Canadian author Judy Batalion on the young Jewish women who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto
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Nick clark you know the places where they are going to gas you know kill myself. It was impossible to believe and yet jews in the ghetto became determined to resist for twenty eight days. They revolted. this is anna. Heilmann order of the day was that we are not going to be taken a life. You know. we're not going to be allowed to take on the transport and i was all Hyped up was it. I knew that this is exactly what i am going to do. We have not going to go just like that. So was just a conviction we are just not going the determination of anaheim and other women in the jewish resistance as part of a holocaust history. That is often forgotten. Judy battalion writes about their struggle in her new book. The light of days the untold story of women resistance fighters in hitler's ghettos. Judy good morning. Good morning this is a wild story. How did you stumble into the history of these jewish women. Fighting in nazi occupied poland. I stumbled into this story completely by accident. I was living in london at the time. And i myself am a granddaughter of holocaust survivors and i was interested in the generational transmission of trauma. I was doing some research at the british library around this and happened to come across a book that i saw was quite unusual. It was in a blue fabric with gold lettering and old book and it also happened to be in yiddish it was called foyers into ghettos women in the ghettos but i always say even more unusual than the book is the fact that i speak yiddish so i started reading through this just out curiosity and what i found stunned me. These were pages a two hundred pages with information about dozens of young jewish women. Who fought the nazis in faulk them from the ghettos with chapter titles like weapons ammunition partisan combat. It was simply a nothing like any holocaust narrative that i've ever heard heard those stories before. Do you think yeah. That's a great question. And this sort of became the sub question of all my years of research on the one hand what happened. What is the story and on the other hand. What happened to this story. How could i possibly not have heard about this. And i get into much more detail of course in my book but some reasons. Our political their ways of the story of of the holocaust has been shaped for political reasons in particular in poland and in israel. There's also a question of zeitgeist. I think we've been interested in different elements of the holocaust at different times. We've also been uncomfortable talking about different elements of the holocaust at different times. But a lot of this is personal in. It comes down to the fact that many of these women didn't tell their story. I tried to tell them and they weren't believed or they were even accused of collaborating or sweeping their way to safety. Many of them felt a very pungent survivor's guilt they. These were women who were setting up a working for the red army espionage missions smuggling weapons broad daylight and yet they felt that compared to their fellow survivors who had been through switz- save they hadn't they hadn't had it that bad they hadn't suffered adequately they didn't mirror it telling their story yes and then and then finally i feel like many of for many of them are very young. I'm reading young women. When the war was over they were you know in the early mid twenties. They had their whole lives ahead of them. And the had nothing they had no families no homes no nationalities and this. Was you know they needed to start over. And many of them felt great. Judy to Have children to repopulate the jewish people to try to raise families in happy healthy environments. And so for all these reasons. Both both heartbreaking as you say and for i believe coping coping as well these stories seats silence for a long. Take me to the warsaw ghetto. And what it would have looked like seventy eight years ago today. The warsaw ghetto was the largest ghetto in poland. Certainly at its height it had almost a half a million jews in a very small physical area. It was crowded there. Several families living in one room. People were starving. There was very little food and people suffered from illness lice. And you know everyone felt tremendous fear. They knew that their their life is at risk at any second. They felt fully occupied physically and mentally. Who in that context in in those awful conditions who made up the resistance because the resistance as you documented than the book Was made up of people with a range of political ideologies. But most interesting to me. Was that the resistance. What what we think of as those who fought in the warsaw ghetto uprising were primarily youth. They were young. Jews old anywhere from about sixteen to twenty five And they became these underground grill militias really because they had been they'd been groups before the war. These were youth movements almost like the scouts and they had been very dedicated to these youth movements in the nineteen thirties before the war and it was these youth movements which promoted it was their value system their spiritual intellectual social training ground. It's easiest movements that became the fighting units in the warsaw ghetto uprising described those fighting units. And what those young people were able to do again in the in the midst of an awful situation and with a worse situation perhaps even looming so these fighting units were comprised There it said there were about seven hundred and fifty. Young jews who participated. I should say about a hundred and seventy five one. Hundred eighty were women. The units were small groups Ten twenty people usually based on their youth movement affiliation. Whatever their politics were before the war and these units had acquired weapons over the past few months they had Both from was often female careers. Who left the ghetto and help arm the underground's smuggling in explosives dynamite materials to make molotov cocktails as well as ammunition and they also the the the units had they had strategy. They were there were meetings. There was a head of the of the of the uprising of the of the koby. They called it the jewish fighting organization and they strategize the best way to to