Off the Shelf: They Fought Back

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Readers might think there are no more World War II stories to tell. Yet, new nonfiction works appear on a regular basis. Sometimes, it’s because a researcher takes an interest in a different aspect of the war or because top-secret files have finally been declassified. Both these actions inform two recent books about the war. Judy Batalion’s “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos” (William Morrow) brings to light the tales of women whose resistance to the Nazis has been ignored, while “X Troop: The Secret Jewish Commandos of World War II” by Leah Garrett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) records the war efforts of a group of Jewish immigrants who fought for England. 

It was Batalion’s personal search for strong Jewish women that led her to stories of women who resisted the Nazis, even as they were being transported to ghettos and concentration camps. Batalion found memoirs and testimonies about them, but somehow their actions have never become as well known as those of men who resisted. Most histories treat the women’s roles as secondary and supportive. Yet, according to Batalion, these women’s activities were vital: they “were combatants, editors of underground bulletins, and social activists. In particular, women made up the vast majority of ‘couriers,’ a specific role at the heart of the operations. They disguised themselves as non-Jews and traveled between locked ghettos and towns, smuggling people, cash, documents, information, and weapons, many of which they had obtained themselves.” Women also fled the ghettos to work with partisan groups, helping with intelligence missions and in sabotaging German troops’ efforts.

What is amazing is that these women knew they were facing death and torture by the Nazis if they were caught, but they never gave up. Their acts of resistance began to define their lives. According to Batalion, “[the women] resisted morally, spiritually, and culturally by concealing their identities, distributing Jewish books, telling jokes during transports to relieve the fear, hugging barrack-mates to keep them warm, and setting up soup kitchens for orphans.” Most of them never expected to survive, especially those who took part in military actions in the ghettos since they were outnumbered by the Germans and had a limited number of weapons and supplies. What they wanted to do was inflict as much harm as possible before they died. However, a surprising number managed to survive and continue their resistance efforts once they escaped. Unfortunately, others were killed or captured. 

Batalion focuses on a limited number of these women (about 20 of them), although she acknowledges there were many more who fought. With more than 450 pages of text, it’s impossible to give many details of what they accomplished. In fact, the sheer amount of detail was overwhelming, especially when Batalion writes of the atrocities that occurred. It’s an understatement to say the book contains graphic violence. At times, it was difficult to read – not because of the prose, but because of the inhumanity of the Nazis’ actions. At the same time, Batalion celebrates these women, noting that they not only did not give up, they helped and encouraged others to fight and survive. 

While the stories Batalion tells were available if people had done the research, the story of X Troop was long a British secret. These immigrants, who mostly came from Germany and Austria, were considered enemy aliens once World War II started and were interned in camps in the U.K and Australia. Some of those who were entrusted with their care were antisemitic and the story of those sent to Australia was particularly difficult to read. Yet, all these men volunteered to be part of this special commando force because they desperately wanted to fight the Germans who’d caused them to lose their homes and families. At least half of these 80-plus men were wounded, killed or disappeared without a trace during the war. Garrett focuses on the stories of about 15 of them.

The recruits were put through extensive training that turned poets and philosophers into hardened members of the armed service. They all had to take British sounding names and were registered as belonging to the Church of England, which meant that they would be buried under a cross, rather than a Jewish star, if they died during the war. Told to leave behind anything that was connected to their former identities, they rid themselves of letters and mementoes of their past. The troop proved successful and its members were spread through different units once the Allies invaded Europe. In addition to serving as translators who provided information that saved lives, some managed to talk large number of German troops to surrender without further violence. After the war, many of them stayed in Europe to help with denazification efforts. 

The majority of the men retained their English names after their demobilization and became more British than the British. However, England was slow to recognize their efforts and resisted giving them British citizenship. It was only after the matter was brought up at Parliament that the War Office took more serious notice. According to Garrett, a memorandum on the matter noted that “the X Troopers’ risks had been much greater than others,’ and their bravery and exemplary service in the war had been unimpeachable. Almost a quarter of the original eighty-seven commandoes had become officers, an extremely high rate, which surely showed their worth. The statement concluded that rejecting the X Troopers for accelerated naturalization would be ‘extremely unfair on the men who by their standards of intelligence and education and their proved eagerness to serve in an exacting role are qualified to do valuable national work.’” 

Garrett writes about meeting the few surviving members of the troop and the families of others in a very moving afterword. She also includes an appendix that tells of the men’s lives after the war. World War II history buffs will definitely be interested in this book. Those looking to learn about Jewish heroes will rejoice to discover the outstanding and heroic efforts of these men.