Untold Story of Jewish Women Resisting Nazis
Judy Batalion’s new book documents Jewish women who fought Nazis during WWII.
Growing up in Montreal, Judy Batalion was surrounded by vibrant Jewish culture and role models. “I come from such a robust heritage,” she explained in a recent Aish.com interview.
She attended Jewish school where she learned Yiddish, and was particularly close with her Bubbe Zelda, a Holocaust survivor from Poland. Bubbe Zelda babysat Judy every day after school and would tell her about her family’s painful history, describing the tragic fate of many relatives with tears in her eyes.
Bubbe Zelda had escaped Nazi-occupied Warsaw and made her way east to the Soviet Union where she was imprisoned in Siberian work camps and saved from death in Nazi hands. Bubbe Zelda’s parents and three of her four sisters remained in Warsaw where they all perished.
Judy considered herself well educated about the Holocaust, yet she discovered how little she knew about Jewish resistance. “I didn’t know anything about the scope of the resistance, including details about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.”
After studying at Harvard, then moving to London to earn a Ph.D. in art history, she also worked as a performer, and in 2007 decided to research heroic Jewish women for a potential show. Researching the Jewish partisan Hannah Senesh at the British Library changed her life.
Hannah Senesh – Partisan Hero
The starting point for Judy’s historical journey was Hannah Senesh. Born in 1921 in Budapest, Hannah was a brilliant writer and an ardent Zionist. When she was 18, in 1939, she moved to Israel where she worked on a kibbutz and wrote beautiful poetry and accounts about life in Israel. In 1943, with the Jews of Europe facing annihilation, Hannah volunteered for a daring spy mission for the British Army. Along with 32 other volunteers, she parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe with the goal of instituting contact with resistance fighters and helping Jewish communities.
After three months fighting with Yugoslavian partisans, Hannah smuggled herself over the border into her native Hungary. The date was June 7 1944, and the Nazis’ deportation of Hungarian Jews to death camps was at its height.
Hannah Senesh was soon arrested by Hungarian police and turned over the Nazi authorities, who tortured her brutally for months. Senesh refused to reveal any details of the British Army’s spying plan, and she was sentenced to death by firing squad. On November 7, 1944 Senesh was executed. She refused a blindfold, looking straight at her executioners as they shot her.
Women in the Ghettos
Judy Batalion found that despite her fame, there were relatively few books about Hannah Senesh in the British Library. She ordered several books that mentioned Senesh’s name. When the books arrived at the front desk, Judy noticed that one of them was written in Yiddish. She almost put it back.
Instead, she began to use the Yiddish she’d learned as a child to read the volume. It was an old book, published in 1946, called Freuen in di Ghettos – “Women in the Ghettos”. This 185-page book described dozens of heroic Jewish women who fought Nazis as part of resistance movements. Their stories were incredible. Women smuggled arms into Jewish Ghettos. They assassinated Nazi officials. They spied for the Soviet Union, helped smuggle Jews out of Nazi Ghettos to safety, looked after the sick and taught Jewish children. Some fought with armed partisans while others acted alone. Why had she never heard of these stories, Judy wondered? She decided to research some of these phenomenal stories.
Her project took a dozen years. Judy discovered that thousands of Jewish women fought in the Jewish resistance against Nazis during the Holocaust. Realizing that she had enough material to write a book, -- there were so many incredible stories that Judy had to make hard decisions about whom to research and include – Judy decided to focus on Polish Jewish women who helped Jewish resistance fighters in the ghettos. “There was so much material out there,” Judy explains, “and the story had never been brought together in one narrative.”
The result is The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, to be published on April 6, 2021.
When Germany conquered Poland in 1939, over two million Polish Jews came under Nazi control. (Several million more Jews were subject to Nazi dictates after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.) To subdue this vast population, the Nazis set aside over 1,000 “Ghettos” in towns and cities in lands they conquered. The largest of these were in Poland: nearly half a million Jews were forced into the notorious Warsaw Ghetto. The Lodz Ghetto housed over 200,000 Jews.
The Jewish Ghettos were established in the oldest, shabbiest parts of towns and were surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by Nazi guards. Jews were transported to the Ghettos from across Nazi-occupied Europe. Romas were also interred in some of the Ghettos. Residents were forced to remain indoors at night and couldn’t leave the Ghettos without express permission. Starvation and disease were rife and thousands of Jews died in the Ghettos from hunger and overwork. Nazis routinely rounded up and deported Jews from Ghettos to death camps, often to make more room for new Jewish residents who were shipped in from newly-conquered areas.
There was a significant uprising of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943, and Judy discovered that over 90 other Ghettos had armed Jewish resistance units too. “Approximately 30,000 European Jews joined the partisans,” Judy wrote. “Rescue networks supported about 12,000 Jews in hiding in Warsaw alone. All this alongside daily acts of resilience – smuggling food, writing diaries, telling a joke to relieve fear, hugging a barrack mate to keep her warm. Women, aged 16 to 25, were at the helm of many of these efforts. I learned their names: Tosia Altman, Gusta Davidson, Frumka Plotnicka. Hundreds of others.”
