“There is already some Oscar buzz around it,” a friend commented.
“I can see why.” I sighed. “Yeah—it’s good. It is, actually, a remarkable film the way it is made.”
We were discussing Roberta Grossman’s “Who Will Write Our History?” It took place three days before the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in the U.S. in the 21st century and was perpetrated in Pittsburgh, PA. The Tree of Life Synagogue became the site of a mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of 11 people by a man who said he “wanted all Jews to die.” Suddenly, the film’s significance would shift for me from a remarkably well-made film to a dire warning and reminder about the slippery slope of political rhetoric.
The non-fiction film will screen on the main stage of Thalian Hall at 8 p.m. on Sunday, November 4, as hosted by the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival.
In 2007 Dr. Samuel Kassow, the Charles Northam professor of history at Trinity College, published “Who Will Write Our History: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive From the Warsaw Ghetto.” Known as the “Ringelblum Archive,” it contained over 60,000 items and documents of life within the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. Eventually, the archive was sealed in milk cans and metal boxes. To date, two of the three buried caches of the archive have been located and opened. The third remains buried.
Dr. Kassow’s book details the documents found within the two sites and the importance of the work in Warsaw Ghetto, which was created in 1940 by the Nazis during their occupation of Poland. The neighborhood housed over 400,000 people who were sealed in by a wall topped with barbed wire. From this holding and containment area, where sanitation conditions were unspeakable, due to a lack of sufficient food, water, medicine and the high density of people living in extremely close quarters, deportations of the Jewish population to concentration and death camps (primarily Chelmno and Treblinka) were conducted.
“Resistance Comes in Many Forms” is the tagline for the film. Indeed, the Ringelblum Archive is a powerful form of resistance—though, one that must have at times felt futile in the face of starvation, death and senseless violence. Emanuel Ringelblum organized a far-reaching operation known as the “Oyneg Shabbos” (which translates to “Shabbos delight” or “joy of Shabbos”).
Anyone who has grown up practicing modern American Judaism will link its association with a dessert-and-coffee reception after Friday-night services. As a code name, it is brilliant so folks can discuss the Oyneg Shabbos in public—everyone around will assume the talk is about Shabbos. So hosting meetings (and they did) on Shabbos would mean a perfect cover story. The Oyneg Shabbos collected extensive documentation of daily life under Nazi occupation: life histories, poems, underground newspapers, notices, and fliers from the walls of the ghetto. They found rationing coupons and meticulous daily notes of the latest atrocities.
“Which side of the story becomes the official narrative?” asks Roberta Grossman, who has written, directed and produced a documentary film about the Ringelblum Archive titled, “Who Will Write Our History?” “Whose accounts do we elevate to the level of ‘truth,’ and whose do we ignore or even bury? What is real, and what is fake? These are top-of-mind questions in 2018. They also preoccupied a courageous group of resistance fighters imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. The moment I found out about this secret band of journalists, scholars and historians, I knew I had to make a film about them. Their story, captured in Who Will Write Our History, is, in my opinion, the most important unknown story of the Holocaust.”
A few years ago I had a lengthy conversation with Sally Dundas, an IMAX producer, about why she uses the term “non-fiction film” rather than “documentary” to describe her work. Grossman’s film solidified Dundas’ choice in my mind: It is so much more than a series of talking heads being interviewed. Sure, there are interviews—with Dr. Kassow; Yiddish culture scholar Dr. David Roskies; Dr. Karolina Szymaniak of Warsaw, Poland; Dr. Jan Grabowski, cofounder of the Polish Center for Holocaust Research (whose father was part of the Warsaw Uprising – the 1944 operation by the Polish Resistance to overthrow the Nazis); and Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, program director of the Core Exhibition for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Together, they provide context and grounding for the events surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto and archive.
Grossman uses archival photographs and period footage, sometimes utilizing a green screen to let actors who dramatize recreations of the story step out of the images, quite literally. Time and time again she made choices as a filmmaker—more expensive choices, even—that make it a better, more interesting, even exceptional film. For example, the actors playing the people in the Warsaw Ghetto speak Yiddish or Polish instead of English. The film utilizes subtitles. The choice considerably enhances the impact.
Shooting a period film is much more expensive than a contemporary film, in regards to set design and costuming. Grossman’s film successfully transports viewers through each unfolding day of life in Warsaw Ghetto as Jewish Poles try to adjust to the Nazi regime. Each day seems to revolve around the mentality that, “OK, we are here, this is the worst it is going to get.” But, no, the next day brings another horror: lack of food, lack of sanitation, lack of employment, profiteers buying possessions at rock-bottom prices, executions, more restrictions of activity and access to information or communication, and then disappearances and deportations.
People literally lie down and die on the sidewalk from starvation and communicable disease—and there is no recourse, no way to help them. All the while, the Nazi-propaganda team film and document it to show the Aryan world how filthy and inhuman the Jewish people are—how they use the horrors they have inflicted upon the residents of the ghetto, to justify containing and ultimately killing them. Perhaps, it is more captivating and horrifying than anything else in the film.
The audience knows how it all ends: at a death camp, most likely Treblinka. Still, folks will watch the struggle for survival and dignity with gripping fright. It’s like their images are squeezing our hearts and lungs, and all we can do is watch people try and salvage what is left of life, and work toward a future we know isn’t there.
It is that search for dignity at the heart of this form of resistance and the work of the Oyneg Shabbos. To effectively scapegoat a group of people, one must dehumanize them. It isn’t new information; it’s the basis of the arguments for slavery, Jim Crow, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia and the systematic attempt to create an “us” and a “them.” As the film notes, resistance comes in many forms. Yes, armed resistance (like the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) to overcome tyranny.
Jewish historians emphasize preserving the cultural life and history in the face of tyranny. The Nazis were an extreme form of such, but the pogroms in the Pale of Russia had prepared the community for the necessity of creating a vibrant cultural life, even in the darkest of times: schools, underground newspapers, concerts, literary gatherings, and religious studies continued alongside soup kitchens and social welfare organizations. Though they might treat their people like animals, preserving humanity makes a life worth living, even in the darkest of times.
History is written by the victors. But to say to each other, “We must tell our story—the story the world has heard about us is not our story. The Nazis show us as animals and lie and hide the truth about what they do: they lie to us, they lie to world. Even if we are erased, we must not let the truth die with us!” Well, that was not only powerful for the time, it was punishable by death.
In January of 2017, several people commented to start documenting the changes in the political climate and daily life in America, so that we would forget what we lost. Looking at the family separations at the border and language used to describe people in the situation, are parallels to the Nazis that are chilling. I kept thinking about it while watching Grossman’s “Who Will Write Our History?” She fulfills the mission of the Oyneg Shabbos, and tells a story hidden far too long.
Hopefully, we might learn from it this time.