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A History of Female Bravado

Montreal writer whose book explores women resistance fighters in Hitler’s ghettos featured in Junior League of Richmond’s annual event.

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In a city known for its traditions, one of the most longstanding has to be the Junior League of Richmond’s Book and Author event. Now in its 76th year, the event is the longest running event of its kind in the U.S., having presented authors as varied as Robert Frost, Pat Conroy, Mary Higgins Clark, Lesley Stahl, Douglas Wilder, David Baldacci and Cokie Roberts.

Fortunately for the city’s reading public, the Book and Author event has evolved over the years, keeping pace with cultural shifts and issues of consequence. This year’s virtual event is noteworthy for featuring an all-female author panel for the first time in many years. One is Judy Batalion, who was born and raised in Montreal, where she grew up speaking English, French, Yiddish and Hebrew. After studying the history of science at Harvard, she moved to London to pursue a doctorate in art history.

Years of writing essays and articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon, Vogue and the Jerusalem Post led to her first book, “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between” in 2016. But it was while doing research exploring her Jewish identity at the British Library that she inadvertently came across a dusty, old Yiddish thriller about ghetto girls. These were women who hid revolvers in teddy bears, bribed Nazis with whiskey and pastries and blew up German supply trains as part of the resistance.

Discovering the exploits of these women during an appalling period in history was a game changer for her. “I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and was interested in the emotional legacy of the war, in how trauma passes through generations,” Batalion says. “I felt that my heritage was shaping how I perceived and responded to danger and I decided to explore this by writing a performance piece about strong Jewish women who had confronted danger.”

Once she set out to find material about female resistance fighters, she was rewarded with plenty of it, in the forms of memoirs, testimonies, obituaries and photographs in archives, museums and libraries across North America, Poland and Israel. But it wasn’t until 2017 that she realized that these women’s stories needed to become a book. The result is “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos,” which will be featured during the Junior League’s virtual Book and Author event.

“In 2017 when the women’s marches began, I realized there was widespread interest in women’s collective resistance and rebellion,” she explains. “It seemed like the right time to share this hidden history of female bravado.” She began writing the book by throwing herself into research, traveling and reading everything she could get her hands on that touched on this brave group of untraditional women doing their part for the greater good. “Then I had to develop a time line for the activities I was reading about and because I was writing history out of memoirs, it was a complicated task. Then, I wrote.”

As Batalion dove into researching and writing the book, she found herself surprised at every turn. “I was stunned by the scope of Jewish resistance, by the women’s audacious tales and even by the context of the 1930s Poland that created them, which was nothing like what I’d imagined,” she admits.

Not surprisingly, multiple publishers were interested in the book and ultimately she decided to go with William Morrow/Harper Collins, which issued it this year. In another touch of good fortune, Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin Partners optioned the book the same week that it was sold on proposal in 2018 and commissioned a screenplay, which she’s co-writing.

At the end of the day, Batalion sees the “ghetto girls” she profiled as role models from whom today’s strong women can learn invaluable lessons.

“Small acts of resistance matter! They matter to you, to those around you and to the generations that come after you,” she insists. “Small acts are meaningful and are what lead to great change.”

The Junior League of Richmond’s Book and Author event will be held on Thursday, April 29, at 7 p.m., Tickets are available at jlrichmond.org.