LOS ANGELES – In the opening scene of the film Who Will Write Our History men are digging through the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, destroyed by German soldiers to put down the last desperate resistance of its Jewish inhabitants.
The diggers are not looking for the skeletons of the dead but for the hiding places of large boxes of documents containing what has been described as “the most important unknown story of the Holocaust.”
In the winter of 1940, Hitler’s men designated a small section of Warsaw as the site of the Jewish ghetto and sealed 450,000 Jews from all parts of Poland within its heavily guarded gates
Nazi propaganda piously proclaimed that the ghetto’s walls would protect the city’s gentile population from the diseases and filth spread by Jews.
German camera crews went to work to illustrate the party line by showing ragged Jewish children sprawled on the streets as well-dressed Jewish couples walked by studiously ignoring their plight.
Within the ghetto’s walls, however, a group of some 60 journalists, scholars and community leaders banded together to painstakingly document the reality of ghetto life and Nazi oppression, so that even if the diarists did not survive the war, the record of their lives would be preserved.
The group, led by historian Emanuel Ringelblum, met secretly on Saturdays and designated itself as “Oyneg Shabes,” an Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew for “the Joy of Sabbath.” In the end, the group wrote and collected 60,000 pages of documents, including diaries, essays, jokes, poems, drawings and photos, as well as artifacts.
Then, as the ghetto was leveled following the uprising in April 1943 and the surviving Jews were deported to Nazi death camps, the Oyneg Shabes members packed the hoard of documents and diaries into sturdy boxes and large milk cans, which they buried in three separate locations.
The precise spots were known only to Ringelblum and two trusted aides, so that if other members of the group were captured and tortured, they could not reveal the hiding places.
After the defeat of the Axis powers, two of the hiding places were identified, but a third spot, believed to be on the grounds of the present Chinese Embassy in Warsaw, remains unknown.
Weaving together the diverse strands of the dramatic story, veteran documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman has combined the historical writings and artifacts with reenactments and narrations by actors Adrien Brody as Ringelblum and Joan Allen as Rachel Auerbach, a top female activist.
On January 27, designated as International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, Who Will Write our History will be screened at 200 venues in 40 countries, including UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum in Poland.
In Israel, the film is scheduled to be shown at the cinematheques in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and at the Western Galilee College in Acre.
Given the focus of the film, there are heart-rending scenes of starvation and killings, balanced by scenes of surprising normality.
That fellow Jews could walk by starving and dying children on the streets of the ghetto, as recorded by Nazi camera crews, may seem incomprehensible. However, in an interview, director Grossman added a more complex perspective. .
Under the inhuman circumstances, the seeming indifference of the passersby may strike one as the height of callousness, but given the scarcity of food, parents may have felt that their only responsibility was to keep their own children alive, Grossman observed.
There are indeed scenes of startling contrasts, such as a public lecture in the ghetto, with the scholarly speaker addressing an audience of well-dressed men in suits and ties and women in fashionable dresses of the era.
Grossman explained the apparent incongruity by noting that while the mass of ghetto inhabitants had been rounded up in sudden raids throughout Poland and deported to the ghetto, the luckier ones who had lived in apartments within the confines of the designated ghetto district were able to salvage their peacetime clothes and utensils.
Ultimately, when the Jews rose in revolt in 1943, Ringelblum escaped to the “Aryan” side of Warsaw. However, his hiding place was betrayed and he, his wife and son were killed by the Nazis.
Altogether, three million Polish Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, with only one in a hundred surviving the slaughter of what had been the largest Jewish community in Europe, boasting at one time six Yiddish newspapers, two Jewish papers in Polish, schools and a thriving artistic life in Warsaw.
But, as Ringelblum had hoped, their story and creativity have not been forgotten.
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