Judy Batalion, THE LIGHT OF DAYS

Judy Batalion, THE LIGHT OF DAYS

“I feel a great duty to these women, even those that told their stories but hadn’t been widely heard and especially those that never got to tell their stories.” Judy Batalion talks with Zibby about the extraordinary women of the resistance who fought “for justice and liberty and fairness” in Hitler’s ghettos. She discusses the incredible amount of work and research that went into her latest book, The Light of Days; and, shares her experience growing up a descendant of Holocaust survivors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Judy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to talk about The Light of Days.

Judy Batalion: I am so excited to be here.

Zibby: For anyone listening, Judy and I did an Instagram Live at the beginning of the pandemic when her book was pushed back a year. What was your original pub date? June?

Judy: June 23rd. It was pushed by ten months.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I was just saying that was such a low moment. I was like, “How do you feel?” You’re like, “Okay.” Anyway, finally, here we are on the other side of something. At least now this book is finally coming out. You must feel so relieved, I hope, or are you still apprehensive?

Judy: Who knows what will happen in the next five weeks? Life has been so day by day. No, I am excited. It looks like it should be coming out on April 6th.

Zibby: Amazing. There are so many great things about your book. Let me just tell, the subtitle is The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. You started off with a very personal introduction about your own family history and how you ended up writing this book and the trauma that has been inherited in generations through your own family. Why don’t we start with that? Tell us the background about your own family’s Holocaust story and how your grandmother used to tell it to you every afternoon, which must have been very uplifting after school, tea and cookies and Holocaust stories from your zayde or bubbe or whatever. Tell me a little bit. Just start there with that tragedy.

Judy: By the way, it was milk and cookies, the cookies with the jam inside and the chocolate with the sprinkles. My mother’s family were Holocaust survivors. My grandmother and grandfather, they escaped occupied Warsaw earlier on in the war. I don’t even know if I mention this in this book. My grandmother, she used to always tell a story, she’s no longer with us, about how she didn’t look as Jewish as the rest of her family, which becomes a huge theme in my book as well. She went and stood in the ration lines collecting food and bread for her family. She would hear people sort of disclose where Jews were hiding. She sensed the really insidious danger of staying in Poland, and they left. They left quite early. Lucky for them, they decided to flee east instead of west. They went towards the Soviet Union. Along the way, they stayed with one of my grandfather’s brothers who was actually killed while they were with him. My grandfather had a mark. The bullet grazed his neck and shot his brother in the heart. I grew up with that bullet mark.

My grandparents, they were helped in a — I don’t even talk about this in the book, so I’m glad we’re getting a chance. They were helped at a convent by nuns. They escaped part way by swimming, part way in a, I believe — I’m putting together a lot of stories from the family. I remember my grandmother telling me they were in a truck that carried fruit. They were hidden in the truck. They made their way to the Soviet Union or to Russia at the time. They were then, like many Jews who went east, transported to Siberian gulags, to camps in Siberia. That is how they survived. In fact, the bulk of Polish Jews who did survive survived because they survived in these camps in Russia which in and of themselves were really apparently very horrible living conditions. They were work camps in Siberia. Almost nobody writes about that experience. That’s a next project. No, it’s not. That’s another work on. They were then called the Asian Jews. These were the Polish Jews that went east and survived because of that. That’s my family’s story, which is not the same as the story I tell in this book.

Zibby: I know, but I just like to find out more about you. The way you even wrote about it, can I just read this little section when you talk about your family? Then we’ll talk about the rest of the book and everything. You wrote, “I come from a family of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors. My Bubbe Zelda, namesake to my eldest daughter, did not fight in the resistance, but her successful-but-tragic escape story shaped my understanding of survival. She who did not look Jewish with her high cheekbones and pinched nose fled occupied Warsaw, swam across rivers, hid in a convent, flirted with a Nazi who turned a blind eye, and was transported in a truck carrying oranges eastward, finally stealing across the Russian border where her life was saved, ironically by being forced into Siberian work camps. My bubbe was strong as an ox, but she lost her parents and three of her four sisters, all of whom had remained in Warsaw. She’d relay this dreadful story to me every single afternoon as she babysat me after school, tears and fury in her eyes.” That’s a lot. That’s just a lot. Obviously, you’ve given more color to this little excerpt. You’ve taken your whole family history and whatever gets transmitted therein. Then you fast-forward and you’re in London as a standup comic newly dealing with your own identity as what you called being out as a Jew which in London you felt like wasn’t really okay. Tell me about that because that’s something that I found very surprising also.

