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New book explores the heroic women-run resistance inside Nazi death camps

Judy Batalion's new book, "The Light of Days," details acts of heroism by Jewish women in the ghettos of eastern Europe - and even within the death camps. She documents how female couriers hand-carried crucial messages, weapons, and ammunition as part of the resistance in besieged Jewish ghettos. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant presents the report for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, now 76 years since the end of the Second World War in Europe.

    A new book out this week, "The Light of Days" by Judy Batalion, details acts of heroism by Jewish women in the ghettos of Eastern Europe, and even within the death camps, who risked their lives to challenge the Nazis.

    She concentrates on female couriers who hand-carried crucial messages, weapons, and ammunition as part of the resistance in besieged Jewish ghettos.

    Here's special correspondent Malcolm Brabant.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Seventy-six years since the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated and its railhead of industrial slaughter neutralized, ghosts of the Holocaust are coming to life in new uplifting stories.

    One of the wartime heroines portrayed in this book is Bela Hazan, seen here with her son Yoel on the right. Yoel, a brain scientist in Jerusalem, wants the world to know what his mother did in the war to compensate for the torrid reception she received in Israel after surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau.

  • Yoel Yaari:

    They used to say, you are sheep who went to the slaughter. And she was treated as such.

    Why didn't you resist? I mean, this was a question. What did you do you were not killed? Did you collaborate with the Nazis? Were you bartering sex for food? Were you a prostitute? I mean, these were questions that were put to her.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    How angry does that make you that your mother's first period in Israel was so awful?

  • Yoel Yaari:

    I'm extremely angry. And this is, of course, one of the reasons why I'm trying to tell her story.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This picture testifies to Bela Hazan's courage. She's between two other Jewish underground couriers.

    What makes the photograph extraordinary is that it was taken by a Nazi at a Gestapo Christmas party. Bela worked as an interpreter for the Gestapo. The job gave her a great cover story, which enabled her to travel to cities like Vilnius in Lithuania, where the Jewish resistance operated.

    Aged just 19 and masquerading as a Polish Catholic, she became a brilliant spy. Her luck ran out at this railway station in Poland. Despite being arrested, tortured and sent to Auschwitz, she never confessed her true identity.

  • Yoel Yaari:

    She interacted with the Gestapo people. What she did was to steal official papers, to put stamps, official stamps on these papers, and she delivered these materials together with information that she gathered when she was in that place. She delivered it all to the headquarters of the underground.

  • Judy Batalion:

    They were walking around with cash in their garter belts and dynamite in their underwear.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The bravery of women in Hitler's ghettos was buried in an old Yiddish book that author Judy Batalion stumbled upon in the British Library in London.

    She has spent 14 years researching women whose exploits have been neglected by history and who she believes should be revered.

  • Judy Batalion:

    When I first began this project, I too had a kind of subconscious understanding what they call of the myth of passivity and which is why, when I first found this material by accident, I was blown away.

    And now I cannot look at the story of the Holocaust without seeing it as one of a constant battle of resistance and resilience.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Batalion's book concentrates on couriers like Chasia Bielicka, eulogized by her granddaughter Hadas in Israel.

  • Hadas Yahav:

    You could see it in the Holocaust, of course, the way she wanted to save people and help people and help children. And she didn't just want to survive. That wasn't her mission. She wanted to do much more than that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Chasia Bielicka's ability to evade Nazi patrols and checkpoints made her a key player in the Jewish insurgency in Bialystok, these days an ultra-conservative town in Northeast Poland renowned for its hostility to gays.

    Eighty years ago under the Nazis, it had a ghetto where Jews were corralled before being dispatched to death camps.

  • Hadas Yahav:

    The courier missions was to bring ammunition to the partisans. The partisans were fighting in the forest. They needed ammunition.

    The women that she was with tried to find always places where they could steal ammunition, bring it to the forest or to the ghetto sometimes.

  • Judy Batalion:

    These women showed bravery and courage and cleverness and bravado, against all odds.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As long as they appeared sufficiently Aryan, women could move more freely around occupied Poland than men, who were supposed to be working during daylight hours. The couriers exploited a naive German belief that women were incapable of sabotage and subterfuge.

  • Judy Batalion:

    The biggest militaries in the world couldn't defeat the German army, but that didn't matter. What mattered was the fight for justice and liberty.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Zivia Lubetkin left Poland when Germany invaded. She could have stayed outside the country, but came back

  • Judy Batalion:

    Zivia Lubetkin was ultimately a leader in the Warsaw ghetto. She helps get young Jews out of slave labor. She helps them find food. And she fought in two ghetto uprisings. She fought in the Warsaw uprising alongside the Polish resistance.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising lasted almost a month, as heavily outnumbered Jewish fighters kept crack German forces at bay. Ultimately, they were overwhelmed, and some partisans died by suicide, rather than surrendering.

    Today, only a small portion of the ghetto wall remains, but Zivia Lubetkin's deeds live on.

  • Judy Batalion:

    She escaped through sewers, sewage water up to her neck. And even after the ghetto was razed and she was in hiding, she helped administer rescue organizations that helped thousands of Jews in hiding in Warsaw.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Although most of the characters in Batalion's book are couriers, she couldn't resist telling the story of Anna Heilman, a member of the Auschwitz resistance.

    How on earth do you resist in Auschwitz?

  • Judy Batalion:

    This is such an incredible story, again, one of those: How did I not know about this?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Only one crematorium remains at Auschwitz-Birkenau. All but one were destroyed by the Nazis as they fled from the advancing Soviet Red Army.

    The other one was blown up by Anna Heilman's co-conspirators in October 1944. She helped to steal gunpowder from a munitions factory two miles from Birkenau and smuggle it back in the hems of her clothes.

  • Judy Batalion:

    It was this very elaborate system, where the people that worked in the room where they packed the powder would take little bits and put it in a waste — the wastebasket on the side. Another round of women would collect that waste, go to the bathroom, take out the gunpowder and hide it in fabric.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    And here is Anna Heilman, in her own words, in Canada in 1996.

  • Anna Heilman:

    They used this gunpowder and manufactured little hand grenades made out of metal around boxes of shoe polish with a wick and filled with gunpowder. And when you lit it, it exploded.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The crematorium was destroyed during a brief rebellion by so-called Sonderkommandos, Jews forced by the Nazis to dispose of bodies from the gas chambers.

  • Anna Heilman:

    All the Sonderkommando people were killed. But the crematorium was destroyed as well.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In retribution, Anna Heilman's sister was executed.

  • Anna Heilman:

    I heard this collective groan, and I knew what happened. I didn't witness it with my eyes, but I was there.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In Jerusalem, Bela Hazan's son Yoel Yaari, is grateful that light is now being shone on this aspect of the Holocaust.

  • Yoel Yaari:

    I think it is extremely important, because the story of the couriers is almost unknown worldwide and also in Israel.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The new book may help elevate these women to their rightful place in history, especially as the author is now working on a screenplay for Steven Spielberg, Oscar-winning director of that legendary Holocaust movie "Schindler's List."

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant.

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