Judy Batalion: ...that strength and courage can be passed down through generations
Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: We love to learn about the lives of remarkable people and find out how they coped during difficult times on the show. On this episode, we'll learn about some of the unsung heroines of World War II – the brave, young Jewish women in the ghettos of the Nazi occupation in Poland. They saw and acknowledged the truth of their time, and risked their lives in the fight for justice and freedom.
Jan: Joining us is author, Judy Batalion, who did painstaking research in writing the new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos. It's a story that is so inspirational, fascinating, and important that Steven Spielberg has optioned it for a major motion picture. Judy, we thank you so much for joining us.
Judy: Thank you so much for having me, I'm really excited to be here.
Jan: Paint the picture for us, if you will, of the ghettos in the Nazi occupation in Poland during World War II and the female resistance fighters in those ghettos.
Judy: Sure. Just for some context, there were over 400 ghettos in Poland in World War II. Nazis set up ghettos to imprison Jews. These were usually in what were the formerly poor areas of cities and towns. They threw out all the Christians who were living there and forced all the Jews, the local Jews to move in. They were usually extremely crowded. The ghettos were very small, you could have several families sharing a room. They suffered from tremendous hunger, there was disease, there was thirst, and people were truly terrified. They didn't know what was going on, they were being tortured, they lived in fear of death constantly. People felt fully occupied both physically and mentally, psychically.
You asked about the women in these conditions. The women that I write about in my book are young Jewish women who are in these ghettos and came together, or work together to resist and to defy the Nazis. They did many different things, I tried to show a wide range of their organized resistance activity. In some cases, it was organizing soup kitchens, secret underground schools, secret cultural programs, they wrote underground bulletins, they edited newspapers. Some women left the ghettos, I can get into that later. They pretended to be Christian, they would go out and blow up Nazi supply trains, assassinate Gestapo men.
They were also ghetto fighters in ghetto uprisings, they were guerrilla fighters. Many of the women that I talk about, at the risk to their lives, they were courier girls. They slipped in and out of ghettos all the time, connecting the ghettos, bringing Jews information, bringing them these bulletins, sometimes braiding them in their hair. Eventually, they were actually helping to arm the underground, smuggling in weapons, ammunition, explosives. And also rescuing other Jews, helping take Jews out of the ghettos and finding them safe spaces, either in cities or in the forests.
Laura: It seems like these are women that we should have known about for years and years now. There's so many different heroes that we've been fortunate enough to learn from during the Holocaust, World War II, but these women seem so special and unique. Why is it that we are just now learning about them? How did you even find out about them because that was by mistake as well.
Judy: Yes, this was completely by accident. Let me start by answering there. This whole project began serendipitously. It began 14 years ago, it's been quite an odyssey. I was living in London at the time, and I was thinking a lot about my Jewish identity. I, myself, am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. I was thinking a lot about, what I call the emotional legacy of the Holocaust, the generational transmission of trauma. In my own life, I was thinking a lot about how I responded to danger, and how my Holocaust heritage had sort of shaped my understanding of risk and danger. I decided to write a piece about this, this kind of psychological element.
I happened to be doing some research at the British Library and accidentally came across a book. It was an old, unusual book in a blue fabric cover with gold lettering, a dusty old book, it was also in Yiddish. It was called Freuen in di Ghettos, Women in the Ghettos. I started flipping through the book. This was a story of women in the ghettos like I had never heard. This was a collection of dozens and dozens of names, photographs, bios, obituaries, excerpts from testimonies of young Jewish women who fought the Nazis from the ghettos, with chapter titles like, 'Weapons and Ammunition' and 'Partisan Combat'. I was stunned by this, I thought my Yiddish was a bit rusty. I reread it a few times trying to make sure I was getting this right. But I knew right away that this was a really remarkable story that I needed to work on.
Jan: The one question that comes to my mind is how much surveillance did the Nazis have over these women? How is it that they were able to mount this kind of resistance?
Judy: There are many reasons. Women, in particular, took on this role in the resistance where they left the ghettos, they did work on the outside. Yes, there was tremendous surveillance. Every step they took crossing the ghetto gate or border, every step outside was at the risk to their lives, and many of them were killed. But it was easier for women to pass, than for men to pass, as Christians. That's partially why women took on a lot of this work on the outside. Women were not circumcised, so they didn't have the physical marker of their Jewishness on their body.
In the 1930's, in Poland, boys and girls were subject to mandatory education, but often in Jewish families they would send their sons to Jewish schools, but their daughters to Polish public schools. This was to save on tuition, but ultimately this meant that the girls, the girls who I write about who ended up becoming these underground operatives, they were accustomed to Polish more, their habits to Christian prayers even, mannerisms, and nuance. They also learnt to speak Polish, "Like a Pole," they always say, without their creaky Yiddish accent. Yes, they were performing, this was a life-and-death acting job. They were performing it every second of the day, every second of their missions, they were living these false identities. But several of them managed, and they did it.
