“For Freedom, for Fairness”: A Conversation with Judy Batalion




MONTREAL-BORN AUTHOR and essayist Judy Batalion, who wrote White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between, embarked on an entirely different project more than a decade ago while living in London, pursuing her PhD in art history, and performing as an actor and comic. Batalion wanted to examine what it meant to be a descendant of Polish Holocaust survivors and how those relationships and history had affected her life. Inspired by the stories she’d heard in Hebrew school about resistance fighter Hannah Senesh, she was eager to research brave, Jewish women. What she found stunned her.

Senesh was far from the only female member of wartime resistance. In fact, Poland had had an incredibly intricate resistance effort, often led by women (like Zivia Lubetkin, who was part of the Warsaw Uprising, and Renia Kukielka, a courier and the woman gracing the cover of Batalion’s new book) who could more easily assimilate and pass for Catholic girls and women as they undertook risky missions. Every day, they smuggled people out of the ghettos, smuggled money, food, information, and weapons in, and perhaps most critically, helped Jews in Poland endure as Europe descended further and further into madness.

Batalion recently spoke with LARB about her new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters In Hitler’s Ghettos.

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SHANI R. FRIEDMAN: How did this deeply researched project start?

JUDY BATALION: It was completely by accident 14 years ago. I was living in London and exploring my Jewish identity. I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and was thinking about the emotional legacy of being descended from survivors. I thought the trauma was influencing how I was responding to danger. I was writing a performance piece about danger. I thought about women who confronted danger, and Hannah Senesh came to mind. She was a young Jewish woman who had moved before the war from Hungary to Palestine. She joined the Allied forces and went back to Nazi-occupied Europe. Legend has it that after she was caught and about to be executed, she looked the Nazis in the eye. She was a symbol of Jewish bravery. Who does that?! I was interested in her psychology. I went to the British Library hoping to find a more nuanced book on her. There weren’t many. When I went to pick up the stack, I noticed a blue, old fabric-covered book, Freuen in di Ghettos (Women in the Ghettos), and it was Yiddish. What was even more unusual is that I spoke Yiddish. There were 170 pages of bios, names, and photos of other Jewish women who fought the Nazis in the ghettos. There were chapter titles like “Ammo.” It stunned me. It was like no Holocaust narrative I’d seen before! It was so dramatic. It was so unexpected. I thought there was one example, and instead there were dozens and dozens for women I’d never heard of. It was a gut reaction. I knew it was important. As my research went on, I felt a great duty to tell their stories, especially for the ones who didn’t survive. I felt like, Who would excavate this document and tell these stories?

A lot of readers won’t be able to fathom the importance of the youth groups that almost every one of the women you write about belonged to before the war and how they influenced their actions during the war. Could you talk a little about the role these groups played for Jewish teenagers?

Jewish youth were organized into groups in Poland in the 1930s. They couldn’t join the Scouts or other Polish groups. They made their own political and religious youth groups. These groups were not just Scouts: they were intellectual, emotional, and social training grounds for Polish Jewish youth. They were based on values: pride in your heritage, the pursuit of truth. They valued psychology: they were very interested in collectivity, egalitarianism, self-sufficiency, working the land, the ideas of the truth of the self — people were encouraged to talk about their strengths and weaknesses. For many of the groups I wrote about, they had socialist communes all across Poland. I thought that was a Palestine/Israel thing. Many of the young women would leave their homes and move in with their youth movements at the communes. This is how deeply identified they were with their youth groups and how deep the bonds were. Women were also leaders in many of these groups. When it came to wartime, and these Jews were put in ghettos, these groups had structures in how they worked. They literally understood how to work together. All these traits led them to become the perfect underground militia units.

Why were these youth groups so critical during the occupation?

The youth groups talked a lot about recognizing truth. This became a very important idea because so many in the Jewish communities could not fathom what was happening. The youth said, “We have to accept what is going on and respond to it.” Older people had been through World War I. They were expecting that, and this was very different. The Jewish community in Poland had lived there for over 1,000 years. They were 10 percent of the population. They were a flourishing community, but antisemitism wasn’t new. The fact that they would be mass murdered made no sense to them. Why would anyone do that? How could they just butcher people? Warsaw was a cosmopolitan city. It was truly incomprehensible. There was a lot of denial. I understand it.

What would you say was the one defining characteristic of these women in the resistance movement?

They were certainly daring. I thought a lot about this. They were very influenced by their training and education. But I feel like many of them were quick-witted people. They had a strong sense of instinct. They were doers. They weren’t doubters. They acted. In passing, Renia’s son told us she just crossed the street when in traffic. I’m the person who looks left and right. That’s why I’m so drawn to these people.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Jewish resistance movement in Poland during the war?