Judy: First of all, this is a long time ago. It was about fifteen years ago, so things might be different now. I felt very self-conscious. I was very much an American Jew on stage. By the way, I’m Canadian, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t seem Canadian. People would refer to me as the female Woody Allen I think because of my glasses and my look. I was presented as a Jew. I was taken as a Jew. I was received as one. Because I had grown up in this, not just Holocaust survivor family — I grew up in a Holocaust survivor community in Montreal. I went to a Jewish day school. I went to college on the East Coast, an Ivy League. I grew up in very Jewish milieus where it was not a thing. Even being from a Holocaust-survivor family was not unique. My whole community was like that. Suddenly in London, I found myself in a different context where being Jewish was different. Being an American Jew or seeming like an American Jew was different. Suddenly, I became very self-conscious about that.

Zibby: Wow. Then you dove deep into the research because you’re also a brilliant academic wunderkind, essentially. You started looking for more stories in the library of Jewish women warriors and uncovered this treasure trove of stories. That’s part of how this book came to be, right? Maybe you should just tell it.

Judy: First of all, I roll my eyes at wunderkind. I’m more of a, I used to call myself a career slut because I’m all over the place. I’ve worked in lots of different ways and lots of different things. Yes, I found this book completely by accident. I was doing research on strong Jewish women. There’s one woman who stood out in my mind because I studied her in fifth grade. Her name was Hannah Szenes. For those who hadn’t heard of her, she lived in what was then Palestine. She joined the British army. She was a paratrooper. She went back to her native Hungry. She was a young Jewish woman. She was caught, but she looked the Nazis in the eye when they shot her. This stayed with me. She became the symbol of Jewish female bravado. I wanted to find out, who was she? I had this heroic narrative that I grew up with at Jewish day school. She was amazing, but who was she? Who was this person who defied the Nazis like that? Why one of millions? Who was she? What was her psychology? I went to the British Library because I was living in London and looked her up. There were not that many books about Hannah Szenes, so I just ordered whatever they had. It was on a catalog. Then you had to go up to a desk and get your books. I got my little stack.

One of them was this really old book in a worn blue fabric with the yellowing edges and that yellowing smell. It had gold lettering. I open it up. It’s two hundred pages of tiny script in Yiddish. The crazy part is I happen to speak Yiddish, so I’m actually able to read this book. I was going to put it aside because it looked so hard, I mean, tiny script. I was living in London. I was working in standup, in academia, in the art world. I wasn’t using Yiddish. My Yiddish was rusty. This looked hard. The academic in me was like, no, no, look at everything, look at everything. I started flipping through this book looking for Hannah Szenes. She’s not there. She’s in the last ten pages. In front of her, there’s 190 pages of other Jewish women with pictures, with these little brief bios or snippets. The chapter titles are like Ode to Weapons and Guns and Ammunition. I forgot to mention, the title of the book was, in Yiddish, Freuen in di Ghettos, which is Women in the Ghettos. I had come to it expecting the kind of Holocaust story that I’d grown up with that was obviously going to be difficult and sad and tragic and traumatic. Instead, it was about guns and bullets and ammunition and fighting. It was just so, so shocking to me. This was not the story that I knew at all.

Zibby: You even say in the book that it was so obvious to people at the time that the women were going to go down in history for what they did. It was taken for granted. Yet the narrative of the Holocaust has evolved in such a way that actually, you said something like there’s such resistance to resistance. For whatever reason, people don’t want to discuss or share, and so this whole piece of history has been lost. I feel like the way you present it in the book, I was going along with you on this journey. I was like, good. Look at that. As a Jewish woman also, I’m glad that they all were trying so hard because from our point of view here in 2021 or whatever, it’s like, oh, my gosh, they had no shot. There was no chance for them. They couldn’t even have — but then look what they did. It’s something to marvel at. Of course, that’s the next couple hundred — that’s your whole story. Look what they did. It’s just so amazing. It’s so exciting.

Judy: It’s so exciting. They didn’t really have a shot. They didn’t have a shot at beating the German army. They knew that, but they still fought them because it was so important to fight for justice and liberty and fairness. They were angry. They were fueled by passion. They were not going to just let this go.

Zibby: Do you feel great that you’ve reunited with these ghost warriors in a way? That sounds ridiculous. You didn’t know they were there. Then all of a sudden, they’re the appearances of all these women who had been wiped out. Now all of a sudden, they pop up in different forms. That sounded ridiculous, but that’s sort of how it’s popping up to me in my head.

