This past Sunday, on a bitterly cold Holocaust Memorial Day, Roberta Grossman’s (“Seeing Allred”) documentary, “Who Will Write Our History” screened in 350 venues in 55 countries across the world. The State Theater was one of those participating establishments.
“Who Will Write Our History” details the brave endeavors of Emanuel Ringelblum — a Polish-Jewish historian — and his collaborators who worked to compile an historical archive in real time of the experiences of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Together with over 60 others, Ringelblum created the Oyneg Shabes Archive. The name comes from the Yiddish “The joy of the Sabbath,” a way to keep the operation under wraps and maintain the group’s secrecy. The goal of Oyneg Shabes was to ensure that the Jews would be able to tell their own stories and take ownership of their narratives. Many of the archival material is seemingly ordinary; from simple accounts of daily life in the ghetto to newspaper clippings and photographs. Yet, this is exactly what Oyneg Shabes wanted to capture: the everyday lives of Jews living in the ghetto, what they ate, what they felt, what they endured.
The documentary takes an unconventional form, using a combination of archival material, talking heads footage and re-enacted scenes. The wealth of archival footage is astounding and disturbing. Much of the footage from the Warsaw Ghetto depicts starving bodies piled like logs along the streets, shells of human beings deprived of the most basic of human needs. The scenes portrayed by the actors flow seamlessly into the archival footage, but the talking heads feel somewhat jarring. Occasionally, the documentary feels more like an historical drama than a documentary. Nevertheless, the film is a powerful one, educating the masses about crucial players in history who have long been overlooked.
The film is filled with an abundance of poetic narration of accounts from the archive. For example, Rachel Auerbach, a writer and contributor to Oyneg Shabes, recalled the pain and longing she felt seeing the abandoned belongings of those deported after the liquidation of the ghetto. It is worth noting Auerbach, a Jew and a woman, faced double the discrimination and exclusion from writing. Her beautiful prose still drips with emotion even in its translation. Ringelblum describes the streets of the ghetto as looking like Hollywood — everywhere you looked was covered with stars (referring to the armbands emblazoned with the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear). In another entry from Ringelblum, embodied by the voice of Adrian Brody (“The Pianist”), he asks, does the world know our suffering, and if they do, why are they silent?
Auerbach was one of the three survivors of the 60 members of Oyneg Shabes. She, together with Hersh and Bluma Wasser, uncovered two out of three of the buried caches of the archive. Ringelblum, who was hiding in a bunker underneath a Polish gardener’s green house was discovered and sent to a death camp along with his wife and twelve-year-old son. Hersh Wasser was the only one who knew where the archives were located. The third cache is believed to be buried beneath the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw. As one young contributor, Dawid Graber, noted in his last will and testament, “What we were unable to cry and shriek out to the world, we buried in the ground.”
The film ends by informing the audience that in 1999 Poland added three works to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register; the scientific work of Copernnicus, Chopin’s masterpieces and the Oyneg Shabes archives.
“Who Will Write Our History” asks us to question the perspective of history and reminds us that political resistance comes in a number of ways.