Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on Jan. 31, 2022. Find that audio here.
In the 1940s, a group of young Jewish women living in the ghettos of Poland reacted to Adolf Hitler’s murderous campaign with unfathomable courage.
Judy Batalion’s new book, “The Light of Days,” tells the story of women resistance fighters who smuggled weapons, assassinated Nazis and sabotaged German supply lines. The book focuses on resistance inside the ghettos where many Jews were sent before Nazi death camps.
Multiple families were forced to live in the same room at the “torturous,” overcrowded ghettos, Batalion says. Testimonials and memoirs she read while researching for the book spoke of illness and lice.
“People in the ghettos also had no information. They were not allowed radios. They were not allowed newspapers,” she says. “So people lived in great fear.”
Many of the women Batalion writes about were part of organized youth movements before being sent to the ghettos. These preexisting social connections served as a substitute family for young Jews, she says.
Young Jewish women risked their lives to smuggle weapons, ammunition, dynamite, fake IDs, money and medicine into the ghettos, she says. The women even smuggled people out of slave labor camps and brought them to the forest.
To leave the ghetto, a Jewish person needed to pass for a Catholic Pole — a task that was easier for women than men. First, men suspected of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Poland were often forced to drop their pants to show if they were circumcised, she says.
“Women were not circumcised, so they didn't have a physical marker of their Jewishness on their bodies like men did,” she says.
In 1930s Poland, families often sent their sons to private Jewish schools and daughters to public Polish schools. This made women more assimilated to Polish culture, familiar with Catholic customs and able to speak Polish “like a Pole” rather than with a “creaky Yiddish accent,” Batalion says.
Without military training, the women studied chemistry to learn how to create bombs and grenades out of pipes, coal powder and sugar, she writes. In time, the bombs the women made were better than ones they purchased elsewhere.
One important chapter talks about the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest revolt by Jews against the Nazis. About 750 young Jews between the ages of 17 to 25 from a number of different youth movements came together, she says, a third of the resistance fighters being women.
“When the Nazis came to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, [young Jews] fought back,” she says. “They flung Molotov cocktails. They bombed tanks.”
One woman climbed onto the roof of a low-rise building in the ghetto and used her shaking hands to light an explosive on fire. She could hear the Germans crying out in shock over the fact that a woman was fighting in the uprising, Batalion says.
The young Jews pushed the Nazis back. In the book, Batalion describes the intoxicating joy of revenge. But these “starving Jewish teenagers” didn’t make survival plans, she says.
“They didn't expect to survive. They assumed they would be killed,” she says. “How could they not be killed? They’re fighting brigades and troops and tanks of Nazis.”
The Nazis burned down the ghetto weeks later. Many Jews were killed by gunfire, and others died in the flames. Jewish underground leader Zivia Lubetkin said that the group was prepared to fight the Nazis, but not fire, Batalion says.
Throughout the course of the war, many of the women Batalion writes about died. But others survived and miraculously made it to Palestine, now Israel.
“Everyone dealt with their experience in a different way,” she says. “Some people became involved as Holocaust teachers and educators and scholars and very involved in survivor communities. And others completely left their past, really had to start afresh in order to move on.”
The book mostly focuses on people who were in their early 20s when World War II ended — young adults with their entire lives ahead of them, she says. These individuals lost everything: their families and time to train for careers.
Some people needed to start fresh to leave the past behind and move on. Many women felt a “cosmic sense of duty to create a new generation of Jewish people” and give their children happy childhoods, she says.
Batalion says she feels inspired by the “bravado,” “courage” and “conviction” of these women. In speaking to their families, the author learned the women all trusted their instincts.
The son of Renia Kukiełka, the central character in the book, told Batalion that his mother didn’t look left, right and left again before crossing the street. Kukiełka crossed the street without a second thought.
“I think a lot of these women were like that. They just crossed the street. They did what they had to do. They didn't second guess,” she says. “I'm a second guesser so really I'm very drawn to those who can just cross the street.”
Book Excerpt: 'The Light Of Days'
By Judy Batalion
Spring 1943. It had been six months since Renia Kukiełka had arrived in Bedzin, a town in southwest Poland now annexed by the Third Reich. After fleeing a ghetto, escaping a forced labor camp, running through forests, jumping off a moving train, and pretending to be a Christian housekeeper, nervously genuflecting at weekly church services, she’d come here to join her sister in the Jewish underground. Renia, aged nineteen, quickly became a “courier” — in Hebrew, a “kasharit,” or connector. “Courier girls” risked death to connect the locked ghettos where Jews were imprisoned. They dyed their hair blond, took off their armbands, put on dazzling fake smiles, and secretly slipped in and out of ghettos and camps, bringing Jews information, supplies and hope. On her first missions, Renia was sent to obtain intelligence, transfer currency and purchase fake IDs. Now, the resistance needed weapons.
She was paired with twenty-two-year-old Ina Gelbart, whom Renia described as “a lively girl. Tall, agile, sweet…. Never for a moment feared death.”