Judy: Some of the women survived. Those became the main characters in my book because they left testimonies or memoirs and had families or had material I could work with. Some of them did not survive. Some of them had friends who wrote eulogies. I worked with material that others had written about them. Sometimes those women that didn’t survive, I feel like a granddaughter or something. It makes me cry. I’m talking to you now, I feel like crying. I feel like they didn’t live. They couldn’t have had a granddaughter, so I’m trying to fill in for whatever granddaughter Frumka Plotnicki never had. I feel a great duty to these women, even those that told their stories but hadn’t been widely heard and especially those that never got to tell their stories. This project was one where I feel very excited. It’s always been one that felt a great duty. There’s also been a kind of burden of, I have to do this.

Zibby: Wow. It’s just so amazingly generous. It’s just amazing, the gift you’re giving to the world by all of your research and getting this out there, all of these souls who have been extinguished. Even the people — Renia, is that her name? The memoirs that exist that are actually then buried, even to just put a spotlight on them again is an act of goodness, if you will.

Judy: Renia, my main character, her memoir was published in English in the US in 1947. You can buy it. You can buy a collector — I bought these books, but the stories got drowned out for many reasons which I get into at the end of the book in a way that’s even more incredible. They did try to tell these stories early on. The way that history ends up being constructed, the way our memories are shaped, the way our stories of who we are are shaped, it’s very interesting. It shifts with time, shifts with politics. There are reasons why certain stories are remembered, certain aren’t.

Zibby: I haven’t even double-checked this with you. Last time we spoke, this was going to be a film or TV adaptation. What’s the latest on that?

Judy: It has been optioned for film. We’re just starting to cowrite the screenplay. I’m working on it with a screenwriter. It’s very early days, so I can’t tell you anything juicy because we don’t know yet. It’s a long process. It’s such a dramatic story. I keep saying so much of the story is about, the reason Jewish women were able to take on such an important role in the resistance and in the underground was because they dressed up. This is a story of costume. This is a story about fashion as well. This is a story about Jewish women pretending to be Catholic girls. It’s dramatic. It’s filmic in so many ways. Yes, here’s hoping.

Zibby: What I was going to say, not that I have any expertise in this area at all, but to me, I’m really drawn to your story because I relate to you. You’re best friends with a really good friend of mine, and so that alone. Just as another similarly aged Jewish woman in the world today, I love seeing the images that you had in your introduction even, you in the library. I’m wondering if you’re going to interweave your own story with this story or if it’s just going to all be a flashback to that whole time and it’ll be start to finish during that time or if you’re going to have it more like a Julie & Julia where you have Julia Child and then Julie Powell in the kitchen and more like that. Any thoughts?

Judy: I should just say for readers, in the book, the first chapter and the very last chapter, they’re told from my perspective about — first, I’m setting up how I came to this. Then at the end, I talk a bit about my journeys and my travels and research. At the moment, no, the movie is going to be really set in the time. The idea is it’s really trying to showcase this incredible Jewish history, these incredible women and what they did and what they went through. But we could write another movie about my story, so let’s talk later.

Zibby: It doesn’t have to be the main narrative. In Titanic when you’re in present day on the ship and then you go into the whole story but you know in the back of your head that you’re linked to someone in the present in the movie who you’re also rooting for — I don’t know.

Judy: We have talked about that. At the moment, that’s not how — but it’s so early. These things, they go through so many changes and drafts and things. We’ll see. Now I have your vote. I have your input. I can bring it .

Zibby: How long did this whole project take you? This is a massive undertaking. I have to say, I did not get all the way to the end. There are like fifty pages of notes. What is it? Four hundred and fifty pages. It’s amazing. The way you write, even the way you start your chapters — wait, I just wanted to find this opening sentence. No, not this one. I don’t even know why I try. Anyway, it was really good. Oh, here. “Rumors flew like shots.” That’s such a great opening sentence for a chapter. I feel like you can tell a lot from the first sentence of every chapter. Is it going to draw you in? What does it say? How is it written? It’s like, what? What’s going on? What rumors? I just love your style of writing. That was just one little example.

Judy: Thank you very, very much. That really means a lot to me. I’m a writer first, I always feel like. Thank you. What was the question?

Zibby: Tell me how long it took, the whole process.

