I just finished two fascinating books with a common theme. They’re done in very different styles, covering different time periods. But they’re both about the role of women fighting two of the great evils of history.
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts is a graphic novel by Rebecca Hall, powerfully illustrated by Hugo Martinez. The book has been compared to Maus, Art Spiegelman’s famous Holocaust book. The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos is a more conventional work of scholarship by Judy Batalion. Both spell out the difficulty in their subtitles: information about this part of history is hard to find.
Part of Wake is about exactly that problem: history is written by the winners, and those who benefited from slavery preferred that the story of resistance be suppressed. This carries over into the present day: for instance, Lloyd’s of London built its business on insuring enslavers’ ships and what they preferred to think of as cargo. Dr. Hall was denied access to their archive as soon as she answered their questions on what she was researching.
Given the time elapsed, the records are often missing or incomplete. Hall tried to chase down information on a revolt in 1708 in which a white family was killed. Four women were mentioned among the defendants; Lily and Amba were acquitted, while Sarah and Abigail were sentenced to hang. One had her execution delayed because she was pregnant, and the governor later requested a pardon for her. Dr. Hall was never able to figure out whether it was Sarah or Abigail, and whether she was pardoned, executed, or died in prison. In another case from 1712, Dr. Hall couldn’t find the name of the woman who was executed for killing her enslaver; she was referred to only as a “Negro fiend.”
Revolts took place on approximately 10% of slaver ships, and the odds of a revolt increased with the number of women among the prisoners. The reason, Dr. Hall argues, is pretty straightforward. Enslaved men were kept in chains below the deck. Women were typically kept on the quarter deck, unchained, because they weren’t considered a threat.
The history in The Light of Days is more recent, and a few of the women resistance fighters and their male colleagues survived the war, so there was more accessible information. Here again, women made use of the fact that hyper-patriarchal Nazi culture meant that women weren’t seen as a threat. Women — and teenage girls as well — participated as smugglers, messengers, and other roles that involved passing for gentiles. While the men had grown up attending Hebrew school, some of the women (particularly from middle-class “assimilated” families) had gone to public schools, and spoke Polish without a telltale “Jewish accent.” And if a woman was accused of being Jewish, she might be able to bluff her way out of it; the Nazis would simply force a man to drop his pants to see if he was circumcised.
Women fought in armed resistance in the ghettos, and some joined the bands of armed partisans in the woods. In the midst of fighting for their lives, sometimes they had to defend themselves from their own comrades. Women resistance fighters were sometimes raped, and some were arm-twisted into sleeping with one man in exchange for “protection” from the others.
The anti-Nazi resistance was, of necessity, improvised and only very loosely coordinated. But it existed even inside concentration camps, in covert ways and occasionally in desperate uprisings using whatever weapons were at hand.
In both the slave revolts and the anti-Nazi resistance, the fighters were well aware of what they were up against. There were brief moments of triumph, but they knew they weren’t going to win — they simply chose to go down fighting. Indeed, the Warsaw ghetto fighters thought it would be a one-day battle, and were amazed when they held out for nearly a month.
Both authors talk about the emotional toll of researching some of history’s greatest horrors. Telling these women’s stories honors their sacrifice and their legacy.