A young Polish girl, wearing a peasant skirt with her hair in braids and a handkerchief covering her head, showed up unexpectedly one day at the Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw. She told the guards she needed to speak with an official inside about a personal matter.
“They showed her to the office. She went in and shot him in the head, and then just walked out and meekly waved goodbye to the guards and walked off,” said author Judy Batalion.
That was Nuita Teitelbaum, who on the outside was just a young history student at Warsaw University when World War II began and a member of the underground Communist Youth movement.
On the inside, however, she was a self-appointed executioner, dubbed “Little Wanda with the Braids” by the Nazis as she made a habit out of sneaking up on German soldiers and killing them.
Teitelbaum is just one of the many brave Jewish women featured in “The Light of Days” by Batalion, who will be in Milwaukee at Congregation Shalom on Sunday, March 6 to discuss her work made up of remarkable stories about Jewish women resistance fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. The program is in partnership with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and Congregation Shalom.
Batalion said in an interview with the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle that a big part of this project was to dispel the myth of Jewish passivity during the Holocaust and to offer stories of Jews who fought for justice despite their own families being murdered.
“They were starving. They were thirsty. They knew they weren’t going to topple the Nazis. They used to joke that their whole weapons cache fit in a bicycle basket. And still, that didn’t matter, their drive for justice and freedom and what was right was overwhelming,” the New Yorker said.
HERC executive director Samantha Abramson said she hopes the stories in the book help challenge pre-conceived notions of what resistance looked like and inspire future generations to take a stand against intolerance and discrimination.
“As historians, we want to tease out these stories of women that may have been lost or hidden, as Judy Batalion has so expertly done,” she said.
The genesis of the book began 15 years ago when Batalion was in London, writing about her Jewish identity.
“I was thinking about my own grandparents who had been Holocaust survivors and about how their experience, their traumas had transferred over the generations and how it had affected me,” she said. “I was interested in how my Holocaust heritage had shaped my reactions to danger, my responses.”
Batalion was writing a performance piece about how strong Jewish women confronted danger, when she began researching Hannah Szenes, a Hungarian Jewish poet who joined the allied forces and fought the Nazis.
“I wanted to understand her personality. Her motivations, her response to danger, her gumption, her conviction,” Batalion said.
Her research led her to a British library where she accidentally stumbled on an old Yiddish book from the 1940s about dozens and dozens of other young Jewish women, from the ghettos of Poland, who had been resistance fighters against the Nazis.
“I speak Yiddish so that’s part of the cosmic connection here,” Batalion said. “I was simply stunned by this material. I never heard a Holocaust story like this. It was so different from the narrative of the Holocaust that I was used to. And that’s when this project immediately caught me, perhaps.”
She translated the book, which was a collection of publications, interviews and articles, and researched it as well to understand the context. Batalion then made a list of all the women in the book and went to every single Holocaust library archive, World War II archive, and any Jewish center library that she could find to collect information about these women. In doing her research, she would find more and more women.
“I was reading dozens and dozens of memoirs and testimonies and really started to become enveloped in this world.” she said. “I was reading these stories about Jewish women jumping off trains and blowing up trains. I’ve never had anything like this. I was immediately flabbergasted by the material.”
The stories in “The Light of Days” rings relevant today and the complex issues facing society.
“They’re small acts that mattered and that’s what I feel is often important today,” Batalion said.
“Small acts are meaningful and lead to change. There are ways that we can each resist and fight the fight for the better.”
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How to go
What: The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos
Who: Author Judy Batalion in conversation with Dr. Rachel Baum
When: Sunday, March 6, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Congregation Shalom
Cost: Free, registration required
Registrants have the option to attend virtually through a streaming link or in person at Congregation Shalom. Space is limited for the in-person event. HolocaustCenterMilwaukee.org.
The program is in partnership with the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and Congregation Shalom.