Recently I attended a Facebook event hosted by the Holocaust Center for Humanity, which is located here in Seattle. I have always been impressed with this organization. According to their website, “The Holocaust Center for Humanity teaches the lessons of the Holocaust, inspiring students of all ages to confront bigotry and indifference, promote human dignity, and take action.”
We need this type of education. I remember learning of the Holocaust in my freshman year of high school, back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, more or less. I recall it being my first inkling that people with great power can commit unspeakable atrocities. It was a horrifying realization, but something that I needed to know. It frustrates me that so many schools seem to be trending toward keeping students in the dark about terrorist acts, both abroad and at home. Without this knowledge, you are less apt to see the signs, and will be a lot less capable of preventing these things from ever happening again.
The event I virtually attended was a talk by Judy Batalion, about her book, “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos.”
I was instantly fascinated by the subject, because I am drawn to stories about people who fight back against injustice, rather than sitting passively by and saying nothing. And I’m even more drawn to stories of strong, independent, capable women. This book ticks both boxes.
During her talk, Batalion revealed that she was originally doing some research about Hannah Senesh, a remarkable woman whom I must blog about in more detail in a future post. (Briefly, Senesh worked with the British during WWII, and actually parachuted into Yugoslavia to rescue Hungarian Jews who were about to be sent to Auschwitz. Isn’t that amazing?)
During Batalion’s research, she stumbled upon a book in Yiddish that described dozens of Jewish women in Poland who should be well known for their work in resisting the Nazis. These women were superheroes, as far as I’m concerned. They risked their lives for their cause. I know very few people in this day and age who would be willing to do that.
These women had amazing stories, but they quickly sank into obscurity for a variety of reasons. Many who told their stories were not believed. Others, after the war, simply wanted to get back to living a normal life. Or their quiet narratives didn’t fight for the attention that the millions of other narratives that came out after the war did. Also, as is still the case, assertive, kick-ass women make men and governments uncomfortable. Many people would have preferred that they didn’t worry their pretty little heads about these things. “Let the men do the heavy lifting, dear. Go bake some cookies.”
But Batalion explained that Polish women in the Jewish community had certain advantages over the men when it came to being members of the resistance. Often, they had attended public schools while their male counterparts were more focused on Jewish religious studies. That meant that they interacted with Gentiles more often. They could imitate their body language and their dialect. In essence, they could “pass”. They knew how to dress and how to act and were more familiar with the majority culture.
They could take the stereotypes that the Nazis attempted to force upon the Jews and turn them upside down. If the Nazis were looking for a certain type, they’d be a different type entirely. They died their hair blonde, made efforts to not talk with their hands, and wore fashionable clothes of the day. They could fit in where their men were more apt to stick out like sore thumbs.
Also, women are still viewed to this day as being less of a threat. Move along, nothing to see here. A tiny slip of a girl taking out a Nazi? That’ll never happen, right? Until it happens.
These women were often the couriers of the resistance. They were more apt to be seen about town carrying groceries, so they could also hide weapons, messages, and forged documents. Who is expecting to find a grenade in a marmalade jar, or a pistol in a sack of potatoes? And it’s amazing how many hidden pockets you can put into a designer handbag. As a last resort, if they were about to be discovered, they could do something else that most of the men couldn’t: flirt with the guards.
Make no mistake, these women also took on more aggressive roles. They fought in the forests. They fought in the ghettos. They threw Molotov cocktails and they bombed German trains. They were leaders. They took action.
They also took the lead in humanitarian efforts, such as creating soup kitchens. They continued to educate Jewish children. They kept their culture alive. They cared for a growing number of orphans. These things, too, made a difference. It would be hard to resist anything with an empty stomach, an empty head, and a loss of hope.
After hearing Batalion tell some of the stories from her book, I knew I simply had to read it. I was even more excited to discover that the book also comes in a young reader’s edition, because I run a little free library, and am always looking for female-positive books to share with the girls in the neighborhood. I want them to have strong female role models. I want them to know that they can take agency in their own lives.
And since I always try to take action myself, before I logged off of that Facebook event, I decided to leave a message with the moderator and ask if I could get a copy of the book for my little free library. I mean, what did I have to lose? The worst that could happen was that she’d say no.
I got an almost immediate response from Ilana Cone Kennedy, the Chief Operating Officer of the Holocaust Center for Humanity. When I told her my reasons for wanting this book, and when I explained that I’d be happy to write a review of it on this blog, she was kind enough to mail it out to me right away.
I read this book from cover to cover, and it did not disappoint. I learned much about the Jewish resistance in Poland that I ever knew before. And hearing the stories of so many brave, strong, decisive, and capable women was a tonic to my overwhelmed and socially-distanced soul. I highly recommend this book in either the adult or youth version. It’s a fascinating read.
The youth version will be placed in my little free library today. I can’t help but smile when imagining some girl reading it and, like me, coming away feeling like she can take on the world and make it a better and more just place. Girl power!!!! Yes!!!!
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