Episode 56: The Light of Days: Judy Batalion (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. This year, we’re marking Yom Hashoah by remembering the Jewish women who resisted the Nazi murder machine. Judy Batalion is a writer, comedian, and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Her new book—and soon to be screenplay—is called The Light of Days. It’s about women resistance fighters in Hitler’s ghettos.
Judy Batalion: They were oftentimes hidden underground for long periods of time and could only come out at night. And they craved, they craved food, they craved drink, and they craved the light of day.
Nahanni: The stories of the women Judy writes about in The Light of Days had been nearly forgotten. So much so, that when she first discovered them, she thought she had made a mistake. Judy was born in Montreal, but was living in London when she was researching the World War Two heroine and martyr Hannah Szenes. Buried deep in the stacks of the British Library, she found an unusual book.
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Judy: It's um an old book. It's, you know, in this blue fabric cover with gold lettering and, you know, the yellowing deckled edges. And I opened the book and it is about 200 pages of tiny script in Yiddish. What's even more unusual is I happen to speak Yiddish. So I start flipping through this book, looking for Hannah Szenes, but she's only in the last ten pages. And in front of her, there are 180, 190 pages of other women stories, um, with pictures and snippets and bios of other female fighters. And the chapter titles are like "Ammunition," "Ode to Weapons," uh, "The Fight in Vilna." And I should say that the title of the book was Freuen in di Ghettos, "Women in the Ghettos," but this was a very different ghetto story than I had ever expected or anticipated. So I was immediately intrigued and I knew I'd found something special.
Nahanni: And again, this book was published in 1946, correct?
Judy: This book was published, sorry, I should have said, in New York in 1946, and the intention was to tell American Jews what had, what had happened, uh, among in particular Jewish women, ghetto fighters.
Nahanni: So who were some of these young women?
Judy: So these young women, many of them became core characters in my book. They were leaders of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. They were saboteurs. They were forest partisans, intelligent agents, combat fighters, medics, social workers, the editors of underground bulletins. And they were, um, in particular, kashariyot, couriers, Jewish women who smuggled information, underground bulletins, medication, ammunition, weapons, cash, and people in and out of ghettos. They were women, who, I would say, carried, you know, cash in their garter belts and dynamite in their underwear. They blew up Nazi supply trains and some of them shot and killed Gestapo men.
Nahanni: So you're in this library in London, holding this book in Yiddish from 1946. That's like, I picture it like a book that's like practically falling apart. And here are these dozens of women that you've never heard about. What are you thinking at that moment?
Judy: Well, first I'm thinking maybe I'm getting this wrong. I mean, I haven't been using my Yiddish in a long time. Um, so, you know, I was like... I had to reread. And when you read, like, is this true? You know, am I, am I, am I making a mistake? But no, this was true. Um, I was, I was getting it right. And I, you know, I knew this was a story I knew I had to work on this.
Nahanni: Could you sketch out a few of these women for us, maybe a couple of the main characters in the book?
Judy: The main character, the kind of skeleton of the book, um, her name is Renia Kukielka, and she is from a small town about an hour out of Krakow. It's called Yenstichov. She is fifteen years old when the war begins and she escapes the ghetto. And she sets off first by herself, wandering through Poland and posing as a Christian girl. She did not look Jewish, which becomes a major theme in this book, the performance of non-Jewishness. And she eventually ends up… she pretends to be a Polish Catholic girl. She gets a job as a housekeeper for a German family. Uh, she goes to church and it has to, you know, nervously, genuflecting and copying what everyone else is doing. Um, but then she tracks down her sister and her older sister is with a resistance cell with the underground in the town of Bedzin in Southwest Poland and her sister manages to smuggle Renia to Bedzin. They find out that their parents had been killed, their families have been killed and, and, and the underground at that time needs someone to go to Warsaw, and so she, this is her first mission and she becomes a courier for the underground, doing several trips between Bedzin and Warsaw, procuring fake IDs, traveling with money, traveling with weapons, purchasing weapons, um, she witnesses the Warsaw ghetto uprising. She brings back information. She also smuggles fellow Jews, brings them with her to Warsaw, places them in hiding, places them with the underground there. And, and, and I don't want to give away the end. She ends up getting caught and has a, an I mean, masterminds, an incredible escape out of Poland.