Judy: I found that Yiddish book by accident fourteen years ago. As I said, there’s always been ambivalence with this, especially at the beginning. When I found this book, I was thirty years old. I was single. I was living in London. I was finding myself. The last thing I wanted to do was spend my days in 1943 in the Holocaust. If anything, I was living in London because I escaped my family. I didn’t want to deal with the Holocaust. As I said, there was a sense of duty about this project and at times, excitement, but also at times, oh, this is hard. Emotionally, intellectually, practically, this was a very hard project. I worked on many other things during that time. I’d written other books. I had done many other projects. I knew I couldn’t let it go. All this time, I couldn’t let it go. I immediately applied for translation grants because it was a Yiddish book. I knew I had to translate this. I got grants. I was supposed to do it in a year. It dragged on for like five, seven years. I’m a very organized person, but this was the one thing in my life I couldn’t finish, I couldn’t really fully get to. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to go there. These are really hard stories.

Then I was going to publish this as an academic piece. I was going to collaborate with an academic who was going to write extensive footnotes explaining that Yiddish text, which has no context whatsoever. I didn’t know. Then Trump got elected. Around this time, there was these books like Hidden Figures and Code Girls. Around 2016, 2017, there suddenly was a lot more of women’s interest. What happened was there was interest in these hidden-women stories. I started thinking about writing this as a novel because I thought that would be easier than having to track down — this is hard to research. Writing it as fiction would kind of get me off the research hook to some degree. I started writing it as a novel. Then there was the first Women’s March. A few days after that, I happened to meet my literary agent for breakfast. I never told anyone this story. We met about something different, but I mentioned to her that I was writing this novel based on this Yiddish book that I found that I was going to do as an academic book.

She stopped me in the restaurant and was like, “Wait a second. Jewish women were blowing up Nazi trains?” I was like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “This really happened?” I said, “Yeah, this really happened.” She was like, “No, no, no, Judy, you have to do this as a nonfiction project because you have to tell the truth of this story. It’s very important to do that.” I was like, “Ugh, okay.” Then I went off and she said, “Judy, write me a proposal. Just do a short proposal. We’ll work on it from there.” For six months, I wrote a comic novel. I still couldn’t commit to this. Once I had done that and put it in a drawer, then I quickly wrote a proposal for this. It sold very quick. The whole thing then happened very quickly. I stalled. Some of the reason this took so long is I personally, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready emotionally to do this. It was very hard. I had to travel the world. Working with hundreds of testimonies and documents in Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Russian, I had to hire a number of translators. I was running a cottage industry around just the source documents. I speak Hebrew and Yiddish, but I still needed some help. I don’t speak Polish at all. Sorry, I’m going on a little bit.

Zibby: No, I’m fascinated.

Judy: It took a lot of people. It took a long time to bring this together. It took me a long time to be at a place where I was ready to do this.

Zibby: Now that you’re ushing it into — oh, go ahead.

Judy: No, no, I talk too much.

Zibby: No, you have not. Finish. What were you going to say? Go ahead.

Judy: You can see why the book’s four hundred pages. I was going to say there’s no book out there about Jewish resistance in Poland at all. It’s not like there’s a book about Jewish resistance, a history, and then I’m going to tell the women’s side of the stories. There are books about specific people. There are books about Vilna or Kovno or Warsaw, but there is no English or even a broad book about Jewish resistance in Poland. Six months I spent making a timeline like you’re in second grade. I was like, okay, this happened. Oh, this happened then. Oh, this story. I was working from memoirs, so I’m taking people’s personal stories, which by the way are filled with inconsistencies and mistakes and even things they didn’t want to say because it was during the war — this was about the underground or secrets. I had to work with all these very semi-reliable sources and create a reliable historical narrative. That was very, very complicated. Okay, I’m going to stop talking.

Zibby: I find this whole thing fascinating because this is not how a typical — isn’t it crazy that two books — I could grab any other random book and this is just like, someone sat down and that was in their head. They just drafted it. It was all made up. Not to say it’s not a lot of work. Fiction is a tremendous amount of work, and the craft and blah, blah, blah. I’m just saying something can come completely out of your head and you can funnel it onto the page. Then something else can be all of those people working on it, and documents. Yet when you’re holding them, you wouldn’t know. I feel like there should be better markings, a better way to tell books — I know the covers can say a lot, but some marking, some system because they look so similar, but they’re so different. Even, where do go in this book? You should open it up and there’ll be little pictures. Here’s where you’re going to travel. Never mind. Anyway, now I’m rambling. All to say I’m super impressed with all the work and research that it took. I’m delighted that you did it. It’s a mitzvah to the Jewish people and to everyone because everybody has lived through this in some way, shape, or form, this part of history. It’s really remarkable. I’m going back to wunderkind. Sorry, I’m just going to keep it on the table. I know you’ve done a million other things as well. I read, by the way, part of your memoir which I didn’t even talk about, White Walls. That’s a whole nother podcast we could have. What are you going to do next? This is finally coming out. Are you done now with all sorts of writing? Are you going back to comedy? What’s your thinking?

