by Judy Batalion
Reviewd by Sonia Purnell in The New York Times, April 6, 2021.
“The ‘Ghetto Girls’ Who Fought the Nazis With Weapons and Wiles”
Judy Batalion was raised in Montreal surrounded by Holocaust survivor families with stories of loss and suffering. “My genes were stamped — even altered, as neuroscientists now suggest — by trauma,” she writes in “The Light of Days.” “I grew up in an aura of victimization and fear.”
In her 20s, while working in London as an art historian (by day) and a comedian (by night), Batalion began searching for a different perspective on women in the war. She found it in the forgotten stories of Polish “ghetto girls” — dozens of Jewish women who did not ask “for pity” or flee the Nazis. Instead, they stayed and fought them. Or flirted with them, then shot and killed them. They also led groups of Jewish fighters into combat against the Wehrmacht.
Batalion centers her book on one such group of exceptional women, some as young as 15, all part of the armed underground Jewish resistance that operated in more than 90 Eastern European ghettos, from Vilna to Krakow. Knowing that there would be no mercy in capture, only torture and a brutal death, the women bribed executioners; smuggled pistols, grenades and cash inside teddy bears, handbags and loaves of bread; helped hundreds of comrades to escape; and seduced Nazis with wine and whiskey before killing them with efficient stealth.
There were uprisings in at least nine cities, including Warsaw and Vilna — sustained by the labyrinth of underground bunkers hand-dug by women, together with their attacks on the electrical grid. And in part thanks to such acts of female heroism, armed Jewish resistance broke out in Auschwitz and other death camps. In all, 30,000 Jews joined partisan units in European forests, a significant number of them women, despite the rough treatment (including rape) they often received at the hands of male comrades.
Why, Batalion wonders, had she not heard these women’s stories before? She stumbled across them only by chance on the dustier shelves of London’s British Library. The problem she then confronted in writing this book, which pulses with both rage and pride, was choosing which women to include and which to leave out. Her desire to pay tribute to as many as possible is understandable, but a simpler narrative with fewer subjects might have been even more powerful.
One story that definitely needed to be told is that of Vitka Kempner, a partisan leader in Vilna, who had escaped through the bathroom window of her small town’s synagogue to command fighters on the front line. Perhaps the standout woman here, though, is the hugely appealing Renia Kukielka, whom Batalion describes as “neither an idealist nor a revolutionary but a savvy, middle-class girl who happened to find herself in a sudden and unrelenting nightmare.”
In September 1939, when the Germans came to the Polish town of Chmielnik and burned or shot a quarter of its people, Renia saw how only one Jewish boy tried to confront them. Outraged, she vowed to join the resistance. She went on to lose her family, her home, her friends and her money, but never her iron will. Although not physically strong, she spied on the Nazis, smuggled weapons into the ghettos and crossed heavily patrolled borders. When tortured by the Gestapo to the brink of death, she remained defiant.
Of course, Jewish men in the resistance performed heroic feats as well, but because of the women’s ability to blend into the background they were often assigned more daring roles. In the larger context of the war, their victories were small and their sacrifices great. But the spirit of their resistance was, as Batalion rightly notes, “colossal compared with the Holocaust narrative I’d grown up with.”