Renia and Ina had fake papers enabling them to travel. Obtained from an expert counterfeiter in Warsaw, they’d cost a fortune, but as Renia reflected, it was hardly the time to negotiate a bargain. When the girls arrived at the checkpoint, they assuredly handed over government-issued transit permits and identity cards, inlaid with their portraits.
The guard nodded.
Renia was by now confident operating in Warsaw, and she and Ina set out to find their contact, Tarlow, a Jew who disguised himself as a Christian and lived on the Aryan side. He had connections.
The revolvers and grenades that Renia smuggled came primarily from the Germans’ weapons storehouses. “One of the soldiers used to steal and sell them,” Renia explained, “then another sold them; we got them from perhaps the fifth hand.” Other women’s accounts speak of weapons coming from German army bases, weapons repair shops, and factories where Jews were used as forced labor, as well as from farmers, the black market, dozing guards, the Polish resistance, and even Germans who sold guns they’d stolen from Russians. After losing Stalingrad in 1943, German morale fell, and soldiers sold their own guns. Though rifles were easiest to come by, they were hard to carry and hide; pistols were more efficient and more expensive.
Sometimes, Renia explained, a weapon was smuggled all the way to the ghetto only for them to find that it was too rusty to fire or did not come with compatible bullets. There was no way to try before you buy. “In Warsaw, there was no time or place to try out the weapons. We had to quickly pack any defective one up in a concealed corner and get back on the train to Warsaw to exchange it for a good one. Again, people risked their lives.”
The girls found Tarlow, and he directed them to a cemetery. That’s where they’d buy the cherished merchandise: explosives, grenades, and guns, guns, guns.
To Renia, each weapon smuggled in was “a treasure.”
In all the major ghettos, the Jewish resistance was established with barely any arms. At first, the Białystok underground had one rifle that had to be carried between units of fighters so that each could train with a real weapon; in Vilna, they shared one revolver and shot against a basement wall of mud so they could reuse the bullets. Kraków began without a single gun. Warsaw had two pistols to start.
The Polish underground promised arms, but these shipments were often canceled, or stolen en route, or delayed indefinitely. The kashariyot were sent out to find weapons and ammunition and smuggle them to ghettos and camps, often with little guidance, and always at tremendous risk.
The courier girls’ psychological skills were especially important in this most dangerous task. Their connections and expertise in hiding, bribing, and deflecting suspicion were critical. Frumka Płotnicka was the first courier to smuggle weapons into the Warsaw ghetto: she placed them at the bottom of a sack of potatoes. Adina Blady Szwajger did the same with ammunition, and one time, when a patrol ordered her to open her bag, her smile and the cocky way in which she opened it saved her. Bronka Klibanski, a courier in Białystok, was smuggling a revolver and two hand grenades inside a loaf of country bread in her suitcase. At the train station, a German policeman asked her what she was carrying. By “confessing” that she was smuggling food, she managed to avoid having to open her bag. Her “honest confession” evoked a protective response from the policeman, who instructed the train conductor to take care of her and make sure no one bothered her or her suitcase.
Renia knew she wasn’t the first courier to bring in booty for a rebellion: kashariyot had obtained and transported weapons into the ghettos for both the Kraków and Warsaw revolts. When Hela Schüpper, a master courier in Kraków, was sent to Warsaw to buy guns, she knew she’d be spending twenty hours undercover on trains. She scraped her face with special soap to hide her scabies, dyed her hair bright blonde (using a potent blue capsule of bleach), tied her hair in a turban-like scarf, borrowed a stylish outfit from a non-Jewish friend’s mother, and purchased an expensive jute handbag with a floral print, fashionable in war-time. She looked like she was on her way to an afternoon of theater. Instead, she met a People’s Army contact, Mr. X, at the gate of a clinic. She was told he’d be reading a newspaper. As per instructions, she asked him for the time and to see his newspaper. He walked away, and Hela followed at a distance, embarking a different train car and landing at a shoemaker’s apartment.
Hela waited several days for the goods: five weapons, four pounds of explosives, and clips of cartridges. She taped the handguns to her skin and hid the ammo in her chic purse. She did not go to the theater; she was the theater. A photo of her in Aryan Warsaw shows her smiling, content, wearing a tailored skirt suit that ends just above the knee, loafers, an updo, and a lapel pin; she clutches a small, stylish tote. As courier Gusta Davidson described Hela: “Anyone who observed the way she flirted shamelessly on the train . . . flashing her provocative smile, would have assumed she was on her way to visit her fiancée or to go on vacation.” (Even Hela got caught on occasion. Once, she broke out of a jail bathroom and bolted. She never wore long coats on missions, making sure to keep her legs unencumbered.)
