DURING THE INDIAN freedom struggle against the British, my grandmother, then a beautiful 19-year-old music student, transported guns on a passenger train under her sari. Getting caught could’ve meant imprisonment, torture, or death. I beam with pride at this no longer classified piece of Mukherjee family lore, once spoken about in hushed tones.
Women’s roles in wars and revolutions are so often underplayed, but in her brilliantly researched new book, The Light of Days, Judy Batalion champions the true stories of audacious acts by Jewish women during Work War II. Amid the horror of the war, the women repeatedly risked their lives traveling between the ghettos, transporting food, medical supplies, money, weapons, and publications. When German guards lurked close by, they flirted, begged, bribed, cried, and feigned accents to escape. Avoiding suspicion was key to living another day.
Batalion’s prose throbs with the incandescent fury and pain of her iron-willed heroines. Based on their accounts and those of their relatives, she reconstructs a riveting narrative of their lives as they organized rebellions, gathered arms, saved lives, and escaped death. Steven Spielberg optioned movie rights for the publication based on the proposal alone.
Young girls were especially well suited to be kashariyot or “connectors.” Batalion captures her own rage and fascination with this phenomenon in one delightful line: “Nazi culture was classically sexist, and women were not expected to be illicit operatives; why would that nice, young peasant girl have bulletins sewn into her skirt or a pistol inside her teddy bear?” The contraband transferred between ghettos facilitated several armed uprisings against the Nazis. People forced into these brutal circumstances learned that revolting against the violence was possible. Perversely, sexism enabled this welcome development. And so it was with my grandmother: while she sat shyly looking out the train window, an officer came by to savagely check men for weapons; he didn’t even notice her.
A women’s history scholar, Batalion began researching The Light of Days when she stumbled across a 185-page anthology in Yiddish about resistance fighters during World War II. She was surprised that she hadn’t heard of any of these mistresses of subterfuge who’d worked as lifelines of the revolution, sleuthing, fighting, and sometimes disappearing without a trace. Many had a chance to escape the horrors but returned to the throes with the steely resolve to rebel and save their people. Reading about these brave daughters of the war, the author wondered, as I did, “What would I do in a similar situation? Fight or flight?”
Fluent in Hebrew, French, and Yiddish, Batalion is also the author of a poignant memoir called White Walls (2016), in which she explores how her own grandmother passed down her Holocaust trauma to her daughter, leading to hoarding and lifelong psychological wounds. Being raised in the shadow of her family’s suffering clearly drives her passion for the subject. “My genes were stamped — even altered, as neuroscientists now suggest — by trauma,” she writes in the prologue.
We follow the journey of Renia Kukielka, pictured on the book’s cover in a scarf, trench coat, and smile, looking more like a wealthy socialite on a shopping trip than the hunted fugitive she really was. In search of a haven after losing most of her kin, Kukielka saw an officer throwing an infant against a wall so hard that the baby’s skull breaks in two. In the face of such barbarism, Kukielka resolved to fight back, becoming an operative for the Jewish youth movement called Freedom, and eventually a political prisoner. Batalion ambitiously introduces several revolutionary women, describing their acts of heroism with such fitting reverence that each one deserves a movie deal of her own. Faye Schulman blew up trains full of German soldiers and learned to perform outdoor surgeries to help the injured, even though she wasn’t medically trained. Vitka Kempner, a vivacious woman who spoke perfect Polish, had mastered slipping in and out of the ghetto. She helped 200 Jews escape into the forest, arming them with weapons to defend themselves as she kissed each one goodbye. Bela Hazan was beaten and tortured in a prison cell for days on end by Nazis seeking information about the whereabouts of her revolutionary comrades. She refused to crack under the pressure, even though the abuse continued.
The terrors of the ghetto emerge on every page in harrowing detail: “People were starving to death en masse, begging for potato peels, food trash. Jews were taking their own lives and killing their own children so they wouldn’t fall into German hands.” As I read, I wondered what kept the rebels on their path in the face of such relentless brutality toward thousands of unarmed people. They had far fewer resources than the oppressors; guns, money, training — everything was in short supply. Yet, the youth movements kept hope alive by focusing on education and cultural activity within the ghetto walls. Batalion writes of another woman, Zivia Lubetkin, who “worried that without avenues of formal education the children were becoming idle and boorish.” The youth movement secretly established underground elementary and high schools even as German soldiers came in the middle of the night with a list of names, shooting and killing half the population. “They taught students who were shivering and bloated from starvation how to think.” It’s hard not to share the writer’s awe for these extraordinary people. A minor protest: The dizzying array of rich but short chronicles makes one long for fewer characters to be explored more deeply. In this, I appreciate Batalion’s enormous challenge in picking just a handful of tales to feature.
Why were these remarkable, life-affirming stories about World War II’s heroines kept from the light of day, as the book’s title nods to? Here, Batalion’s clear-eyed view is especially illuminating: some survivors self-silenced as a coping mechanism, trying their best to lead ordinary lives despite survivor’s guilt and PTSD. She also posits a more convincing observation: “Some women’s writings were censored to fit political motivations, some women faced blatant indifference and others were treated with disbelief, accused of making it all up.” Women were asked not to repeat their horrific stories for fear of sounding insane or, worse, being accused of conniving to live while other poor souls perished. In other words, no one believed her. Gaslighting is nothing new.
My family refuses to dwell much on my grandmother’s role as an Indian freedom fighter. My aunt, the eldest of her eight children, told me she doesn’t remember details of the gun-hiding mission — only that it failed, even though my grandma had succeeded in getting the weapons to their destination.
Most of Batalion’s fearless fighters didn’t make it to the end of the book or the war. We’re fortunate that their stories of outstanding courage and sacrifice have finally made it out of their hidden family lore in The Light of Days, a grand celebration of the female spirit.
Puloma Mukherjee is a fiction and nonfiction writer and a mother based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Guernica and an anthology of short stories. She’s currently working on her first novel.