It’s remarkable, decades on, how many stories there are still left to discover about the Holocaust. Recently we commented on all of the stories emerging about the courageous and brave Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews.
Of course there were many Jews who risked their lives, in small and big ways, and a specific group of them — young women — are highlighted in The Light of Days, a new book by Judy Batalion, who was the guest speaker at this week’s Marcus Lecture. Regular IJN readers may be familiar with her research, as we featured a story on it in April of this year. As she recounted Wednesday night, Batalion, a historian, was researching the poet-turned-paratrooper Hannah Senesh in the British Library when she came across a Yiddish book published in 1946 titled Freuen in di Ghettos (“Women in the Ghettos”) that chronicled the exploits of Polish Jewish women who used their Aryan features to hide in plain sight, sometimes befriending Nazis before assassinating them. They also acted as couriers and bomb makers, anything to weaken the Nazi powers in Poland.
Following Batalion’s presentation, a discussion with Prof. Adam Rovner of the Holocaust Awareness Institute, and Q&A, followed. A theme that kept arising was why weren’t these stories known? Indeed Batalion bemoaned that by the time she got serious about the book, none of the primary figures were still living. But she described two factors — one inner, one outer.
The latter: Zeitgeist. More and more stories of women are being told, with the idea and recognition that many stories have gone untold since much of scholarship focused on men.
The former — inner — is more personal. Many of these resistance fighters, like many survivors, indeed survivors of trauma in general, didn’t focus on their Holocaust stories. They focused on the future, or the present. Many of these women were busy starting new families in new countries. So while they shared their stories in the immediate aftermath of war, that’s where it ended.
That mirrors Righteous Gentiles, many of whom didn’t share their stories at all, their heroism only uncovered by meticulous researchers.
Which is why we’ll be uncovering more stories in decades to come, but also while some stories will remain forever unknown. This increased Holocaust scholarship means more people’s stories being shared, but also an enriching of our understanding of this devastating genocide.
Batalion mentioned that in her work as a Holocaust scholar, she came to realize how limited her understanding had been, and how nuanced and varied the experiences were for Jews in different geographic area. For example, she said that resistance was particularly strong among Polish Jews, and that was in part due to the social standards of the time immediately preceding the war. Polish Jews, she said, tended to be educated and integrated, which then during the war gave them the language skills and social knowledge that made their false identities believable. According to Batalion, Polish women, including Jewish women, were more liberated or had more rights than their compatriots in other Eastern European countries, which possibly factored into their taking on these daring roles.
There’s a very real fear that with fewer Holocaust survivors living among us, their stories and experiences will fade. That is undoubtedly a sad truth. But books like Batalion’s also show us that Holocaust scholarship is not fading, and that there are stories to be discovered and shared, even stories of survivors no longer living. It gives us hope for the future of Holocaust remembrance and the continued commitment to “never forget.”