attack the nazis. How did they do this. I mean what was the scale of the deception that they were able to pull off you talk about it. I mean people moving across lines with fake papers and as you say smuggling in weapons. How are they able to pull this off. You mean the smuggling in particular. Yeah so this was done so this was frequently done by winning because women. It was easier for women to pass. It was easier for women. Jewish women to appear to be christian women and so that they were able to leave the ghetto. If ju together they would be killed. Jews weren't allowed to leave but but jewish women for for for various reasons which all come back to you. Were better able to disguise themselves as christian woman so they would slip in and out of ghettos. Sometimes climbing over walls sometimes going through basements slipping through gates going over rooftops sometimes entering and exiting with a workgroup a forced labor group. They would kind of the head and enter an or exit. The ghetto gates with this group. Sometimes they just paid off the guards and then when one woman was on the outside she was better able to pretend to be christian because first of all women were not circumcised. So they didn't have a physical marker of jewishness on their body. Women in the nineteen thirties had been educated and while many families education with mandatory in poland but many jewish families had sent their sons to jewish schools for for for financial reasons. They sent their daughters to polish public schools. In in these public schools girls learnt catholic mannerisms habits even prayers and most important they learnt to speak. They talk about this all the time. Polish like a poll without the creaky. Yiddish accent and so women women were able to perform they call this. This was their life and death. Performance a constant acting job where they they pretended to be christian and as such went to meet with weapons dealers went to meet with contacts from the polish resistance and the countless stories they found of them putting weapons into marmalade jars Sacks of potatoes teddybears fashionable handbags that they would also purchase or borough were just taping them to their torsos. Nineteen ninety-five a college student disappeared on a trip across the usa. Portia missing right away but they went. Take it so. His mother started investigating the case file. I started going through and saw people. That wasn't interviewed. I joined this mother. Search for justice or you recording us. I am someone knows something season. Six available now throughout the nineteen eighties. Strange phenomenon was sweeping north america. They were in a panic and like people in a panic. Allegations of underground satanic cults torturing and terrorizing children. The thing is there were no satanic cults preying on children and nearly thirty years later the people touched by it. All are still picking up. The pieces doesn't work of fiction. This is a work of history satanic panic available now. Where did they find the strength to fight the nazis given what they were facing in the ghetto. That is a great question and thought about this. A lot and i think it comes from a few different factors at for one. I really think these youth movements that i mentioned before that they were part of before the war. These were very dedicated to these movements and these movements trained them to feel pride in their people and in their heritage and they train them to act they train them to collaborate to work together and i think their their training was to really feel collective pride and to be able to fight for that and to work together to fight for that i think is a huge part of it also they. They were furious. You know they were when you read the diaries and memoirs written in the woman from by these women the ones written during the war. They're they're not. They're not sad they are fe- you worry. They are passionate and filled with grief and filled with anger. And these women really. I got the impression it was. They must they they were. They were filled with a need to go fight for justice and to fight for liberty. Tell me about some of these women. Zivie veteran who she is available back in was a leader of the youth movements even before the war And so she became almost naturally a leader in the warsaw ghetto of the jewish youth. She actually was one of the women right about who in nineteen thirty nine had escaped from nazi occupied poland and she came back she smuggled herself back into nazi warsaw because she felt so responsible to her people. She became a leader in the warsaw ghetto. She added with german polish. Jewish councils and governments she helped get young jews out of slave labor camps. She you know she. She had very jewish features. But she didn't matter she would especially in the earlier slip out of the ghetto. Help people try to find rescue routes. She became a leader in the planning of the warsaw ghetto uprising. She fought into ghetto. Uprisings there is a small uprising in january forty-three followed by what we commemorate today. In april nineteen forty three. She was had a gun and she was a guerilla fighter. She then fought in the polish resistance. The warsaw uprising in one thousand nine forty four as well And after the war after sorry after the ghetto was raised she had to go into hiding. She she again. she'd looked. She had very jewish looking feature she. She couldn't pass and from her spot in hiding. She helped administer rescue organizations. That helped over ten thousand jews in hiding in warsaw managed to get out of the ghetto. She got out of the ghetto through canals. She helped lead a group of rebels. A group of fighters out through canal sewer Canals that were. She was neck deep in sewage water and they have to try to find a manhole where a rescue truck was gonna come pick them up and they ended up staying under there for well over twenty four hours forty eight hours and the fighting that she was involved in. I mean between the resistance. And the nazis was really intense. I mean th this was 'cause he's coming in essentially to destroy the ghetto. These were coming to destroy the ghetto and to kill all the jews. This was actually a bird. Was supposed to be a birthday gift for hitler that finally the warsaw ghetto would be completely raised. All the jews would be destroyed. And you know it's hard to always