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Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent at The Globe and Mail.
In between the horrors that fill history books, you can find a few examples of magnificent exploits carried out by war heroes. The heroes in these books are, almost without exception, men. I can come up with a few anomalies off the top of my head: Laura Secord, Harriet Tubman, Joan of Arc. Did I learn a single thing about any of these women throughout my public school education? No.
Stories of contemporary war, happening right now, land differently, as I read them in the newspaper and online. This is not history. This is now, as history is being written and fought over and bombed to bits. While I find every detail of the coverage of the war in Ukraine excruciating to read, I have found myself drawn to certain stories: accounts of brave Ukrainians resisting the Russian invasion. Many of these courageous people are women.
Even before this year’s escalation began, there were nearly 32,000 women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, comprising about 15 per cent of the forces. The stories of Ukrainian women have haunted me: Women taking their elderly parents across the border and then returning to fight. Or women unleashing their wrath at Russian troops, yelling threats.
I wonder if I am fascinated by these women because I inherently relate to them, despite our very different current realities. Or maybe these tales of female courage resonate even more with me because of the deep dive I took recently into history, as I worked on my own book, about intergenerational trauma and the Holocaust. I found many horrors, to be sure. But also, heroes. Women.
I learned about Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who rescued some 2,500 Jewish children during the Second World War, smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto in toolboxes, briefcases and through other means. And, on the outside, setting them up with non-Jewish caregivers: families, convents, orphanages. Sendler, who was 29 when the war started and was not Jewish, obtained a permit giving her access to the ghetto, ostensibly so she could inspect public health conditions. There, she made contact with Jewish activists and devised ways to help. One of her daring schemes: In the ghetto, a sedated Jewish infant would be placed carefully into a bag and snuck onto an empty trolley bus parked overnight in a depot at the ghetto’s edge. The next day, Sendler would board that trolley, find the package and depart with it a few stops later. I learned about her amazing story from the book Irena’s Children: A True Story of Courage, by Tilar J. Mazzeo, who lives in British Columbia.
From Montreal born-and-raised author Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, I learned about a group of young women in Eastern Europe who, during the Second World War, acted as couriers, smugglers, saboteurs and fighters, showing extraordinary bravery, including during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
There are many ways to fight. Women contributed to the Second World War in a variety of crucial ways – for instance, at Bletchley Park, as codebreakers.
And, as profiled in Lezlie Lowe’s The Volunteers: How Halifax Women Won the Second World War, female Haligonians “won” the war by cooking up ways to comfort the huge numbers of military personnel who descended on the east coast city on their way out to fight the war. They cooked, they sewed, they put on shows, they had conversations with them.
This week, I had the privilege of interviewing the Dutch author Jan Brokken for an event in Vancouver. Brokken’s book The Just: How Six Unlikely Heroes Saved Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust has caused a sensation. Recently translated into English, it focuses most intensely on the heroic efforts of Jan Zwartendijk, a Dutch radio salesman who became a diplomat in Lithuania and masterminded a program that saw thousands of otherwise doomed Jews armed with so-called Curacao visas.
While Zwartendijk and the other diplomats profiled in this book (including famed Japanese hero Chiune Sugihara) were all men, they were aided in crucial ways by women, including Zwartendijk’s wife, Erni. She supported him in many ways, not the least of which was agreeing to have her family’s life upended – and endangered – by the brave (and until recently, unsung) actions of her husband.
Reading stories like these, I ask myself: what would I do? Would I take up arms and fight, the way so many Ukrainian women have? Risk my life and the lives of my family the way Irena Sendler and these other brave women did? Would I perhaps launch a more subversive resistance? Or would I, in fact, have the courage to do even that?
What else we’re thinking about:
Last week, Palestinian-U.S. journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead while reporting for Al-Jazeera in the West Bank. Devastating. An outrage. An early independent research team said its initial findings supported Palestinian witnesses who said she was killed by the Israeli army.
In the wake of this calamity, I have been going back to books by and about female journalists I have admired over the years, including Carol Off’s All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey Into the Lives of Others, and Deborah Campbell’s A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War.
Seeking out more to read more on this topic, I’ve got a couple of books to add to my TBR pile, beginning with The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II by Judith Mackrell. The book’s subjects include Martha Gellhorn, whose D-Day reporting put her in competition with her husband, Ernest Hemingway.
Also You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War by U.S. journalist Elizabeth Becker. Among the women profiled is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Frances FitzGerald, who paid her own way to Vietnam.
These women worked under treacherous conditions, but that was only half the battle. They had to fight to be there in the first place.
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