The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s Dr. Abby Wener Herlin, left, interviews author and historian Dr. Judy Batalion at this year’s Kristallnacht commemorative event on Nov. 4. (screenshot)
Jewish girls and young women in Poland were uniquely positioned to play major roles in the resistance to Nazism – and the stories of countless young heroines have been too long overlooked.
This was a key message at the Kristallnacht commemorative event Nov. 4. Held virtually for the second year in a row, it featured Canadian historian Judy Batalion. Dr. Abby Wener Herlin, program and development manager of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, introduced the author and posed questions.
Jewish girls and women were not subject to the irrefutable proof of Jewishness that Jewish men were, said Batalion.
“Women were not circumcised, so they didn’t risk being found out in a pants-drop test,” she said. “If a man on the outside [of the ghettos] was suspected of being Jewish, he would be told at gunpoint to drop his pants, and women didn’t have that physical marker of their Jewishness on their body.”
A secondary reason women could play such an important role in the resistance was that, at that time in Poland, education was mandatory to Grade 8. Many Jewish families sent their sons to Jewish schools or yeshivot. “But, to save on tuition, they sent girls to Polish public schools,” Batalion explained. “In these public schools, girls became more acculturated and … more assimilated women. They were girls and teenagers who had Catholic friends. They were aware of Christian rituals, habits, nuances, behaviour.”
Resistance fighters and underground operatives might have dyed their hair blonde or otherwise altered their outward appearance to pass as Christians. But there was more to it, the author said.
“Gesticulation was very Jewish,” she said. “So one woman had to wear a muff when she went undercover, to control her hands.”
Batalion’s book The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos is the culmination of 12 years of research, which had its beginnings in another project.
Batalion was in the British Library doing research for a performance piece she was working on about Hannah Senesh, a young female hero of the resistance whose story is perhaps among the more well known. Senesh was born in Hungary and had made aliyah to Mandate Palestine in the 1930s, but she returned from that comparatively safe haven to join the fight against the Nazis.
“She joined the Allied forces, became a paratrooper and volunteered to return to Nazi-occupied Europe,” Batalion said of Senesh, who the author first learned about in Grade 5 in Montreal. “She was caught quite early on but legend has it she looked her executioners in the eye when they shot her.
“I grew up with Hannah Senesh as a symbol of Jewish courage,” she said. There were not many books on Senesh at the renowned London library, however. “So, I simply ordered whatever they had. I picked up my stack of books and noticed that one of them was a bit unusual. It was an old book with yellowing pages bound in a worn blue fabric with gold letters and it was in Yiddish.”
Batalion speaks Yiddish, in addition to English, French and Hebrew.
“I flipped through these 200 pages looking for Hannah Senesh, but she was only in the last 10. In front of her [were] dozens of other young Jewish women who defied the Nazis, mainly from the ghettos in Poland.”
The stories featured guns, grenades, espionage. “This was a Yiddish thriller,” she said.
As Batalion soon discovered, it was young Jewish women who were disproportionately represented in some of the most daring acts of resistance of the time.
“These ghetto girls hid revolvers in teddy bears, built elaborate underground bunkers, flirted with Nazis, bought them off with wine and whiskey and shot them,” she said. “They planned uprisings, carried out intelligence missions and were bearers of the truth about what was happening to the Jews. They helped the sick and taught the children, they organized soup kitchens, underground schools and printing presses. They flung Molotov cocktails in ghetto uprisings and blew up Nazi supply trains.
“I had never read anything like this,” said Batalion. “I was astonished and equally baffled. Who were these women? What made them act as they did? Aside from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which I’d heard of, what was the story of Jewish resistance in the Holocaust?… And why had I, who grew up in a survivor family and community, who was so involved in Jewish arts and culture – I even have a PhD in women’s history – how had I never heard this story?”
Thus began a dozen years of research in Poland, Israel, England and across North America, in archives and living rooms, memorial monuments and the streets of former ghettos, she said. “I trod through testimonies, letters, photographs, obscure documentaries and the towns where these heroines were born and raised,” she said.
