In August 1942, 17-year-old Renia Kukielka anguished over parting from her beloved family. For three tumultuous years under the Nazi occupation of Poland, she and her parents and siblings fled their home in the small town of Jedrzejow, endured hunger, and witnessed atrocities and the brutal murders of other Jews.
Renia’s older brother, Aaron, had been taken away as part of a roundup of young Jewish men and sent to a Nazi labor camp. Her older sister Sarah had moved away, becoming an activist in a secular Zionist organization. The family was ultimately confined to the Jewish ghetto in their hometown. With the threat of deportation looming, Renia’s parents decided that splitting up was their only hope to survive.
With her fair complexion and mastery of Polish, Renia was able to disguise herself as a Christian and sent off separately.
“From that moment, I was on my own,” she later wrote.
Within two months of narrowly escaping capture, working for a Polish family and risking her life to flee again, Renia, not yet 18, joined her sister Sarah in Bedzin, a town that had attracted many young Jewish freedom fighters. It was a turning point in her young life, as Renia drew on a deep well of courage and determination, working tirelessly to help other Jews and carry out defiant acts against the Nazis.
For more than seven decades, the little-known – and surprising stories – of the sisters and many others have remained in the shadows.
Now, with the publication of “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” author Judy Batalion is revealing their remarkable lives. In a riveting, exhaustively researched book, Batalion is saying their names, recognizing their heroism, and restoring their place in history.
On Thursday, April 8, Batalion, the author of “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between,” will discuss her book with historian Judith Rosenbaum, chief executive officer of the Jewish Women’s Archive at 8 p.m.
On Thursday, April 15, Batalion will speak in a 7 p.m. program with the Vilna Shul.
Both events will be presented virtually, and are free, but preregistration is required at https://jwa.org and https://vilnashul.org.
Batalion is no stranger to the Holocaust. Her grandparents escaped from Warsaw to Siberian work camps, and her mother’s was born in then Soviet-ruled Kyrgyzstan as the war raged. The family eventually escaped to Montreal.
In Poland, Renia Kukielka took on the role of a “courier girl,” an underground operative traveling clandestinely from one Jewish ghetto to another. She, along with scores of other brave young women who passed as Aryans, were the vital connecting links between the ghettos, bringing news, smuggling false identification papers, and at times weapons, concealed on their bodies or in sacks of food and even jars of marmalade.
Others in Bedzin included Frumka Plotnicka and her younger sister, Hantze.
Some took on militant action, plotting and carrying out sabotage against the Nazis, including blowing up train tracks.
Zivia Lubetkin emerged as a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Vladka (Peltel) Meed smuggled dynamite into the ghetto. In 1943, Niuta Teitelbaum, dressed as a Polish farm girl, walked into a Gestapo apartment and shot and killed two Nazis.
The Jewish Women’s Archive, headquartered in Brookline, is taking pride knowing that Batalion used the archive’s encyclopedia as an early source of information for her book, Rosenbaum told the Journal.
“‘The Light of Days’ reveals not only that women’s history is often surprising, but also that it is essential to understanding the past,” Rosenbaum said in an email. “Including women’s experiences helps us write a different story, one which has the potential to teach us new things about women, the Jewish people, and humanity.”
Batalion didn’t set out to write this book, a dozen years in the making and already optioned for film rights by Steven Spielberg. In 2007, while living in London, Batalion, then in her 20s, was researching Hannah Senesh, the young Jewish heroine of World War II who was executed by the Nazis. In the British Library, Batalion cracked open a worn, yellowed copy of a Yiddish anthology, “Freuen in di Ghettos (Women in the Ghetto),”she wrote in the introduction to her book. To her amazement, Batalion, who knows Yiddish, discovered “sabotage, rifles, disguise, dynamite. I’d discovered a thriller,” she wrote.
She also unearthed the writings of Renia Kukielka, who penned her memoir in 1945, after escaping to Palestine. In vivid and often heart-wrenching prose, Kukielka provided one of the first full-length accounts of the Holocaust, Batalion wrote.
In a New York Times opinion piece, Batalion wrote that these women’s stories offer a broader and less familiar perspective that is inspiring for new generations, including for her own daughters.
“My children should know that their legacy includes not just fleeing, but also staying, and even running towards danger.”