The Light of Days

Comrades from the pioneer training commune in Białystok, 1938.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF GHETTO FIGHTERS’ HOUSE MUSEUM

From The Wall Street Journal:

They were nicknamed the “ghetto girls” but the label does not do justice to the defiant, mostly forgotten Eastern European Jewish women in their teens and 20s who, acting in resistance to the Nazis, undertook one mission impossible after another to disrupt the machinery of the Holocaust and save as many Jews as they could.

Now, in her well-researched and riveting chronicle “The Light of Days,” Judy Batalion brings these unsung heroines to the forefront. She has recovered their stories from diaries and memoirs written variously in Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew, some composed during the war (one in prison, on toilet paper, then hidden beneath floorboards), others afterward, still more recorded in oral histories. This group portrait forcefully counters the myth of Jewish passivity, at once documenting the breadth and extent of Jewish activism throughout the ghettos—armed resistance groups operated in more than 90 of them, according to Ms. Batalion—and underlining in particular the crucial roles women played in the fight to survive. Indeed, several of the women whose stories Ms. Batalion tells also helped lead the most significant act of anti-Nazi Jewish resistance, the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which is recounted here in brutal detail.

The tasks and responsibilities these female fighters took on were as myriad as the false Christian identities they adopted to avoid capture, their disguises so successful that one was even hired as a translator by the Gestapo in Grodno. But mostly they traveled, seemingly nonstop, to surrounding Polish towns and in and out of the barricaded ghettos that they managed, through bribes and stealth, to penetrate. In the ghettos the Nazis not only segregated Jews from Aryan society but also prevented evidence of the massive deprivations and punishments Jews suffered there from leaking to the world outside.

This Nazi-imposed isolation made the female couriers all the more welcome when they arrived, living proof that those locked inside the walls were not forgotten. During their visits, the couriers acted as “human radios,” carrying greetings from other ghettos, bringing warnings of forthcoming deportations to the death camps, and serving as liaisons coordinating the efforts of ghetto resistance cells with those of armed partisan groups in the forests. They also took on the grim responsibility of reporting the latest massacres and other atrocities against the Jews. The eyewitness testimonies they conveyed were harrowing. But rather than spread hopelessness among the ghetto population, the couriers often did the opposite, breeding greater determination to resist, to leave a legacy of action and defiance rather than submissiveness. As one ghetto slogan declared, “It is better to be shot in the ghetto than to die in Treblinka!”

Skilled black marketers, they also smuggled in food to supplement the ghettos’ ever-dwindling food rations; medical supplies to fight typhus and the other diseases that ran rampant amid appallingly cramped, broken-down living conditions; and as many rifles, pistols, bullets, grenades and bomb-building components as possible, to spark an uprising.

Behind all these operations lay a deftness and aptitude for creating and maintaining resistance webs and networks both within and among different ghettos, as well as with sympathetic Aryans throughout Poland. That is why they were also often described as kashariyot, the Hebrew word for “connectors.” It was through these links that they set up hiding places for Jewish children outside the ghetto, found safe houses to conceal resistance fighters, provided forged papers and plotted escape routes to Palestine, even facilitated prison breaks. Nor did they hesitate to take up arms themselves, leaving Nazi troops so surprised to see women wielding guns and grenades that one startled SS commander was left to wonder if they were “devils or goddesses.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

While the women who did fight endured a great many terrible travails, those who didn’t may have experienced worse.

By Unknown author (Franz Konrad confessed to taking some of the photographs, the rest was probably taken by photographers from Propaganda Kompanie nr 689.[1][2]) – Image:Warsaw-Ghetto-Josef-Bloesche-HRedit.jpg uploaded by United States Holocaust MuseumThis is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: Restored version of Image:Stroop Report – Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 06.jpg with artifacts and scratches removed, levels adjusted, and image sharpened.., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17223940