Bringing the Warsaw Ghetto back to life

By
December 1, 2018 20:47
DIRECTOR ROBERTA GROSSMAN with actors Karolina Gruszka (Judyta Ringelblum) and Piotr Głowacki.

DIRECTOR ROBERTA GROSSMAN with actors Karolina Gruszka (Judyta Ringelblum) and Piotr Głowacki (Emanuel Ringelblum) on set in Poland.. (photo credit: ANNA WLOCH)

 
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One of the highlights of this year’s Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, which will run at the Jerusalem Cinematheque December 1 to 6, will be Roberta Grossman’s fascinating and moving documentary, Who Will Write Our History, a new look at the Warsaw Ghetto.

It will be shown on December 6 at 8:30 p.m., in the presence of Grossman and its executive producer, Nancy Spielberg.

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The film focuses on the relatively little-known Oyneg Shabes Archive (sometimes written as Oneg Shabbat). Its creators were Jewish intellectuals living in the Warsaw Ghetto, who buried three caches of writings and artifacts there, two of which were recovered after the war, in 1946 and 1950. More than 60,000 documents were found in the metal boxes and milk cans in which they were buried, including thousands of pages of eyewitness accounts, some by ordinary people and others by professional writers; photographs; portraits and all kinds of artwork; posters; identification documents; articles; and official Nazi decrees. Altogether, these materials chronicle every aspect of life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto, from the points of view of very different inhabitants, few of whom survived (the movie includes the grim statistic that only one in 100 Polish Jews survived the Holocaust). This film illuminates the Archives, adding immeasurably and vividly to what is already known about the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Archives were buried around the time of the mass deportations from the ghetto and just before the uprising in 1943. One of the three caches has never been found.

Grossman is a distinguished documentary filmmaker, whose previous films include Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh and Above and Beyond, the story of the American pilots who helped found the Israeli Air Force. Who Will Write Our History reunites Grossman with Spielberg. Spielberg produced Above and Beyond and is an executive producer on this film 

Based on the book, Who Will Write Our History: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto by Samuel D. Kassow, the film uses interviews with historians, archival material and scenes with actors (who speak lines taken directly from the Archives and enact the reality described there) to bring the viewer into the horrifying and often contradictory reality that was life in the ghetto. Adrien Brody, who won the Best Actor Oscar for The Pianist, and Joan Allen narrate some sections of the film.

“It was really Sam’s book that unearthed the Archives in a real way,” Grossman said, explaining that she came across the book while researching a different subject.

“He worked on the book for 12 years, and one of the reviews called the book, ‘A work of historical rescue,’ which I fully agree with.”

The movie focuses on several of those behind the Archive, principally Emanuel Ringelblum. Ringelblum, a Jewish historian, teacher and Yiddish intellectual, understood that one of the most effective ways for the Jews to fight back would be to leave a record of what happened. Explaining that much of the photography and information about the ghetto that has been available until now came from the Nazi point of view, Grossman said that until the Archive, “We didn’t have anything that showed the day-to-day lives, the interior lives of people trapped in the ghetto… I wanted to tell the story of the people, and you have this emotional, personal and incredibly provocative writing in the Archive.”

One example of the odd paradox of life there, Grossman noted, is that the ghetto was “filled with the sound of music.” As one diarist noted, “The stomach is empty but the ears are full. Later in the evening, the classically trained musicians come out… It’s worth standing in the street to hear Mendelssohn’s concerto… pouring out into the dark street and into the darkened heart.”

Anyone discovered hiding documents in the Ghetto would be killed, so creating and preserving the Archive was an extraordinarily brave and ambitious act. Grossman said that because of his prescience, vision and leadership, she considered Ringeblum to be “one of the greatest Jewish heroes we have ever had… I would put him up on a pedestal right next to Moses, although some people might yell at me. Certainly, I would him put him right up there with the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.”

Ringelblum wrote a great deal himself, but also recruited other intellectuals to give their diaries to the Archive, as well helping to organize social services in the ghetto to ameliorate the humanitarian disaster as much as possible. Another key figure in the film is Rachel Auerbach, a writer who contributed her journals to the Archive at Ringelblum’s request and stayed behind in the ghetto after her family fled to run a soup kitchen. She is one of the only Oyneg Shabes organizers who survived the war and returned to help find the Archive. She later moved to Israel and was one of the founders and the director of the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony at Yad Vashem, and helped the prosecution in the Eichmann trial find survivors’ testimonies to use to make their case.


Asked why this extraordinary Archive isn’t better known, Grossman had several answers. One is simply logistics: It has been kept in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and during the Cold War, access to this institute was very limited.

Now, there is an exhibit the public can see that brings some of the Archive into view. Kassow’s book and this film are raising awareness, and now the Archive, which consists mostly of hand-written documents in Yiddish (with some in Polish and Hebrew) is being translated and digitized.

Another theory that Grossman discussed is, “It was inadvertently suppressed because it was too honest,” about a number of complex aspects of life in the Ghetto, such as the existence of prostitutes and the brutality of the Jewish police, who were responsible for rounding up Jews in many of the deportations.

Ringelblum “wanted it all to be there, the good and the bad, the good and the ugly, both for the sake of writing good history after the war” and so that it would it be a credible and accurate record.

As Jews around the world “were reeling from the catastrophic loss” of the Jews of Europe, there was a tendency, she said, to celebrate Jews who fought back physically as heroes, while discounting the contributions of others who took different paths. Those behind the Oyneg Shabes Archive “weren’t the right kind of heroes,” because their resistance was “spiritual and intellectual… these Diaspora intellectuals weren’t the heroes people wanted to see.”

Until now, that is, with the release of this film that puts them front and center.

In addition to the Jerusalem screening, the movie will be shown on January 27, 2019, in an International Holocaust Remembrance Day Global Screening Event at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, followed by a discussion with the filmmakers as well as Kassow and Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. On this date, the film will be screened simultaneously at theaters, churches, synagogues, mosques, universities, museums and cultural centers around the world and the discussion in Paris will be streamed live.

The movie will be shown all over the world during the coming year.

On January 17, it will be screened at the New York Jewish Film Festival and the next day it will open theatrically in New York. On February 2, after many screenings all over the US, it will open theatrically in Los Angeles.

“Most of the world, especially the non-Jewish world, knows about the Holocaust through the diary of Anne Frank. The Archive has dozens of diaries and the writing is incredible,” said Grossman, who is passionate about bringing the Archive to worldwide attention.

For more information about the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, go to https://www.jer-cin.org.il/en and to find out more about the film, go to the documentary’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/whowillwriteourhistory/

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