Judy: I’m always saying, I’m done with writing, I’m done with writing. Then the next day, I have twenty-five ideas. I definitely cannot work on something this difficult emotionally for a while. There’s so many things I found I could write about, like I was saying before, the Soviet Jews and this. I actually can’t. No, I have to write humor right now. My next projects are going to be, I hope, a humorous novel. I need a breather from this. I have friends who work in social work and amazing, innovative, and caring and difficult aid work. I’ll ask them, how do they deal with it? Often, they actually have professional help. They work as part of organizations. There are therapists and social workers. They have colleagues. This was me by myself reading a lot of traumatic material. As what we said before, it was very taxing. Yes, I’m not doing this again for some time, I say now. I’ll probably do it anyway.

Zibby: That sounds good. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Judy: I’m one of those people of every bit of advice, I’ll find the opposite advice. Something for me, I really, really need external deadlines. I have friends that are like, before the pandemic, “I went to London for a week. I locked myself in an Airbnb. I just wrote this.” I don’t work that way. I need to know that something is due to somebody else on a certain day. I create those external deadlines for myself. I recommend that to people that need that. I even called my agent recently. I was like, “Set me a deadline for this other book.” She was like, “Okay, forty pages by April 1st.” I was like, “Okay, forty pages, April 1st.” I need that sense of the external to motivate me to do it. What’s your advice? My advice, do that for yourself if that helps. I think it can help cast away doubt. I think for me, it’s the doubt. If I know that something is coming up, I just have to do it so I can’t think about it. I think that’s a big part of it. Try to set yourself deadlines even if it’s like you’re going to give it to your partner or friend to read. Even if you don’t even give it to them, just to hold you accountable to a certain deadline I think can be very helpful for some people.

Zibby: I love that. I’m the same way. I make artificial deadlines before my real deadlines. Then I stress out about those deadlines because I’m like, I have to get it done at least a week before. Then it comes a week before and I’m like, oh, my gosh, I should really beat that deadline too. It’s so silly, these mind games I play. I put it in my calendar. Something just came up and I’m like, oh, I did that three weeks ago, but I had to put it in so that I would do it today even though I had three weeks to do it.

Judy: I know. My husband thinks I’m crazy. He thinks it’s something to do with having to have anxiety to produce something and creating my own anxiety. He’s been married to a writer now for enough time that he’s like, oh, god. I think some people can write in pleasure for something. I can’t.

Zibby: I need some structure. I don’t know, it’s some sort of lingering school-based mentality. After you go through school and graduate school and all this stuff, now all of a sudden nothing’s ever due? Are you kidding me? Come on. When is it due? That’s how I am too. Maybe our husbands can go talk about what it’s like to be married to somebody completely neurotic and whatever. I forgot to mention, I’m sorry, your young readers’ edition of this also is coming out. Is it the same time exactly?

Judy: It’s coming out at the same time. It’s intended for over age ten, ten to fourteen-plus. I worked with someone who specializes in that age range. We collaborated on this. I’m actually really excited about that. It feels important for me to share this story not just with grown-ups, but with young Jewish women because most of the characters in my book were teenagers. These women rebelling against the Nazis, the oldest one was twenty-five. That was the old leader. My main character was fifteen when the war began. These were teenage, early twenties Jews fighting the Nazis. I’ve found that young readers really connect with the material in a very different way. It’s very exciting. I’m very excited about it.

Zibby: Meanwhile, my daughter’s thirteen and is like, “Can you make me a smoothie?” I’m like, “It’s right here.” Now there are people in Poland organizing entire resistance movements. It’s like, “Could you bring me up some water?” I’m like, “Really?” Judy, it was so fun talking to you. Fun is maybe the wrong word. It’s always fun being with you. It was moving and invigorating and spiritual and soulful discussing the topic at hand as well. I’m glad it’s finally coming out into the world. Maybe this is the way it was meant to be. Congratulations.

Judy: Thank you so much for asking great questions and probing and paying attention and being so supportive of this. Thank you.

Zibby: Of course. Next time, in person.

Judy: Pray.

Zibby: I pray. Bye, Judy.

Judy Batalion, THE LIGHT OF DAYS

The Light Of Days by Judy Batalion

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