­sons that it was hard for women like Zivia (220) to adjust to post-war life?

  21. What was the brigade of The Avengers hop­ing to achieve by con­tin­u­ing their work after the war (233)?