‘The Light of Days’ Book Club Guide
“The girls volunteer as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Are there comrades who have to be rescued from Vilna, Lublin, or some other city? They undertake the mission. Nothing stands in their way…. How many times have they looked death in the eyes? How many times have they been arrested and searched?… The story of the Jewish women will be a glorious page in the history of Jewry during the present war.” —Emanuel Ringelblum, May 1942, from The Light of Days
An illuminating account of the breadth of women’s courage during World War II, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion is the first nonfiction selection of the One Book, One Hadassah reading initiative. A New York Times best seller, the book brings to life the rebellion and bravery of Jewish women who acted as couriers, spies, smugglers and saboteurs in the ghettos of Poland.
Join us on Thursday, October 28, at 7 p.m. ET, as Hadassah Magazine Executive Editor Lisa Hostein interviews Judy Batalion about her book, women’s experiences during the Holocaust, the impact of Zionist youth groups in prewar Europe and how Batalion uncovered the little-known stories of this resourceful group of Jewish women. Register here.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have one, now’s the time to start! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about The Light of Days after the interview. To facilitate those discussions, we present the following discussion guide.
Book Club Questions
- The Light of Days brings the true stories of women’s resistance during World War II and the Holocaust to new audiences. Were you aware of Jewish resistance and activities in the ghettos and camps before you read the book? Was it surprising to read about the role of women in smuggling weapons and information into the ghettos or that women were among the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?
- In her introduction, author Judy Batalion discusses her discovery of Freuen in di Ghetto, the Yiddish book of stories from women in the Holocaust. It was published in 1946 and is perhaps one of the earliest printed accounts of the struggles of the Jews under Nazi Germany. Yet the book faded into obscurity. Discuss why you think these stories and other true accounts of women’s experiences during the Holocaust are not better known in the United States and in Israel.
- Batalion explores the involvement of many young Jewish women and men in Zionist or socialist youth groups before the war. Why do you think these groups were so popular in Europe during that time period? Describe how involvement in the youth-led movements helped shape the philosophy and structure of resistance groups. How did organizations like Freedom (Dror) and The Young Guard (Hashomer Hatzair) and others help their members deal with the horrors of Nazi depredations?
- In the ghettos, Batalion discusses a gender role reversal. Women snuck outside the ghetto to barter for food and sell items on the black market while many men stayed at home. Why was it easier for women than men to leave the ghetto? Why were young Jewish women so well-suited for espionage and courier roles, becoming, as one of them noted, the “nerve-centers of the movement”? Discuss how and why these women were able to blend into the background of the various cities that they visited.
- Discuss the different acts of resistance described in the book. Can we compare “soft resistance,” such as creating underground libraries and newspapers or caring for orphans, to acts like assassinating Nazis, blowing up railways and smuggling weapons? Were you surprised to learn that thousands of Jews in the ghettos risked their lives to perform in clandestine shows and that the Warsaw Ghetto had its own “Broadway,” which featured 30 performance venues on one street alone?
- The Light of Days largely focuses on Renia, described as “neither an idealist nor a revolutionary” yet determined to go on courier missions; and Zivia, a passionate Zionist leader among the couriers and resisters. How did their different ideologies and incentives impact their decisions? Batalion does include portraits of other young women involved, sometimes to a lesser extent, in the resistance. Which of these shorter profiles did you relate to or find powerful?
- How were the female couriers able to use their gender and the pervasive attitudes about women in German society as an advantage against the Nazis? One officer called these fighting women “devils or goddesses” and reported how one captured woman “looked timid. Completely resigned. And then suddenly, when a group of our men got within a few steps of her, she pulled a hand grenade out from under her skirt or her breeches and slaughtered the SS while showering them with curses.” What did you think of the shock expressed by German soldiers and officers at Jewish women who took up arms?
- For readers with survivors in their families, did the book make you rethink any of your parents’, grandparents’ or other relatives’ story? Were accounts of women’s experiences during the Holocaust widely shared in your family? Is there a personal story that you would like to share with your group?
- Discuss the experiences of the women after the war, including how they reacted to surviving. Renia’s postwar motto was: “It happened, and it passed.” How did that attitude shape her new life in Israel? What do you see as the pros and cons of that approach?
- In an epilogue, Batalion describes contemporary Poland’s commemorations of the war and remembrance of its Jewish community coupled with a rejection of any complicity in the annihilation of that very community. She writes about non-Jewish Poland’s sense of victimhood after the war, that “the Poles felt misunderstood. To be held responsible for the Holocaust did seem unfair, especially when the Polish government did not collaborate with Nazis and…certainly this claim is unjust to those who risked their lives to help Jews.” What do you make of her discussion of the complexities of Polish responsibility for the treatment of its Jews? How do you understand the role of Polish Catholics and Polish society as their Jewish neighbors and communities were slaughtered?