The documentary “Who Will Write Our History,” directed by Roberta Grossman, brings to life a relatively obscure but vitally important historical chapter from the Holocaust. In November 1940, not long after the Nazis imprisoned some 450,000 Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto – a number which sometimes reached almost 500,000 – a group of about 60 journalists and community leaders headed by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum banded together under the code name Oyneg Shabes to document the Nazi atrocities.
These men and women were resistance fighters but their weapons were writings, artifacts, drawings, pieces of clothing, songs, photographs, poems, cartoons, meticulously notated diaries – whatever could be commissioned, collated, and preserved in order to pass along to the world the truth of what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. An act of accusation, the archive was intended to counteract Nazi propaganda, of which we see several loathsome examples, and rescue for posterity the true history of that time as told entirely from a Jewish perspective. The narrative spared no one, not even fellow Jews, some of whom, like the Jewish policemen commandeered by the Nazis to root out their own kind, are excoriated.
Only three of the members knew the exact location of the hidden troves containing thousands of pages of documentation, any entry of which, if discovered, carried the death penalty for its contributor. Before the ghetto uprising in April 1943, the archives were buried in three separate locations. Many of the members realized they would not live to see the documents unearthed, and, in fact, only three survived: Hirsh Wasser, one of the original three members who knew the location, and his wife, Bluma, and Rachel Auerbach, who later immigrated to Israel, where she became the director for the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony for Yad Vashem. (It was partially at her instigation that survivors’ corroborations, including her own, were prominently featured during the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.)
Grossman mixes historical footage and present-day interviews with reenacted scenes from within the ghetto. (Joan Allen and Adrien Brody, among others, provide voice-overs.) I’m not a fan of reenactments in documentaries, especially when, as here, the real-life footage is so searing. But the staged sequences are tastefully done, even if the actors look a bit too well-fed and well-groomed for their dire straits. Most important, all the words that we hear spoken, all the narration taken from the diaries, is word-for-word accurate, without embellishment. The interviewees, who include Samuel Kassow, who wrote the eponymous book from which the documentary is derived, and Polish historian Jan Grabowski, provide pointed commentary.
The pathos of this history is underscored by how vibrant the Jewish community in Warsaw was prior to the Nazi invasion. (Three million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust; only 1 in 10 survived.) There were six Yiddish daily papers and thriving Yiddish theater. In the Warsaw Ghetto, underground schools were formed for the children, but inexorably even the well-to-do Jews were forced to sell their possessions in order to eat what could be bought on the black market. (The soup kitchens, which were hastily set up, could not hope to stave off starvation within the community.)
At Passover, with no matzo to be had, there was the wrenching decision whether to eat bread or starve. Within the ghetto came a constant refrain: Does the world know about this suffering and if so, why is it silent? (One Oyneg Shabes member writes of his desire to “scream the truth to the world.”)
For many, contributing to the Oyneg Shabes archive became a way of bearing witness to oneself. And what became of the archive after the Soviets liberated Warsaw? Even though the city was reduced to rubble, a prewar aerial map enabled workers to eventually uncover two of the three caches. (The third is believed to be located under what is now the Chinese embassy.) More than 60,000 pages of the archives are preserved at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.
In 1999, three document collections from Poland were included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register: the works of Chopin, the scientific papers of Copernicus, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, which according to Grossman in the program notes for the film, is the “richest cache of eyewitness, contemporaneous accounts to survive the Holocaust.” Perhaps some day, the third cache will be uncovered. In any event, this film is itself an important act of historical reclamation. Grade: A- (This film is not rated. It’s in English, Yiddish, and Polish with English subtitles.)