Nahanni: And her story in your book is woven together with many, many other stories of young women that she interacted with, that she met along the way. One of the things I found so fascinating was all the reasons that you laid out about why in many cases, women were more suited for some of the roles than men were. Can you give some examples of that?
Judy: Yeah, I mean, this is in a way, the key theme of the book. So a lot of this resistance, um, activities or organized resistance activities had to happen, um, outside the ghettos and camps. And in order to be outside, uh, a person had to pretend not to be Jewish. So Jewish women were better suited to pose as Christians. And there are a number of reasons for this. One of them is they were not circumcised. If a Nazi, if a collaborator thought that someone was a Jew, a man was a Jew, they would force them to drop their pants. And, the answer of their Judaism is, you know, marked in their body and women didn't have that. Women couldn't fail the pants drop test as it was called. So, um, that's one reason, another reason which I think is so interesting is education was mandatory for men and women, certainly through elementary school in Poland. But many families say if they saved their money, they sent their sons to private Jewish schools and the girls went to public school. And because of that, the girls had Polish Catholic friends. They were acculturated. And every memoir and testimony mentioned is time and time again, they spoke Polish, like a Pole, is what they always say, without a, they call it, the creaky Yiddish accent. And again, that meant everything when going undercover. And then alongside that women, you know, at, see, I think same as now, or, you know, are often trained to listen to other's cues, to be sensitive to the environment around them, I mean, I'm speaking very generally here, but those were, those are all skills good for being a spy, good for going undercover. Um, women had the kind of eyes and ears for it. And they were coy and they could be flirtatious and time and time again, it was a cute smile that, you know, the one woman Blanca had the Gestapo carry her velises full of contraband material because, you know, she smiled and asked for their help. And you know, Nazi culture was particularly sexist and, you know, women weren't weren't suspected. So I think all those reasons made kind of women, the ideal undercover agents.
Nahanni: They might not have always been suspected, but you do write in the book about dozens of near misses and also women who got caught and paid the ultimate price for it.
Judy: Uh, I mean, most of these women were killed. It’s part of why we don't know the story. Most of them did not survive. Most of them did not write their story. Most of them were killed.
Nahanni: Um hm.
Judy: I mean, this was extremely dangerous daring work. I mean, they were, they were jumping over the ghetto walls and, and pretending to be Christians and smuggling dynamite. Um, you know, it, you know, there were a lot of, a number of them write about a moment where their own parents, they find out their parents were killed. And something about that, um, becoming an orphan and the characters I write about were all born in sort of the, um, mid twenties. They're let's say an average age, 18 to 25 or something at the time that I write about them. And becoming an orphan at that age, sets something off in them. None of the normal systems of the world make sense anymore. I think one partisan said something like, you know, "when my mother died, that's when I knew I had to fight." Obviously obviously tremendous anger and a desire for revenge um, also fueled this.
Nahanni: You also told several stories of women who felt like, they knew that they were going to die in the end and that they wanted to die resisting.
Judy: This was a discussion they had, are we resisting to live or are we resisting to die? Like, why are we fighting? And for many of them, they were fighting to die. What mattered was pride in their identity and justice.
Nahanni: You cite some numbers in the book—you write that there were 90 ghettos with Jewish underground units that were to some extent armed, and that 30,000 Jews joined the forest partisans, and a third of them—so 10,000—were women.