get exact numbers in this kind of in this round. But appears about two thousand. Nazi soldiers were sent in just on that on that beginning liquidation it with tanks and she said she described it looks like a whole country was going to war to come kill off the remaining jews in the get it. Do they expect. The nazis expected to be any hint of resistance. Let alone the resistance that you document in this book. I do not believe that they expected any hint of resistance Especially at this stage of the war where jews were so starved and so week And you know there are many women right about how shocked they were. That women were fighting one woman. Masha few she went to the to the roof of the building. Their strategy was to fight from the rooftops. This was the jewish guerrilla strategy. And her she. She talks about how her her fingers were shaking. She was so excited and nervous and she could barely light the match to light the explosive and she did it and she's flinging it from the roof and what she hears our did nazis yelling. Whoa in how calm. How come a a minister fighting. That's what shocked them. I think they were taken by surprise. Tell me about little wanda with the braids. This is another Woman who was part of the resistance. Little wanda was the braves was Her name was negotia title bomb and she was from the communist youth movement that was her political leaning and she hurt her back. Dick and this is before the worst ghetto uprising was too. she was in her twenties. She actually had history degree for more university but she dressed up as a sixteen year old polish peasant girl. She braided her hair and she put a kerchief in inner. Heron she she. She looked like a peasant girl from the countryside and she used this disguise to access nazi homes and offices and would then him so for instance in in one story she goes to shaw. Which was the nazi headquarters in warsaw dressed like a polish peasant girl and says she she needs to speak to a certain guard about a personal madder and the assumption is that she's pregnant and he he's gotten her pregnant and so the the the guards at the stop let her in and show her the way and then she walks into the office pulls out a gun and shoots the zappa man in the head and then puts the gun back in her her pocket and and walks right out in sort of meekly waves goodbye to the guards at the door. She was on every gestapo most wanted list. And she was dick named her little wanda with the braves. What eventually happened to her. She was caught on in forty three and killed but it has an incredible legacy in terms of what she was able to do. I mean and that's just one of her stories. She did this numerous occasions. She actually ran a military a training group for women in the worse ghetto for the uprising training. Them on how to use weapons she. She was involved in so many so many efforts. What does it mean for you to discover this history. You mentioned at the very beginning of our conversation that your grandmother survived An and survived. You write about this in the book at the end of the book survived. siberian gulags. And you say that she lived while never quite surviving. Tell me about what this this story meant to you personally. Well i mean as as i said in the beginning of our of our interview of you know this. This started with me looking at generational transmission of trauma And and how trauma was passed through generations. But i think this project made me also think about how heroism is passed through generations. How strength is passed through generations You know i've i've really rethought my own personal holocaust narrative and also the general holocaust narrative. I now see it as a story of constant resistance and resilience and struggle and and fight. And i truly feel proud to come from this legacy. What was your personal narrative. I mean you say in the book that you spent a lot of time trying to get as far away as possible from the holocaust. Yes what did you mean by that. Well i think. As as i was saying i felt that the the trauma of the holocaust had passed through my family I was an extremely anxious person And in my own family. Various anxieties even hoarding disorder and mental health issues. That i felt had had come from living through really traumatic experiences had had passed themselves through through the generations in my family and so how does doing a book like this and doing this research and meeting the descendants of some of these resistance members. How does that change that narrative for you again. I was refocused the narrative. I think there is for myself. There is a lot of focus on the trauma or on the difficulties that pass through the generations. But this is also made me. Think about the as. I said the strength that has passed through generations and i just thought about it in a in a in a more perhaps hopeful light. Can you imagine being one of those young women sixteen years old in that situation. That's all i imagined. Day doing the research. What would i do. Could i ever have done this ever have done with a did i don't think so. It's a remarkable story. I mean dude. Do the descendants of those resistance fighters. Do they understand what what's there Relatives were involved. And you go to israel and you speak with with with The family of one of those resistance members do they do. They have a full appreciation of what they were up to. So i met about twenty different families of course of women who crew survive in israel as well as in canada and the us and some of them did know quite a bit about their mothers or grandmothers and some of them knew nothing. They really knew very little about what their own mothers had done in the war As i was saying earlier many of these women didn't tell their stories in particular to their children so in some of the families. I am sending them information I'm sending even publications that their their mother wrote in the forties fifties I've been sending it to families. They did not know it is a fascinating story. I learned a lot In reading this book judy. It's a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much. Thank you so much for having me. Judy battalion is a writer for montreal. Who now lives. In new york city her new book is the light of days. The untold story of women resistance fighters in hitler's ghettos for more. Cbc podcasts go to cbc dot ca slash podcasts.