Laura: What can we learn today about resilience from them? What can the modern, young woman in 2021, who is dealing with such different struggles, how can she try and get some of that courage and apply it to her own life?
Judy: That's a great question. I think there are a few things we can learn. The first one is that different people resisted and revolted in different ways. Everyone's different, everyone has different personalities and conditions in their lives. As I mentioned earlier, some women, they were taking care of orphans, helping to rescue them, and finding children hiding spots; whereas others were combat fighters and throwing explosives. People can resist in different ways that sort of suit them, their personalities, and their life situations.
Also, something that's really interesting to me in this story is that these weren't just random groups of men and women who got together to resist, these were organized resistance efforts that I write about, and many of these groups were groups before the war. Jewish youth in Poland in the 30’s was organized into youth movements. A huge number of young Jewish Poles were members of these youth movements, a bit like the Scouts, but more so. These were intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and social training grounds for young people. They learned to value truth, self-awareness, self-sufficiency, and pride in their heritage, pride in their identity. They also learned how to work together, they valued collaboration, collectivity, egalitarianism, equality. Many of them had, even before the war, these young people had left their homes to live together in communes.
I think what I'm getting at, in my long-winded answer, is that these were organized efforts among people who had bonds, who trusted each other. I think we can learn about that going forward too, about how to organize and how to think through acts of rebellion and resistance in the conditions that we have.
Jan: How were they able to organize during this particular time?
Judy: As I was saying, they were already part of these groups. They had a structure to them; they already had leadership, sort of hierarchies. Groups knew each other, they trusted each other, they often lived together, even in the ghettos as well. They organized the same way that they organized themselves before the war.
Jan: Tell us more about what their lives had been like before the war and then once they got into these ghettos.
Judy: It was very interesting, 1930’s Poland. It was a time of both great cultural flourishing for the Jewish community. There were 180 Jewish newspapers in Warsaw in the 1930’s, art, theater, professorships abounded, museums, culture, it was a really thriving cultural community. But there was also anti-Semitism, there was also a sense of second-class citizenry that Jews experienced, and Jews had different political parties and different values for how to handle that.
But in general, the people I wrote about, many of these women, as I said, they're not only educated up to eighth grade, they went to university. Often, I came across a story about a young woman who shot Gestapo men in the head, and had a history degree from Warsaw University. Women were educated, they were leaders in the youth movements. Women had the vote, actually, in Poland quite early, 1918, before many Western countries. In general, they lived modern European lives so the transition to ghettoization was brutal and horrific.
Laura: Who's story really stuck out to you as somebody who was a real role model and a heroine that we don't know about, but we really should?
Judy: Oh, my goodness. You can't have a favorite child. Don't make me do that to them.
Laura: What about the most surprising?
Judy: They were all so surprising. I can tell you a few, I don't even know who to pick. Let me tell you about one woman, Frumka Plotnioka, who I've certainly never heard of. She was a leader in the youth movements before the war. When war hit in ’39, she was 25 years old. Like many of the movements, and including my grandparents too, she fled east. She made it across the border, she was in Belarusian territory, so she was actually safe. But she couldn't take it, fleeing a crisis didn't suit her, she felt so responsible to her people that she smuggled herself back into Nazi-occupied Poland. She went to Warsaw, she became a leader in the Warsaw ghetto, again she chose to be there. She ran soup kitchens and cultural programs, and negotiated with Jewish, Polish, and German leaders. She put a kerchief over her face, she had very Jewish features, but she tried to hide them and traveled through the country connecting groups in all these ghettos, all illegal.
She gave lectures in these circumstances, bringing hope and spirit to people. She then brought them news, she went around telling the news of the Nazi extermination plan, the genocide. She told many of the Jewish communities about this. She was the first person to bring weapons into the Warsaw ghetto, she hid them in a sack of potatoes, two guns, under the potatoes. She was then stationed in this town, Southwest Poland, called Będzin, where she led the underground, helped them prepare for revolt, and was killed shooting Nazis from a bunker. In fact, after the war, she was given some military recognition by, what was then, the Polish leadership. And yet, her story’s completely forgotten. She was known as “Die Mameh” in Yiddish, The Mother, among so many of the Jews in Poland.
Jan: That story is fascinating. What else, what other stories stick out to you?
Judy: For instance, I was really taken by the story of this one woman, Bela Hazan. She was with the Underground from the get-go. They stationed her in this town of Grodno, and she was going to live on the outside because she was going to do a lot of couriering and mission work between the ghettos. She was pretending 24 hours a day to be Catholic, to be a Christian girl. She got a room in a house and she needed to get a job because otherwise it would look suspect. She went to the local employment agency and they said, "We have the perfect job for you."