Judy: Yeah, this is... they're big numbers. I mean, you know, they're big enough numbers that we should have... I should have heard these stories. There were, um, in Warsaw alone, there were Jewish networks. I mean, fascinating to me, they supported. Somewhere between 10 and 12,000 Jews in hiding and they supported them financially. They found them medical help, hiding places, papers. There were armed revolts at numerous ghettos and, and, and, uh, um, uprisings and actions as well as in five death camps and concentration camps. There was a revolt at Auschwitz, which I write about because women were quite involved in that. So, yes, it was so much more, more vast than I'd ever known or understood. And that, that is, and what the numbers I'm giving you are really, these are kind of, um, organized and armed resistance. Of course, there's what we, you know, broader definitions of rescue and resilience, friendship and art and culture and social work and, and social care. I now can't look at the story of the Holocaust without seeing as the story of resistance.
Nahanni: Hm. I mean, the other issue is like, how do you talk about resistance without somehow blaming people who didn't.
Judy: And I think that's one of the reasons that people have avoided writing about this. There are ethical implications, and one of them is that this fear of blaming the victim, blaming people who didn't resist. But I mean, of course, I'm not blaming anyone. I'm telling the story of, of different types of resistance and different forms of resilience. As people have said, just living was resistance.
Nahanni: Right. So how, how do you, I mean, and, and so it was so much more extensive than most people realize, and yet it didn't have an impact on the course of the war, in the bigger picture. And I'm wondering how you think about how to talk about this history, how to honor it without sort of overstating the significance compared to the scale of the horror that was happening around it.
Judy: You know, I think that obviously when you compare numbers, you know, 90 ghettos is nothing compared to six million people. This was a small effort compared to the numbers. But it was much bigger than what I had ever imagined involving thousands and thousands of people in organized resistance. And they were passionate and driven and full of pride and anger. And I think what was important to me was to tell the story of, of, of small acts even, um, because they too are, I think, important.
Nahanni: You write about the author of Women in the Ghettos writing in 1946 about these women as the Jewish nations greatest treasures, and he sort of imagined that one day they’d become the core of jewish folklore. But that clearly hasn’t happened. Can you speculate about why that is?
Judy: There are many reasons, and I can speculate at length. Um, but very broadly for now. Um, I think there are reasons that we didn't know these stories are mixed, are some political reasons. There are many personal reasons. Um, there are some practical reasons and, and then there are, as I talked a little bit about before, it's sort of, I don't know if the word is taboos or, or discomfort about how we even write about the Holocaust today right now. The political stories are more my taking from other scholars who've written about this. Um, it's not my area, but I can say briefly, you know, it had to do with how there was kind of a myth of passivity, of the Jews of Europe and this, you know, fed into different narratives and shaped different narratives of the Holocaust in different ways. You know, in Israel, there was often an idea that the old Jew was weak and that was helping to build a new Jew who was strong. But I think for me, I, and this is where I feel like I've done the most, like hands-on work is on the personal side because I've read these women's accounts. You know, so many of them did not tell their stories. They didn't tell them because. Some of them simply weren't believed, people thought they were crazy. Some of them didn't tell their stories. There were, they were accused. They were accused by family members of going off to fight and not helping the family. They were often accused of sleeping their way to safety. Women had tremendous survivor's guilt. I mean, overwhelming for some of them, for those that survived. You know, I'm thinking in particular. Hasia Bieliki, I mean, an incredible story. Her whole family was killed. She became a smuggler, a courier in Bialystock. There was a whole ring of seventeen Jewish, uh, teenage girls around age 20, who. I mean, they transported weapons, ammunition. They supplied the ghetto with weapons. They supplied local forest partisans with weapons. Um, I mean, her story is incredible, but why am I saying this? Because in her memoirs written much later, she talks about how she felt, how could she tell her story? She had not been at Auschwitz. She had not been in a concentration camp or a death camp and she felt that she had not really suffered. There's a lot about this hierarchy of suffering and what stories end up getting told. And then I think silence also was a means of coping and it was so important for so many of these women to have children and to birth a new generation of Jews, who-- and they wanted them to be normal. They wanted them to be happy. And I, you know, something I heard, you know, we didn't want to be professional survivors. It's it's now, or it's, you know, more recently before these women died, these women had grandchildren, their relationships with their grandchildren were in many ways, more secure, less fraught. I feel like a lot of the stories that we hear now about women in the war come from later in life tellings, um, to, to the granddaughters often.