Tosia Altman – Ghetto Courier
One of the many women Judy Batalion writes about is Tosia Altman. Born in 1919 in Poland, Tosia grew up in the town of Wloclawek, where her family was cultured and stalwarts of the local Jewish community.
Judy’s prose helps readers conjure this remarkable young woman. “Tosia was considered a fashionable Polish type… a well-educated, well-spoken young woman who wore sporty outfits.” She was frightened of dogs and of the dark. Instead of giving in to these fears, she forced herself to deal with them: one night during a pogrom, when Jews were being attacked and the sounds of screams and barking dogs filled the air, she forced herself to walk outside in order to subdue her terrors.
Tosia was a passionate Zionist and worked as a youth leader for the Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir Zionist youth movement, eventually rising to leadership of the local branch. After attending the Fourth World Convention of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir when she was sixteen, Tosia made the momentous decision to move to the Land of Israel, and joined a training kibbutz in Poland to learn how to farm. Instead of moving to the future state of Israel, Tosia was appointed leader of youth education in Warsaw, and moved there in 1938. She had no way of knowing then that moving to Poland instead of Mandatory Palestine would prove to be her death warrant – and that in the next few years she would be inspired to show incredible bravery and strength.
When World War II broke out, Tosia and other Zionist youth group leaders made their way – partially on foot, and at times through fighting and bombing – to Vilna, Lithuania, where they hoped to regroup and leave Europe for the Land of Israel. When that proved impossible, Tosia was given a daunting mission. Since she was blonde, pretty and outgoing, would Tosia return to German-occupied Poland and organize Jewish youth group members to resist the Nazis?
Jews weren’t allowed to travel on trains, but Tosia disguised herself as a non-Jewish Polish woman and travelled between the Jewish Ghettos that were being established. In Warsaw, she and other youth group leaders set up educational programs and a newspaper to help sustain the spirit of the Jewish imprisoned there.
As Ziva Shalev, author of Tosia Altman: From the Leadership of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir to the Leadership of the Uprising, wrote, once Warsaw’s Jews were confined in the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940, Tosia’s “blonde hair and fluent Polish were no longer enough; with every trip, she risked death. Forged papers, outdated documents and stamps, and the danger of Polish informants who ‘sniffed out’ Jews were all a constant peri. But Altman continued to travel (throughout the region), her visits serving as a source of strength and encouragement to the young people.”
Members of The Young Guard in Wloclawek, Poland during Lag BaOmer, 1937. Tosia Altman is at the bottom. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archiva, Jerusalem. 1592/1)
When news of the systematic murder of Jews began to reach the youth group leadership, Tosia’s mission changed: she traveled throughout Poland, warning Jews that the Nazis were carrying out genocide. Nothing less than the complete elimination of the Jewish community seemed to be their goal. In 1942, when the first large-scale deportations of Jews began from the Warsaw Ghetto, Tosia and other youth group leaders helped start the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB), the “Jewish Fighting Organization” to facilitate armed resistance to Nazi.
Once again, relying on her non-Jewish looks and her charismatic personality, Tosia smuggled herself in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, coordinating with the two main Polish resistance organizations, the nationalist Armia Krajowa (AK) and the Communist group Armia Ludowa. Her goal was to obtain donations of arms to help Jews fight within the Warsaw Ghetto. She managed to smuggle guns and grenades through the Polish countryside, hiding the arms in her clothes, and smuggle them into the Warsaw and Krakow Ghettos. At one point, in 1943, Tosia was arrested but managed to escape her Nazi prison and continue to fight.
When the Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out on April 18, 1943, Tosia was in the thick of the fighting. Her job was to relay information within the Ghetto and also to the outside world. She also helped smuggle Jews out of the Ghetto through sewers. After three weeks of fighting, Altman and a few other survivors managed to leave the Ghetto through sewers. Her hiding place caught fire on May 24, 1943, and a badly injured Tosia was arrested by Polish officers who promptly turned the Jewish resistance hero over to Nazi officials. Tosia was tortured, denied medical treatment, and died two days later.
Gusta Davidson – Inspiring Others and Leaving Written Testimony
Another woman investigated by Judy Batalion is Gusta Davidson (also spelled Dawidson). Born into a Chassidic Jewish family in Krakow in 1917, Gusta joined the religious youth movements B’nos Ya’akov and Akiva where she worked as a teacher and writer. She eventually became the editor of Zeirimi, the newspaper of the Akiva youth movement in Cracow.
Gusta Davidson (left) and Minka Liebeskind at an Akiva summer camp, 1938. They both became members of the Krakow ghetto underground. (Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House Museum, Photo Archive)
By the time World War II broke out, 22-year-old Gusta was one of the leaders of the Akiva group. She and a handful of others remained in Krakow to help rally the Jewish community and keep up morale. Gusta fell in love with a fellow Jewish newspaper editor, Shimshon Draenger. They made a pact that if one of them would be arrested, the other would join them in jail. When he was arrested by the Nazis for running anti-Nazi articles, Gusta turned herself in to the Gestapo so she could be with him in prison.