That it didn’t exist. I don’t think people know anything about it. People don’t know there were over 90 underground resistance units. People know about the Warsaw Uprising, but they don’t know what happened. The story isn’t really told.

Out of all the accounts you read, is there a story that stood out above the others? 

I love the story of Bela Hazan. She joined the resistance right away. She had to pretend to be a Polish girl. She went to the town’s employment office, and they asked if she spoke German. She spoke broken Yiddish and got a job in the Gestapo office. She ended up stealing documents and bringing them to underground forgery labs. She brought all sorts of passports and papers. She smuggled guns and did other courier work. One of the men in the Gestapo had a crush on her and invited her to a Christmas party. She couldn’t refuse. Two other female couriers were staying with her. They all dressed up as Catholic girls and went to the party!

How many times did you travel to Poland for the book? Were your travels before or after President Duda took office in 2015 [in 2018 Poland passed its so-called Holocaust Law, which makes it a crime to accuse Poland of responsibility or complicity], and is the atmosphere markedly different post-election?

I traveled for the book once in 2018. Last time before that was 2008. My take on it is that a lot had changed in 10 years. In the English-speaking world there, people were talking about the Holocaust Law, but it didn’t change anything about my research. There was a lot more wealth 10 years later. It was so much busier and more international. The people I was in touch with … the POLIN Museum [of the History of Polish Jews] just opened. The JCC [Jewish Community Center of] Krakow opened. The people I hired were generally young and they were extremely interested in my story. They were doing their own research for me. The people I talked to were particularly interested in the Jewish history and the history of women’s resistance.

I know this is a very layered question: why do you think the stories in Freuen, of “our nation’s great treasures,” as you quoted from resistance fighter Ruzka Korczak, did not become immediately internationally renowned and, in fact, have remained virtually unknown, save mostly for Senesh, who was not Polish or from the ghetto?

What’s interesting about the book, it was actually excerpted and translated into Yiddish for the American audience to be more widespread. Ironically that made it more obscure. The original book is almost like a scrapbook (testimonies, newspaper articles, obituaries). The survivors who went to Israel had a platform to speak about their stories. But then the stories got lost. The reasons are political, personal, the Zeitgeist — what we’re uncomfortable talking about in relation to the Holocaust. The people who told their stories stopped telling their stories — Renia wrote her memoir as almost therapy. Then she needed to move forward. The women I wrote about were very young. These women had no nationality; they missed normal social developments; they hadn’t gotten any sort of job or career training. They needed to move forward. The book helped her put it behind her. She felt that people didn’t care about her story. They felt misunderstood. Many were accused of being collaborators … connivers … Many of these women felt pungent survivor’s guilt. Compared to their fellow survivors, they felt like they hadn’t suffered enough like those who were in the camps. They had children: fulfilling a duty to create a new, happy, normal generation. They repressed their stories for a long time. The families were afraid to ask and open old wounds. Most of the people I talked to knew something about their mothers and grandmothers. I met family members who knew very little. Renia’s son had read her memoir once when he was 40. It was too painful to revisit, to focus on. They knew what had happened. But they didn’t know she’d left testimony in various archives. They didn’t know Renia’s memoir had been translated into Hebrew, Yiddish, and English.

How was it working on this book while raising a family? Did you have other work going on as well?

I’ve had a lot of other work going on. The book went through different phases. I got married 12 years ago, got pregnant 10 years ago. At times, I had family concerns, and I published other books. Those took precedence. Some of the delay was because this project took on so many different forms. I wasn’t emotionally stable enough to dive into such emotionally difficult work. Many of these memories and testimonies are exceptionally difficult to read.

What was the experience like learning that Steven Spielberg had optioned the book? 

That happened two or three days after I sold the book. It all happened within a week or two. Totally surreal. Obviously very exciting. I sold the book on a very short proposal, probably like 30 pages.

What do you want readers or what do you think readers, many of whom are feeling battle-scarred after four years of the last administration and a year of the pandemic, to take from this book?

I hope they see this book as a great source of inspiration. These women fought against all odds. They had nothing. They had no families. They risked their lives time and time again for their convictions, pride, and belief in what was right. For freedom. For fairness. These small acts might seem like they’re irrelevant, but they matter a great deal to the generations that have come after. These stories really inspired me in the last year. When we transition out of something difficult, it takes a long time. They were so patient. It took years to recover from the war. I have to remind myself of that. Part of their survival coping was helping others. The minute the war was over, they rescued orphans, went into refugee aid, caring for the sick, etc. It makes me think that instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I should give of what I do. So many of them, despite what they went through, were so compassionate and empathetic.

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Shani R. Friedman is a tenant advocate in New York City Housing Court and a writer whose work has appeared in The Forward, Time Out NY, Huffington Post, Honeysuckle Magazine, NY Irish Arts, The Indypendent, and The NY Press.

 

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