The Light of Days by Judy Batalion

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

In the early 1940’s, when other eighteen-year-olds were enjoying life in London and New York, with movies, clothes and music, an incredibly courageous band of Jewish girls in Poland were fighting their Nazi oppressors.

This book is a testament to them, starving, tortured, brave often brazen, they planned their resistance.  Their determination was fueled by anger and a burning sense of justice.

Jewish lore is rich in stories of triumph of the underdog – David and Goliath, for one. This spirit is encapsulated in the stories of Renia, Zivia and Frumka who are just three of the young women who witnessed the cruel and ruthless invasion of their homeland and, robbed of family and a normal life, were determined to fight.

In the early years of the war, Germans established more than 400 ghettos in Poland in an attempt to decimate the Jews. Some between the age of 12-60 were sent to forced labour camps, the rest were imprisoned and eventually transported to the death camps.

Those fighting to survive became members of Freedom, and communities like it, that quietly worked to foster strong Jews who could withstand the horrors they were confronted by in the future. Reading was their escape mechanism.

Many older Ghetto inhabitants, especially in Warsaw, did not believe the rumoured genocide was possible, could actually happen – the civilised world would prevent it. The younger ones, like Renia, were not in agreement. So began their form of the Polish resistance. These women knew they could risk more as men were an easy target.

In her book, Judy Batalion melds fact and her writing skill to bring their story to the wider world. Theirs is a story too long ignored, and thankfully, she has felt compelled to write.

The terror of life as a Jewish person in Poland is described extensively and, at times, mind-numbingly. Often, they would welcome being shot, rather than endure some of the inhumanly brutal deaths that the Gestapo inflicted.

This backdrop is Renia’s as she fears she is alone, her family lost, perhaps dead. Friendless, she has only her wits to help her. Occasional luck and kindness led to a better time. She speaks fluent Polish and appears more Aryan in her looks. Decided advantages. The chronicle that follows is staggering in so many ways, even more so when we learn it has only now, been shared more widely.

The author has dedicated a chunk of her life in pursuit of innumerable resources, primary and secondary, as is acknowledged at the end, in the Notes and Epilogue. The result is an exhaustive account of a group of truly extraordinary young women. It is very scholarly and   will be welcomed by all those who care about this issue which has been ignored for decades. One must caution – it is not a light read. Its detail is, occasionally, overwhelming to a casual reader.

Many stories have surfaced of the suffering, courage and staggering feats of survival that mark those who were victims of the holocaust.

This monumental effort attempts to share the exploits of these intrepid resistance fighters, previously ignored, the young Polish women.

The author is well qualified in that she has a degree from Harvard and the Courtauld, as well as experience in museums and as a university lecturer. Leading newspapers have published her essays and this is her second book. Born in Canada, she now lives in New York.

Ultimately, The Light of Days is an important and admirable contribution by Judy Batalion. In writing this book, she provides an essential and valuable addition to the continuing incomplete saga of World War II.

The Light of Days

[2021]

by Judy Batalion

Hachette

ISBN 978 03490 1157 8

$32.99; 418pp

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