The pair were freed in 1940, though they remained under intense surveillance. Gusta and Shimshon married, and despite the grave danger it put them in, they continued their youth group activities, forging documents, printing underground newspapers, and taking part in armed resistance. Akiva merged with other Zionist youth groups to form a more potent resistance force. Gusta was charged with searching for safe houses for these underground activities.
In her book, Judy Batalion poignantly describes the change that came over Gusta and Shimshon, as well as a whole generation of Jewish youth pioneers. Their idealism of building a Jewish state slowly turned into the cynical realization that they had to fight their Nazi oppressors, and that European Jewry faced total annihilation. “We want to survive as a generation of avengers,” Shimon said at a youth group meeting. “If we survive, it has got to be as a group, and with weapons in our hands.”
Writing of Gusta’s transformation from bookish intellectual to ruthless fighter, Judy Batalion quotes Gusta after her father and sister were murdered by Nazis: “Hands, now caked with fertile loam, would soon be soaked in blood” as she and other Jews engaged in armed battle.
In December 1942, Jewish youth group fighters carried out the Cyganeria operation: the bombing of a cafe that was popular with senior Nazi and Gestapo officials. Shimshon was arrested in the aftermath of the attack, and soon after Gusta was arrested too; she was sent to the fearsome Helzlaw women’s prison where she was brutally tortured.
Gusta secretly wrote a book about her activities while in prison, painstakingly recording her testimony in tiny letters on toilet paper. Miraculously, her account survived the war and was published in 1946. It’s one of the most complete and moving accounts of Polish Jewish resistance fighters during the Holocaust. “From this prison cell that we will never leave alive,” Gusta wrote, “we young fighters who are about to die salute you. We offer our lives willingly for our holy cause, asking only that our deeds be inscribed in the book of eternal memory. May the memories preserved on these scattered bits of paper be gathered together to compose a picture of our unwavering resolve in the face of death.”
Pages from Gusta Davidson’s manuscript
At one point, Shimshon was taken to see Gusta. The Nazi guards apparently thought that after seeing how brutally his wife had been tortured, Shimshon would give in and reveal all his secrets. Instead, as Shimshon and his guards walked into Gusta’s cell, Gusta announced “Yes, it is true. I organized groups of Jewish fighters and I promise that if we are saved from you, we will do it again.” Neither Gusta nor Shimshon revealed their youth group’s secrets to the Nazis.
In April 1943, Gusta and Shimshon took part in a prison break. Gusta was the only woman in the group of prisoners to survive. She and Shimshon travelled to a secret resistance hideout in the Polish countryside near Krakow, where they continued to take part in resistance missions. Each Friday, they distributed 250 copies of a ten-page underground newspaper to Jews in the Krakow, Bochnia and Tarnow Ghettos.
By August 1943, with fascist forces closing in, Shimshon and Gusta tried to get themselves smuggled over the border into Hungary. They were betrayed, and executed by Nazis that month. Gusta’s final words are lost to history, but the account of her underground activities that she wrote in prison lives on:
“History will never forgive us for not having thought about it. What normal, thinking person would suffer all this in silence? Future generations will want to know what overwhelming motive could have restrained us from acting heroically. If we don’t act now, history will condemn us forever. Whatever we do we’re doomed, but we can still save our souls. The least we can do now is leave a legacy of human dignity that will be honored by someone, some day.”
Telling Their Stories
The stories of these women are just some of the incredible tales of resistance and bravery that have yet to be discovered and retold. In researching her remarkable new book, Judy Batalion has grappled with the question of why so many Jewish women resistance fighters were overlooked. “For many female survivors, silence was a means of coping,” she has found.
One of the most incredible women she profiles in her book is Renia Kukielka, who worked as a courier in and around the Polish town of Bedzin during the Holocaust. Evading Nazis, she managed to link Jewish undergrounds. She was arrested and tortured, and eventually escaped and made it first to Hungary, and eventually to Mandatory Palestine. Though she wrote a Hebrew language book about her experiences in Poland during the War – one of the first full length accounts of the Holocaust – Battalion notes that Renia’s “family home after the war was not filled with stories of the resistance, but with music, art and tango nights; she was known for her fashionable tastes, and for her sharp sense of humor. Like so many refugees, the resisters wanted to start afresh, to blend into their new worlds.”
“I don’t think any of this has been covered by typical World War Two histories,” Judy explains to Aish.com. “This is a story of young Jewish women that were incredibly daring – this is part of our legacy and our heritage as Jews.” Her book is an attempt to remedy this absence in our history books.
Teaching the next generation is crucial, and Judy wants the stories of the Jewish women resistance fighters she’s documented to be part of the legacy we leave our children. Judy has already started telling these stories to her daughter, and a youth edition of The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos is also being published on April 6, so that younger readers can start learning this history.
“I want people to read this story and to be inspired by their courage and bravery,” Judy notes. “I want people to understand that our history is multifaceted and complex.”
The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos (Harper Collins) is being published April 6, 2021.