Nahanni: So your book wasn't even finished yet when Steven Spielberg optioned the movie rights, right?
Judy: I hadn't even written it. I hadn't even started writing it.
Nahanni: Um, so you are writing the screenplay or co-writing the screenplay?
Judy: I'm co-writing the screenplay. Yes.
Nahanni: And I'm so curious what that process is like after writing an entire book, how you boil down this story into something for a Hollywood movie.
Judy: It's hard for me to talk about because we're working on it right now. Um, so I don't have the kind of distance to be able to speak about it with any wisdom or insight really. I'm so in it right now. The screenplay is really, um, it is focused on Renia and on her story and obviously we've had to take massive chunks out of a very long book, um, you know, and selected, you know, a small number of anecdotes, um, and, and, and bits of narrative. Um, but to show the, what the conflicts and the, um, danger and complication and, and wonder of, of what she did.
Nahanni: You started off this interview—and in fact you began this whole project—with your research of Hannah Szenes, who was a Hungarian Jew who immigrated to Palestine and then returned to Hungary as a paratrooper to fight the Nazis. She was caught and later executed before she could carry out her mission. Szenes is probably the one woman resistance fighter that most people know about… she also wrote the words to the song “Eli, eli.” And I know you’ve asked yourself the question, how come we know about her and not about anyone else?
Judy: This is something that a number of scholars who I met with to talk to this book with, they really felt strongly, the reason we know about Hannah Szenes is that she became, uh, the, the... Jewish community and Israel was kind of, um, people were accusing them that they didn't do enough to help the Jews in Europe. And so she became a kind of poster child for, well, we did, we sent, we sent people back. And she, but why her? She was blonde. She was 20. She was beautiful. She wrote songs. She was a poet. And there were the women who actually ran bigger missions than she did were older brunettes, divorced. They didn't, they didn't fit the poster mold.
Nahanni: How do you hope that within the Jewish consciousness um, your book sort of shifts the way we think about Holocaust stories and memory?
Judy: I mean, I, I kind of have two answers. Um, I mean, on a very basic level, I really want everyone to know about these women. These are stories of such strength and passion. And I hope we can incorporate that as part of our sense of our lineage and our ancestry and our, and who we are. Um, but on a more kind of intellectual level, what's been so interesting to me is just this question of why have we remembered certain stories or why have certain stories, certain ways of remembering the Holocaust—and everything else—becomes so much more pronounced than others. I hope we, we take with it some self-consciousness about how we construct histories, what stories we prioritize, um, what stories we listen to and to just remember that every story in, in this case, I'm the author, and this was my interest, and every story you know, it comes from some, some bias, some, some, uh, uh, position or some point of view, and to just be very aware, we are of that too, to ask where our stories come from.
Nahanni: Judy Batalion’s new book is called The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos. She is currently co-writing a screenplay based on the book for a movie to be produced by Steven Spielberg. To hear more from Judy Batalion, check out Judith Rosenbaum’s April 8th interview for JWA’s Quarantine Book Talks. You can sign up for the Quarantine Book Talks at jwa.org/events. I also recommend another podcast that I produce—"Those Who Were There"—which is based on interviews from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. Episodes 8 and 9 from Season One feature Celia Kassow, who tells a story of months of hiding, her narrow escape, and how she was given a gun and a horse when she joined the forest partisans. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. We had help on this episode from Asal Ehsanipour. Our team also includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Find us online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous.
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How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 56: The Light of Days: Judy Batalion (Transcript)." (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-56-light-days-judy-batalion/transcript>.