“Reading through all this material, I was astonished to learn of the scope of the underground,” she said. “Over 90 European ghettos had armed Jewish resistance units … 30,000 Jews enlisted in the partisans. Rescue networks supported 12,000 Jews in hiding in Warsaw alone. Uprisings occurred in ghettos, in labour camps and death camps, all this alongside daily acts of resilience – smuggling food, making art, hiding, hugging a barrack-mate to keep her warm, even telling jokes during transports to relieve fear. Women were at the helm of so many of these personal and organized efforts, women aged 16 to 25. Hundreds of them, possibly even thousands of them.”
The ability to do such things, under unimaginably dangerous conditions, was aided by a social phenomenon that predated the Nazi occupation.
The early 20th century in Poland was a time of extraordinary Jewish intellectual ferment. Making up about 10% of the country’s population, Jews had a profound social infrastructure, including 180 Yiddish newspapers in Warsaw alone. Jewish political movements proliferated – left, right, religious, secular, Zionist and non-Zionist – creating a vibrant discourse and networks of interrelated groups across the country. By the 1930s, almost all Polish Jews were wondering if this was a country where they could continue to thrive, whether they belonged to the country where their ancestors had lived for 1,000 years.
“As part of this identity struggle, 100,000 young Jews were members of Jewish youth movements – that’s a huge proportion,” said Batalion. “These were values-driven groups that were affiliated with these varying political parties and stances.”
For example, when war broke out, Frumka Plotnicka was 24 years old. Her youth movement urged their members to flee east – “That’s also how my grandparents survived,” noted Batalion – but fleeing a crisis did not suit Plotnicka.
“Stunning her comrades in her movement, she was the first to smuggle herself back into Nazi-occupied Poland,” she said. “She went to Warsaw and became a leader in the Warsaw Ghetto. She ran soup kitchens for hundreds of Jews, she organized classes, discussions and performances. She negotiated with German, Polish and Jewish councils, she helped extract Jews from forced labour.
“She covered her Jewish features with a kerchief and makeup and left the ghetto, traveling across Poland, keeping communities connected. She brought with her information, inspiration and books,” Batalion said. “They had a secret printing press. She ran seminars across Nazi-occupied Poland.
“In late 1941, the youth movements acknowledged the truth of the Nazis’ genocidal plans and they transformed from education hubs into these underground militias. Frumka still traveled to disseminate information. Now, it was about mass executions. She was one of the first to smuggle weapons into the Warsaw Ghetto. She had two guns in a sack of potatoes.”
She was killed while firing at Nazis from a bunker in 1943.
While disguised as non-Jews, some of the woman warriors were able to exploit the prejudices of their tormentors.
“Nazi culture was classically sexist,” said Batalion. “They never suspected that a sweet-looking girl had a pocket full of ammunition. Jewish women played to this underestimation. One courier … was once carrying a valise full of contraband material and she was getting on a train and noticed they were checking bags. She was very beautiful and bashed her eyelashes and went up to the Gestapo man and said, ‘My bag is so heavy, can you carry it for me?’ He was being chivalrous, ‘Of course, I’ll carry it for you,’ and he took it on the train for her and, of course, they didn’t check the bag.”
These young Jewish fighters had lost everything and still soldiered on, the author said.
“They knew they wouldn’t topple the German army, yet risked their lives time and time again to fight for justice and liberty,” she said. “Small victories are achievable and necessary for great change. It is through these young women that I learned that not only is trauma passed through generations of Jewish women but so is courage and daring, strength and resilience, passion and compassion.”
Batalion’s book won the 2021 Canadian Jewish Literary Award in the Holocaust category and has been optioned for a Steven Spielberg film, for which Batalion is working on the screenplay.
The annual Kristallnacht commemorative lecture is presented by the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre in partnership with Congregation Beth Israel, with support from the Robert and Marilyn Krell Endowment of the VHEC, and funded through the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign.
Prior to the keynote address, Holocaust survivors lit candles in their homes. Kennedy Stewart, mayor of Vancouver, offered reflections and Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC, read a proclamation from the city. Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld thanked the speaker.