She got a job working as a secretary for the Gestapo, she worked in their office serving them tea, and she did some translation work for them. They all knew her, she was one of their great employees. But what she did was, she ended up stealing their documents; she would bring them to the Jewish underground who had these makeshift forgery labs where they could copy documents, Aryan documents. They made fake passports, fake visas, fake travel papers, fake ID so Jews could pretend not to be Jewish. She ended up smuggling guns and materials across the country.
One great story is that one of the men in the Gestapo office developed a romantic, like a crush on her, and he invited her to the Christmas party. Again, she couldn't say no because that would seem suspect or unusual. That night, two other couriers on their own missions transporting weapons across the country we're staying with her. All three of these Jewish women dressed up as young Christian girls and went to a Gestapo Christmas party. There's a photograph in the book taken of them at this Christmas party.
Jan: Oh wow.
Laura: The risks just seem unreal. Do you think that they were, for the most part, trying to help the greater good? Or was there a desire within them to also leave a legacy for themselves? What was it?
Judy: I think this was entirely about rescue, and in the cases where they knew they had no chance, they would say, "We're a bunch of starving Jews with two guns, we're not going to topple the Nazis." For them it was about pride, about pride for future generations, and just about the fight for, as we said, for freedom, for justice, for what was right. They couldn't just stand by.
Jan: How did they handle the fear?
Judy: It's a good question, it's not something that they wrote about. I think they performed. First of all, they were so filled with fury and passion, I think the fear was almost a secondary feeling. Many of them, they assumed they would be killed, they were going on suicide missions, they didn't think they'd live. They were surprised, often, when they did live.
I think that they were very driven on their missions. They do talk about, in some diaries of the time, about needing to fully enrobe, ensconce themselves in this resistance work because it actually helped them not feel grief, not feel that the horrible feelings around the deaths of their families and the things that they'd witnessed. They were just performing 24 hours a day.
Laura: I was surprised to hear how they were able to cope with a lot of this by using humor at a time when we never really think about humor coming out of this situation. You talk about the story of Lily Rickman. She actually seems like such a brave and funny young woman who so many of us should try to emulate, what was her story?
Judy: She was an example of someone who told jokes, who told jokes during transports to alleviate fear, who told jokes at the camps to alleviate fear and create solidarity for herself and for the others around her. I think one of the lines I recall was, she had arrived at a camp, perhaps it was at Auschwitz, and they shaved the women's hair, she says, “Hey, great, free haircuts.” That created a sense of control and camaraderie. Humor is the weapon for people that don't have weapons.
Jan: Wow, that's an excellent way of putting it. What was your reaction when you found that Steven Spielberg wanted to option the book for a major motion picture?
Judy: I was extremely excited.
Jan: I bet. When might that come out?
Judy: It's at very early stages. We're just starting to work on the screenplay now. I don't know. Fingers crossed.
Jan: When you look at the stories of these remarkable women, and you look at how their lives were, I'm wondering, do you think you could have done what they did?
Judy: No, I don't. And, of course, I thought about that all the time, reading about them, writing about them, would I have done this? Could I have done this? And I don't think so. I think that's why I became so fascinated by them, so obsessed by these figures. They felt like they could do something that I couldn't. They were so different from me. That's part of what drew me to them.
Laura: As you know, the name of our show is Nobody Told Me! We ask our guests at the end of each show, “What is your nobody told me lesson?” What did nobody tell you about having courage, honor, and bravery, that you didn't learn until you learned about the ghetto girls.
Judy: That's a good question. I think it's just that, as I said earlier, when I went into this, I was thinking so much about how trauma passes through generations, how difficulties pass through generations. I'm coming out of this thinking how, at the same time, strength passes through generations, bravery, courage, and positive traits and attributes as well. I feel like nobody told me that I could think about the positive elements that have passed on in my heritage.
Jan: Did you feel, in some sense, that these women were sort of sitting on your shoulder helping you write the stories?
Judy: I felt they were sitting on my shoulder, but I always feel more like, "Make sure you're telling the story correctly." I felt a great duty to tell their stories, and to do so in as fair, and complex, and nuanced way as I could. I did feel like, "If I don't tell this story of Frumka Plotnioka that I found it some Yiddish documents from the 1940’s, who will?"
Jan: Yeah, yeah. So there's a great responsibility there. How can people connect with you on social media and the internet if they'd like to find out more about your work?
Judy: Sure, my website is judybatalion.com. I'm on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @JudyBatalion.
Jan: Super. And the book is also available in a version for young people, isn't it?
Judy: Yes, there's a young readers edition geared at children ages 10 to 14.
Jan: Oh, that's great, that's wonderful. Judy, we thank you so much for joining us.
Judy: Thank you so much for having me.
Jan: Again, our thanks to Judy Batalion, whose latest book is called, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos. Again, her website is judybatalion.com. We wish you the best of luck, Judy, with the book. And we can't wait to see the movie.
Judy: Thank you so much.
Jan: I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.