The Current

How Jewish women fought back against the Nazis during a 1943 uprising in Poland

Monday marked 78 years since the start of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Jews waged a 27-day revolt against the Nazis. Montreal-born author Judy Batalion writes about the often-forgotten stories of Jewish women who fought in the uprising in her new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos.

Monday marked 78 years since the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Of approximately 750 young Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, nearly 200 were women, says Montreal-born author Judy Batalion. She writes about their experiences in her new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos. (Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Photo Archive)

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When Montreal-born author Judy Batalion first learned about a group of Jewish women in Poland who rebelled against the Nazis during the Second World War, it was by total chance.

The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Batalion had been researching intergenerational trauma at the British Library in London, and spotted an unusual-looking book written in Yiddish — a language she happened to understand.

"I started reading through this, sort of just out of curiosity," Batalion told The Current's Matt Galloway. "And what I found stunned me."

Inside were nearly 200 pages of information about dozens of Jewish women who fought the Germans from inside ghettos — separate districts that German occupation authorities created during the Holocaust to isolate Jews from non-Jewish communities. The book had been published in 1946 to tell American Jews what Jewish women accomplished during the resistance, and was filled with chapter titles like Weapons, Ammunition, and Partisan Combat.

"It was simply nothing like any Holocaust narrative that I'd ever heard," Batalion said.

Now she's written about the often-forgotten stories of those women in her new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler's Ghettos.

Batalion is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She says she stumbled upon a Yiddish book about Jewish women resistance fighters while researching another topic at the British Library in London. (Beowulf Sheehan)

Monday marked the 78th anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Jews in the ghetto waged a 27-day revolt against the Nazis who had come to transport them to death camps.

While some people survived, the Germans ultimately burned the ghetto to the ground, killing thousands and sending others to concentration or death camps outside the city.

But the destruction of the ghetto didn't come without a fight.

Primarily young Jews between the ages of 16 and 25 had come together to form underground militias. Many of them had been part of youth movements before the war as well, Batalion said.

Comrades from a pioneer training commune in Bialystok, Poland, in 1938. Many of the fighting groups that took part in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 were formed out of youth movements that started before the war. (Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Photo Archive)

Of the approximately 750 young Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, nearly 200 were women, she said. They often worked as "couriers," smuggling explosives, ammunition, and other weapons into the ghetto.

Batalion said she found stories of women "putting weapons into marmalade jars, sacks of potatoes, teddy bears, fashionable handbags that they would often purchase or borrow, or just taping them to their torsos."

Women of the resistance

Zivia Lubetkin was one of those women in the resistance movement.

Although she escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland in 1939, she later smuggled herself back into Warsaw out of a sense of responsibility to her people, Batalion said.

Having been a leader in youth movements before the war, Lubetkin became a kind of natural leader in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Zivia Lubetkin after the war, in 1946. Lubetkin escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland, but later returned out of a sense of duty, Batalion says. (Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Photo Archive)

Among many feats, she helped a group of resistance fighters escape the ghetto through sewer canals, where they waited two days for a rescue truck, Battalion said.

After the ghetto was razed, Lubetkin went into hiding. During that time, she helped orchestrate the rescue of more than 10,000 Jews, Batalion said.

A house in Warsaw where Lubetkin and her comrades hid after 1944. (Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Photo Archive)

Another woman named Masha Futermilch fought the Nazis using a Jewish guerilla strategy, flinging explosives at her enemies from the rooftops of buildings.

In one account, Futermilch described her fingers shaking and barely being able to light a match to set off her explosives, because she was so nervous and excited, Battalion said.

Her attack took the Germans by surprise.

"What she hears are the Nazis yelling … 'A woman is fighting?'" said the author. "That's what shocked them." 

Former Warsaw ghetto fighters and their families in 1973. Masha Futermilch is seen in the top row, second from the right. (Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Photo Archive)

One of the most notorious fighters was Niuta Teitelbaum, a young woman in her 20s. 

She was nicknamed "Little Wanda with the Braids" because she was known to braid her hair, dress up as a Polish peasant girl, and enter homes and offices in disguise to kill Nazis.

Teitelbaum also trained other women in the Warsaw Ghetto on how to use weapons, in preparation for the uprising, Batalion said.

Niuta Teitelbaum as a schoolgirl in Lodz, Poland, in 1936. During the war, she became known as “Little Wanda with the Braids.” (Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, Photo Archive)

"She was on every Gestapo most-wanted list," said the author.

Teitelbaum was caught and killed in 1943.

Legacy of resilience

In her book, Battalion writes that she spent a lot of time trying to get as far away from the Holocaust as possible.

She told Galloway this was because she believed the trauma her grandparents experienced during the Holocaust was passed through her family. Batalion said she became an anxious person herself, and that other relatives have experienced mental health issues.

However, researching the experiences of women resistance fighters has also made her think about the strength that has been passed through generations, and helped her see the Holocaust in a different way, she said.

"I now see it as a story of constant resistance, and resilience, and struggle, and fight," Batalion said. 

"And I truly feel proud to come from this legacy."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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