In Warsaw, underground members on the Aryan side spent months trying to obtain weapons. Posing as Poles, they used basements or convent restaurants for quiet meetings, changing subjects whenever the waitress approached. Vladka Meed began by smuggling metal files into the ghetto — these were for Jews to carry so that if they were shoved onto a train to Treblinka, they could cut through the window bars and jump. She dressed like a peasant, headed to a Gentile smuggling area, and jumped over the wall. Some couriers paid Polish guards to whisper a password at the wall; a resistance member waiting inside would climb up and grab the package. Vladka procured her first gun from her landlord’s nephew for 2,000 złotys. She paid her landlord 75 złotys to put the box through a hole, or meta, in the wall, in an area where guards were easily bribed. People bearing “gifts” also passed to and from the Aryan side by joining labor groups and jumping off trains that ran through the ghetto. Items were smuggled in garbage trucks and ambulances, and sent through drainpipes. In Warsaw, many couriers used the courthouse, which had entrances on both the Jewish and Aryan sides.
Once, Vladka had to repack three cartons of dynamite into smaller packages and pass them through the grate of a factory window in the subcellar of a building that bordered the ghetto. As she and the Gentile watchman, who had been bribed with 300 złotys and a flask of vodka, worked frantically in the dark, “the watchman trembled like a leaf,” she recalled. “I’ll never take such a chance again,” he mumbled when they finished, drenched in sweat. When Vladka left, he asked her what was in the packages. “Powdered paint,” she replied, careful to gather up some spilled dynamite from the floor.
Havka Folman and Tema Schneiderman smuggled grenades into the Warsaw ghetto in menstrual pads, and in their underwear. As they rode through the city in a crowded streetcar, a seat became available and a Pole chivalrously insisted Tema take it. If she sat down, however, they all might explode. The girls chatted their way out of it, their loud laughter covering their tremendous fear.
In Białystok, courier Chasia Bielicka did not work alone. Eighteen Jewish girls collaborated to arm the local resistance, while leasing rooms from Polish peasants, and holding day jobs in Nazi homes, hotels, and restaurants. Chasia was a maid for an SS man who had an armoire filled with handguns to shoot birds. Chasia periodically grabbed a few bullets and dropped them into her coat pocket. Once, he called her over to the cupboard in a rage; she was sure she’d been caught, but he was upset only because the weaponry wasn’t adequately organized. The courier girls stashed ammo under their rooms’ floorboards, and passed machine-gun bullets to the ghetto through the window of a latrine that bordered the ghetto wall.
After the Białystok ghetto’s liquidation and the youth’s revolt, the courier ring continued to supply intelligence and arms to all sorts of partisans, enabling them to break into a Gestapo arsenal. To get a large gun to the forest, the girls transported each steel piece on a separate journey. Chasia carried a long rifle in broad daylight in a metal tube that resembled a chimney. Suddenly two gendarmes appeared in front of her. Chasia knew if she didn’t speak first, they would. So she asked them for the time.
“What, it’s already so late?” she exclaimed. “Thank you, they’ll be worried about us at home.” As Chasia put it, “feigning extreme confidence,” was her undercover style. In offices, she’d complain to the Gestapo if she had to wait long for her (fake) ID. On one occasion, a Nazi saw her trying to enter the ghetto, and, without thinking, she pulled down her pants and urinated, throwing him off. Similarly, if a Polish woman was suspicious of a Jewish man, he was wise to immediately offer to drop his pants and prove his lack of circumcision—this was usually enough to startle and repel her.
Chasia got a new day job; her new boss was a German civilian who worked for the German army as a building director. She knew he’d helped feed his Jewish workers, and one night she told him she was a Jew herself. Her roommate, Chaika Grossman, who’d led the Białystok uprising and fled the deportation, also worked for an anti-Nazi German. The five courier girls who were still alive initiated a cell of rebellious Germans. When the Soviets arrived in the area, they introduced them too and chaired the Białystok Anti-Fascist Committee, composed of all local resistance organizations. The girls passed guns from the friendly Germans to the Soviets, provided all the intelligence for the Red Army’s occupation of Białystok, and collected weapons for them from fleeing Axis soldiers.
In Warsaw, too, after the ghetto uprising, fighters needed weapons for defense, as well as for revolts in other camps and ghettos, like Renia’s. Leah Hammerstein worked on the Aryan side as a kitchen helper in a rehab hospital. Her underground comrade once stunned her by asking if she might be willing to steal a gun. He never mentioned it again, but Leah became obsessed with the idea. One day, she passed an empty German soldiers’ room. Without thinking, she approached the closet, and a pistol was right there, waiting for her. She slipped it under her dress, then walked to the bathroom and locked the door. What now? She stood on the toilet and noticed a small window that opened onto the roof. She wrapped the gun in her underwear and slipped it out. Later, when it was her turn to throw out potato peelings, she went up to the roof, retrieved it, and threw it into the hospital garden. A hospital wide search ensued, but she wasn’t worried — no one would suspect her. At the end of her shift, she picked the wrapped gun out of the weeds, put it in her purse, and went home.
From the book THE LIGHT OF DAYS: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos by Judy Batalion. Copyright © 2020 by Judy Batalion. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
This segment aired on April 5, 2021.